For a while, it felt as though advice from health professionals was changing every day about whether most Americans should be wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now officially recommended that everyone but infants should wear a cloth mask or face covering in certain public settings.
As German Lopez writes for Vox, “While the evidence is limited, the research suggests that more mask use by the greater public could help stop the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Some studies in households and colleges ‘show a benefit of masks,’ Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, told me, ‘so it would be plausible that they would also protect in lower-intensity transmission settings such as in the general community.’”
The guidance had been frustratingly confusing, particularly in the midst of a pandemic where official directives have been inconsistent or outright dangerous, but it did lead to a spike in Americans taking matters into their own hands and donning masks before the official directive came, according to the Washington Post. The practice was already widespread in many parts of Asia, which some experts say could be one reason that areas like Hong Kong and South Korea seemed to do better at controlling the spread of the virus.
Above all, it’s of utmost importance that medical personnel, vulnerable populations, and people who actually have the virus are first in line when it comes to medical-grade personal protective equipment, or PPE. That’s why making your own — while it won’t come with nearly the same level of protection — could be an alternative and possibly reduce considerable strain on an already drastically overburdened supply chain.
I will not, here, write a cute and flip line about how you probably have a lot of time on your hands for craft projects now that you’re stuck inside, because maybe you have kids, or maybe you have a job that does not allow you to work from home, or a job that’s become infinitely more stressful now that you have to. I am literally a semi-professional crafter and even I can’t bring myself to stop panicking most days long enough to sit down and knit a couple of rows.
What I will do is answer some questions you might have about what goes into making a mask, even — especially! — if you yourself are not a crafter. If you have further questions or resources you’ve found helpful, email me and let me know; I’m firstname.lastname@example.org, and chances are this guide will be updated frequently as more information becomes available.
So wait, am I definitely supposed to be wearing a mask? Even if I’m not sick or vulnerable?
The guidance is now that every American (except infants) should wear some kind of face covering in public places where other social distancing measures are hard to maintain (like grocery stores or pharmacies), especially in communities with significant rates of transmission.
As Lopez previously wrote, the research is murky and inconclusive, but the main takeaway is that homemade masks are likely better than nothing: “Cloth masks ... are much less effective than the modern alternatives, as a 2015 study in BMJ found. And they can be extra risky, since they can trap and hold virus-containing droplets that wearers can then breathe in. But they still, in general, offer more protection than no mask at all, several studies concluded.”
Essentially, what you’re shooting for here is not ironclad protection but rather a bolstered line of defense for both yourself and, notably, the people around you. As Lopez writes:
Coronavirus appears to mostly spread when germ-containing droplets make it into a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes. If you have a physical barrier in front of your mouth and nose, that’s simply less likely to happen. ... While the evidence is thin on how much masks protect the wearer from coronavirus — since it’s unclear if the virus spreads much through airborne droplets — it’s true that the masks stop people from spreading their own droplets: When you breathe, talk, laugh, sigh, yawn, sneeze, or cough in public, you’re less likely to get droplets on a checkout machine, dining table, or anywhere else if you have a mask on. That could stop people, even those who are asymptomatic, from spreading infection.
Making a mask is also not a bad idea, practically speaking, because the buy-in is quite low, and the odds of you already owning the materials you need to make one (or several) are quite high. You probably won’t need to go out and purchase something new, and if you do, there are plenty of contact-free or online options available.
Okay, tell me about those materials
There are official guidelines from the CDC on what qualities homemade masks should have, such as including multiple layers of snug-fitting fabric and holding up to machine washing. It also suggests what types of fabric to seek out: “tightly woven cotton, such as quilting fabric or cotton sheets. T-shirt fabric will work in a pinch.”
Jo-Ann Stores is furnishing free, precut mask-making materials for donations to hospitals (more on that later), including curbside pickup. A tutorial the chain recommends, which comes from Froedtert Hospital & the Medical College of Wisconsin, suggests looking for 100 percent cotton, like denim or percale. Their rule of thumb is that if you fold the fabric in two layers, you shouldn’t be able to see through it but should still be able to breathe through it.
Old clothes can be an excellent source for this. I recently cleaned out my closet (this might sound like a brag, but I assure you I did it in The Before Times and the bags of unwanted garments have been sitting in my hall for weeks) and have a couple of pairs of ill-fitting jeans I’ll be using in order to make my own face mask and probably a cache for my unwitting coworkers.
Some of the no-sew tutorials don’t even require cutting up fabric; in those cases, handkerchiefs, cloth napkins, or scarves and bandanas could be used.
I’m okay at sewing, or at least have enough time on my hands to give it a try. Where can I find instructions?
The CDC has directions for a sewn option as well as two no-sew ones, which we’ll get to later, that calls for two 10x6 inch rectangles of fabric per mask. There’s also a useful step-by-step guide to homemade masks in the New York Times, which can be made either by hand or with a sewing machine, along with a somewhat more involved one that includes a printable template for cutting out the right size fabric.
I found this pleated machine sewing tutorial by blogger Sarah Maker to be pretty intuitive, especially because of the clear (and oddly calming) video accompanying the written-through steps; her version comprises two layers of fabric with a pocket for additional disposable inserts. It’s definitely on the higher end of the beginner crafting spectrum, though, and harder than the CDC’s method, so approach it accordingly — if you aren’t comfortable machine sewing seams and basic pleats, this will probably stress you out.
Please don’t say anything about “sewing” to me. Are there less DIY-intensive versions?
Deeply reasonable! Yes, there are, to a point. One thing to keep in mind is fit and proper wear — the likelihood that a homemade mask won’t fit you as securely is higher than with a medical-grade one, which will reduce its effectiveness, and something you’ve sewn to fit yourself will in turn probably be more snug than a piece of fabric you wrap around your face.
That said, you may in fact just need to wrap a piece of fabric around your face, if there’s no other alternative. In its guidance to people who are sick, the CDC recommends wearing a face mask around other people, but notes that “you may need to improvise a face mask using a scarf or bandana.” One of their suggested no-sew mask methods involves cutting up a T-shirt so your face covering fits more snugly.
If you’re looking for something halfway between those two poles, this tutorial from an online Japanese arts and crafts educator called Japanese Creations demonstrates how to make a no-sew mask using a handkerchief (or scarf or cloth napkin or other piece of fabric) and hair ties. If you don’t have hair ties, the tutorial suggests cutting the cuffs off of old socks or nylon tights, which is a technique you could use for any of the above tutorials as well. The CDC’s other no-sew methods uses this exact technique, with the addition of a trimmed coffee filter in the center for added filtration.
N.B. The music from the accompanying video is so soothing and yet triumphant that I’ve kept it on in the background basically the whole time I’ve been working on this article.
How should I care for my homemade mask?
The CDC suggests that all cloth masks should “be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape” and that they “should be routinely washed depending on frequency of use.” It also notes that people should take care not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth while removing and affixing a mask, and that hands should be washed immediately after.
Does wearing a homemade mask mean I can ease up on following social distancing guidance?
No, it does not! If you’re able, you should absolutely be flattening the curve by staying home, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding other people. This is, again, a last-line of defense and is no excuse to FROLIC or MINGLE.
Where can I donate masks I’ve sewn?
It will vary widely by medical institution; some hospitals are accepting handmade donations to bolster dwindling supplies of medical-grade masks while others aren’t, and those policies might shift over time. It’s best to reach out to a medical facility or intermediary directly before simply dropping off a sackful of masks.
To that end, the Sewing and Craft Alliance has put together a regularly updated database, called WeNeedMasks.org, of institutions requesting supplies. While it might make the most sense and feel the most personally fulfilling to make masks for a hospital in your area, many places are also accepting donations by mail.
“We are happy to be able to provide this connection,” the site’s FAQ page reads, “but will be happier when we can safely say that we’re closing it down because proper personal protection equipment is readily available to all healthcare workers again.”
The most triumph-of-the-human-spirit-y I’ve felt since the beginning of this pandemic was when I first read Rebecca Jennings’s piece for The Goods about crafters stepping up to donate handmade masks and other PPE to hospitals. It’s not a solution to the shortage by any means; some DIY groups, which have gathered on Facebook and across the internet, are making mask liners to prolong the lives of N95 respirators, while others are scrambling to adhere to ever-changing directives on what hospitals need. Still, as an ICU nurse who helps facilitate one of these groups said, “It’s the best we can do for now.”
She’s right, and that goes for the act of making a mask, too. It feels really, really good to create something, just to feel like you have some small measure of control in the face of confusion and fear. It feels even better when that something might provide you, or someone you love, or a complete stranger, with a small measure of security.
Update, April 6: This piece has been updated to include new information from the CDC regarding homemade mask guidance.
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