Sewing Up the Gap

by Eva Shimkus, Features Editor

“When I’m making them, it’s kind of cliché, but I’m trying to envision a doctor putting it on and using it,” senior Isabel Flessas said. “That really inspires me to put in the amount of time and effort I do.” 

Flessas is one of many sewers making masks to donate to charities and members of the community who need them. She has made over 40 masks in the past few weeks. With medical N95 masks in short supply, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that the general public start using cloth masks instead, leaving N95 masks for frontline workers.

By making cloth masks, Newton sewers, professional and amateur alike, are joining in the fight against the coronavirus and helping to meet an urgent public health need.

Junior Saylor Flannery said that making masks has allowed her family to get involved in the effort against COVID-19 while keeping themselves and others safe. She’s been making masks and donating them to Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

“Sitting here at home and watching the news, I felt very helpless, like there wasn’t anything I could do,” she said. “They’re super easy. You just need a sewing machine, a template, materials and a relative knowledge of sewing.”

Vered Rosen, a South parent who, like Flannery, has taken up mask-making, said that sewing is a bit like learning to ride a bike. 

“Once you know it, you know it. I hadn’t used a sewing machine for many years and now, it suddenly became really handy to be able to sew.”

Rosen has donated 28 masks to local senior homes, where they are used by residents and staff.

Small local businesses have also joined the fight in making masks, including Corner Cleaners, a dry cleaning business located in West Newton.

Kim Choi, who does alterations at Corner Cleaners, makes the masks, which are then given to first responders. Choi provides regular customers with free masks. All proceeds from the masks she sells are going to the Newton Care Fund, which provides support to families and individuals who have been financially harmed by the pandemic. 

“There are a lot of businesses who are affected by the virus. A lot of the times right now people are selling [masks] because a lot of the other streams of revenue have sunk,” Her daughter, Donna Choi, said. “We wanted to use this opportunity to be able to give back, which is why we are not pocketing any of the profits from this.” 

Corner Cleaners has donated 100 masks to the Newton Police Department.

“We are located adjacent to the police station, so we see a lot of the officers wearing them on a regular basis,” Choi said. 

“In this situation, everybody can still do their part, whether it’s making the masks like myself or wearing the masks. We should all protect each other” Terry Tocci, an independent mask maker and Brockton native who sells her masks on Etsy, said. 

Flessas said she has received a lot of positive feedback from her friends and family.

“Even though Newton isn’t as bad as some other areas and a majority of [the recipients of her masks] live in this area, it’s still good for them to have something so that they can have more peace of mind. While they’re not a substitute for an N95, it’s better than nothing.”

“A lot of the people right now who need masks aren’t necessarily the ones you’d think of first,” Joe Smith*, who works at a local sewing studio, said. “They’re not necessarily the ones in hospitals, but other people down the line, like nursing homes, police officers, firemen [and] home health care workers. There are a lot of people who are being rather underserved …They are definitely not first in line and might be so far down the line that they might never see those masks.”

However, while homemade cloth masks offer some protection, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s research concluded that most only filter out about half the virus molecules, and may make breathing difficult for the user. Tocci and Smith, who are both professional designers, have found alternative ways to increase the effectiveness of their masks. 

“I did some research because I noticed that everybody had started making handmade masks, and I wanted to upgrade it. I found myself looking at HEPA vacuum cleaner bags,” Tocci said. “My face masks consist of thick layers of two HEPA filtration sheets and then they have protective sheets on both of them, and then on the outside layer it’s 100% cotton material.”

“I’m using this material called Halyard H600. They use it for medical wraps in hospitals. This stuff happens to make a really good filter material and a really good mask,” Smith said. 

Smith said that the lack of design knowledge and pressing demand for masks created a miscommunication between hospitals and mask-makers.

 “People were latching onto this whole idea because hospitals were saying non-woven [fabric] and the only thing non-woven that’s available to people who sew at home is interfacing (a textile used to make fabric more rigid), which is totally the wrong thing for making a mask,” he said. “It’s not designed to be breathed through, and if you can breathe through it, it means it’s really thin.”

Community and professional mask-makers also have to deal with the shortage of materials from a shutdown of fabric production in China, the largest textile producing and exporting country in the world. While most people have access to cotton fabrics through donations or already owning them, elastics and some types of interfacing are becoming harder to find. 

“I’ve had a lot of trouble getting a hold of [elastic] because it’s sold out everywhere,” Flessas said. “I’ve had friends give me some off a waistband that they had lying around.” 

Like many other mask makers, Rosen has received fabric donations from people she knows. 

“I had a family who came from Israel with a sheet from 20 years ago, and they gave it to me,” she said. “I made some masks; they were very happy to see that it was used for something.”

Choi made her masks using leftover fabric and tablecloths donated by customers, while Flessas and Flannery used cloth they had from previous projects. Recycling materials has become a more cost-effective response to the upsurge in the public’s effort to combat COVID-19.

Though homemade masks contribute to the safety of our community, they do not typically offer the high level of protection required at health care facilities. 

Director of Communications and Public Affairs at Newton-Wellesley Hospital Heidi Wilson said the hospital currently has sufficient supplies of surgical and procedural masks.

“For patient and staff safety, non-hospital-approved masks are not permitted for many reasons, including how they are cleaned and disinfected,” she said.

Due to the unpredictable nature of the virus, many are unsure of their mask production plans for the future. 

Tocci said she will begin branching out her productions to scrub caps and other PPEs according to what is most needed by hospitals. 

Flessas said she anticipates that there will continue to be a need for masks for a while. 

“As long as there’s a need, I’ll keep making them. I find it kind of relaxing, considering I’ve been staying home this whole time.” 

Flannery said she is focused on keeping up production.

“This virus is always changing. We just don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month” she said. “Right now, we’re going to keep gradually making more and more.”

*name changed to protect identity