The Home Front: Researching Pandemic Mask Makers

I’ve been posting photos of my homemade fabric masks and PPE on social media — mostly, it’s my lazy way of tracking what I’ve made! I’ve also been thinking about how my feelings about mask-making have changed (and how they have not) since we put together this post about pandemic-related PPE sewing. Following one of my mask posts, a researcher friend sent me a link to a survey that forms part of her research study into mask-making. I shared it personally and then the Sewcialists shared it on Instagram, and we were so interested in this work that we asked Donna to come and write a post here to tell us all more about how she came to be doing this work. (Seriously, what a cool job.) — Anne

At the end of every interview that I conduct with a mask maker, I offer to answer any questions they have about myself or the research. Nine times out of ten, they ask: “Why did you want to do this, and what are you hoping to find out?” The answer, it turns out, is both about myself and about the research project, because I came to this through a winding road that led me away from my early, narrow, disciplinary interest and into a wider world of ideas that has changed the way I think about my discipline.

In 2012 I was obsessed with knitting. Naturally, I wondered: How can I combine this interest with my work as a theologian? I saw one intersection: prayer shawl ministries, those groups (mostly but not exclusively church-based) that give handmade shawls to the sick or grieving. I decided to study what theological ideas went into — and came out of — that activity. I enlisted the help of colleagues (an oral historian, an anthropologist, my sociologist boss) and acquired the basics of qualitative interviewing, the technique of asking about what people think without defining ahead of time the categories where their answers have to fit. Long story short, I spent the summer of 2013 visiting prayer shawl groups and interviewing people over the phone, and published an academic book with the results in 2015.

A book titled "Prayer Shawl Ministries and Women's Theological Imagination" by Donna Bowman is propped up next several other academic books. The cover of the book has a photo of a colorful basketweave knitting pattern.
My book on display at a conference. Unfortunately, academic books are priced for university libraries, not consumers. Request that your library orders a copy!

I was at a loss where to take this next. Then in 2017, the answer came — on Monday, January 16, five days before the Trump inauguration. I had mailed off my pussyhats to the collection point in Arlington for distribution to marchers a couple of weeks before. Suddenly, with a chill, I realized: Somebody ought to be interviewing the pussyhat makers. I knew the Women’s Marches would be studied from every angle. But would anybody think to reach out to the thousands of people who made the hats, mostly in their own homes, mostly to give away to friends and strangers, and many of whom did not march themselves?

For twelve hours I fought the impulse. It was so much bigger than my prayer shawl study, and the religion angle wasn’t there. I felt ill-equipped for this massive moment. But I also knew that I might be better equipped, in some ways, than anybody else. I had spent the last few years honing the skill of talking to women about the symbolic handmade textiles they made to give away in moments of crisis. And here we were, on the national and international stage, doing exactly that.

A person wears a raspberry and white colored pussyhat (the hat's top has two pointy ends). The hat is decorated with sequins scattered throughout. The pussyhat takes up most of the photograph.
One of my more bling-y pussyhats.

Now in 2020, we find ourselves here again. It’s still not religious, and this time the impetus is practical rather than symbolic. But once again it’s makers in their craft rooms rooting through their stashes to respond to a massive need, a worldwide call to action, and their work appears in public and becomes an icon of this moment. Like the mask makers, I couldn’t help but feel called back into action to do my part.

So I’m trying to make sure the hidden story of the homemade face mask gets told. I want to know why people decided to take part, what reservations or conflicts they felt, what they thought of their results, how people around them reacted. And I want those answers to stay intimately connected with the whole person giving them. 

Part of a study like this is aggregation (X percent of people mentioned this), but the most important part to me is the situated meanings. The sense people make of their circumstances, activity, and consequences is entangled with the unique journey that led them to this moment. It’s interesting to find out how many people sold masks; but it’s much more meaningful and helpful to discover how people felt about the intersection of money and their mask-making, and why they decided to navigate those waters the way they did. Often the answer is connected to details of their personal histories that nobody could know in advance to ask about; it arises in conversation, and needs to stay embedded in that train of thought and discourse to retain its significance.

A stack of rectangular fabric masks that have color coordinated thin elastic ear loops. The masks are on top of a yellow cutting mat and a clear quilting ruler.
A stack of my masks

Asking about meanings necessarily intrudes, and even in the more aggregate-data context of the survey, it can feel presumptuous to ask for personal details like religion, sexual orientation, or income. But as I try to teach my students, we can’t know what we don’t know. If the data can’t be teased out with reference to ethnic categories, class, gender, etc., then there’s no chance of finding out whether there are meanings and experiences particular to certain kinds of respondents. I often recommend the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez to students who believe that we should stop labeling people. She talks about the history of not collecting gender as part of large datasets used to study phenomena or make decisions, and how this practice (which persists alarmingly into very recent history) makes it impossible to perceive how women might be affected differently. Multiply that by all our intersecting identities, and I hope you can see why asking for this information is important. (I feel strongly about asking, not demanding; every single question in my survey is optional, and I reiterate that before the section on demographics. Skip anything you don’t want to answer, no shame!)

But this research has been far more rewarding than I could have imagined. People are so generous with their time, stories, and ideas, even ones that are uncomfortable or hard to express. One of the most surprising discoveries for me was how much the researcher gives to her subjects — simply by being interested in what they are doing and treating it (and them) as important enough to study. This also makes me feel accountable to them to do right by what they give to me, in terms of the ethical standards I promised them and the use to which I put their information. I look forward to keeping them informed about the study, sharing results, and ultimately thanking them by name or pseudonym in publication. 

A white piece of paper on top of rectangular pleated face masks reads "20 adult masks from Donna Bowman for any need" with a heart drawn underneath.
Giving is a part of responding to crisis with craft — and a part of research, too.

The survey is here — please share onward through your own networks of mask makers. Heartfelt thanks to all of you who have participated, and a wide-open welcome to anyone who wants to join in! 

Donna Bowman is a theologian and professor of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Central Arkansas and occasionally writes about television at The A.V. Club. She lives in Conway, Arkansas, with her husband (writer Noel Murray), two kids, 110 miles of yarn, and her newest obsession: a 1914 Gearhart circular sock machine. She’s @donnadb on Twitter and paksenarrion on Ravelry.