Volunteer Local Crafters Hard at Work Sewing Masks

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Above: Vera cuts a pattern to make a mask.

When Seams owner Jessy Gregg opened her fabric store in East Lansing on Grove Street, she wanted to create a gathering place for sewers of all levels. Although social-distancing has caused the store to close its doors to customers, local crafters are still very much coming together (from afar). And their purpose of coming together is to help.

Gregg calls the community of volunteer sewers ‘crisis crafters.’ To help with the COVID-19 crisis, they are assembling fabric masks from the comfort of their homes.

“On Thursday, people started sending me news articles about hospitals in other areas putting out the call for handmade masks. At that point, I tried to encourage people to kind of slow down a second, and make sure we actually had the local providers that were interested in them,” Gregg told ELi today.

“I was trying to specifically talk to hospitals, because obviously, these are not going to be filtration masks like the N95 masks people are using in clinical settings,” Gregg explained. “I wasn’t sure there would be a use for them locally. But then, almost immediately, I started getting separate contacts from people in assisted living facilities, home health care, and health care related-areas — they were asking for hundreds of them.”

Once the need for the masks was made apparent, people from the more than 500 members of Seams, Classes and Community Facebook group started organizing efforts. The online page — usually a space where members share patterns, updates on their individual projects, and ask for expert advice — transitioned to “all masks all the time,” said Gregg, who also serves as an East Lansing City Council member.

There is a spreadsheet where companies, businesses, and organizations can add their contact info, contact persons, how many masks they need, and any particular specifications. (See the spreadsheet here.)

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Seams already had a big focus on donations to charity, with an entire stock of fabric in the basement. Gregg has gone through the stockpile, and is donating the store’s entire supply of elastic – all 600 yards.

“I’m rationing the elastic because that’s definitely the supply that people need the most,” Gregg said. “I’m giving enough to sew 15-20 masks at a time, because I figure that’s pretty approachable, and that way [sewers] won’t burn out.”

In order to lessen physical interaction, Gregg is leaving the supplies on her porch for volunteers in a self-serve format.

“We don’t want to have people going into houses and getting them. We’re trying to minimize contact between people getting supplies, and getting the masks to where they’re needed. It’s a complicated supply chain,” Gregg said.

So far, the Lansing Police and Lansing Fire Department have requested masks on the online spreadsheet, as has Eaton Rapids Medical Center, and Area Midwives. Gregg has also been following posts from McLaren Hospital and Ingham County Care Facility, and has talked to a representative from Sparrow Hospital about their needs.

Currently, the mask requirements call for them to be made of out 100 percent cotton, and the popular choice has been quilt-weight cotton on the front, lined with flannel on the side touching the face.

Above: Ckat Duke finishes a mask.

The initial pattern of the fabric masks came from a member who posted on behalf of a home health care service company called BrightStar. From there, volunteers have found varying patterns and styles, depending on their skill level.

“We’ve got members of the group who are either using more form-fitting patterns they found online, and some are experimenting with putting pipe cleaners or bread ties that will conform to the nose — preventing air gaps around it. Several different ones are being produced at various levels of complexity, based on the skill of the people who are taking them on,” Gregg said.

Gregg wants to make sure people are aware that these fabric masks are not being expected to take the place of surgical N95 masks.

“These are for person-to-person transfer,” she said. “Probably the best [use] for these masks is for a person who is infected or possibly infected, to contain their own germs. So, as opposed to wearing it to be protected from other people, you would wear it to prevent your germs from spreading to other people.”

The 100% cotton fabric masks do have the ability to be washed and sanitized — something the disposable ones do not.

Aron Sousa, MD, thinks these fabric masks are a helpful alternative for people who do not have access to traditional masks.

“I think, in particular, for people who are sick and want to keep their droplets from getting to people in their household, or people they might accidentally be around – I think masks like these would be an excellent thing to use if they don’t have a mask that’s actually produced for that purpose.”

Sousa said that while hospitals wouldn’t use a bandana or cloth face mask generally, this is a great option for people at home to protect other people from their sickness. The CDC has a website about facemasks which suggests that if one is unable to use a well-tested facemask, to use a homemade cloth mask.

“I think if people make masks that are comfortable and easy to use, then that could be a great help,” he said.

The physician encourages people to be aggressive about social distancing, in order to prevent more coronavirus cases.

“The whole challenge of preventing COVID-19 illness is to keep it from spreading from person to person, so our hospitals don’t get overrun and overwhelmed,” he said. “That requires social distancing, so you have to keep yourself way from other people. If you have to cough or sneeze, you should do that into a tissue you can get rid of, or into your sleeve or elbow. Wear a mask if you’re sick, and stay home if you’re sick — do not go out.”

“We have not flattened the curve yet,” Sousa set. “We need to do everything we can to flatten the curve because that will save lives.”

For now, Gregg is unable to estimate just how many masks will be made and distributed, but she has given out about 350 yards of elastic. This amount can produce about one thousand masks.

Many community members have expressed interest in donating money to help, but currently, the nationwide shortage of elastic means there way to buy the needed supplies yet. The team is looking at switching designs to use fabric ties since wholesaler distributors are out of elastic.

Above: Masks made with elastic and with ties.

If a provider of elastic becomes available, Seams will then put a call out for financial donations to facilitate the purchase of more elastic to make more fabric masks.

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed.

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