Crafters began making fabric masks when the public learned that COVID-19 was causing a major shortage of personal protective equipment. But since the CDC changed its recommendation on April 3 to urge that everyone wears a mask when leaving the house, sewing machines around the world have been working harder than ever. Here’s what you need to know if you plan to make fabric masks to wear or to donate.

“The efforts of home sewers are a beautiful expression of the desire to help our community and contribute their special skills,” said Erum Ilyas, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Montgomery Dermatology, LLC in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. However, textiles are not tightly woven enough to fully protect against the virus. “They are primarily designed to block bacterial spread given the risks these present in wounds during surgical procedures. Viral particles are much smaller than bacteria and simply escape through these textiles quite easily.”

So while masks are a useful additional precaution against coronavirus, crafters should know upfront that cloth masks are insufficient for first responders, who need N-95 masks. Still, many medical professionals are wearing cloth masks over the N-95 masks. Everybody else should wear cloth masks in combination with social distancing and frequent hand-washing.

face mask pattern near cut black fabric, measuring table and scissors

Masks for donation

Before you rev up your sewing machine and start stitching masks, figure out where you’re going to donate your finished products. Organizations of all sizes have popped up around the country to give home sewers guidance on materials, designs and delivery.

Related: How to volunteer during COVID-19

“I got involved with Mask Match after my classmate heard about it on a podcast,” said Briana Corkill, a medical student in Phoenix. “It seemed like a great way to be helpful from home, especially since all of my clinical volunteer work has been put on hold.” Mask Match is a volunteer-run organization that accepts donations of high-filtration masks (N95, P95, R95 and KN95), surgical masks and fabric masks and delivers them wherever they are needed in the U.S. and Canada. If you want to donate homemade fabric masks, you must follow Mask Match’s guidance on materials and design.

Other efforts are more localized. Vanderbilt University Medical Center is accepting hand-sewn masks, but only if people can deliver them in person in Nashville. However, its guidelines for making masks for children and adults are useful to people everywhere.

Heide Davis, an Oregon-based artist, joined a Facebook group called Crafters Against Covid-19 PDX, which collects masks from home sewers. The group donates the masks to the Multnomah County Health Department, which distributes the non-medical grade masks to nursing homes, care homes and hospitals (for patient use). Davis, who collects secondhand and vintage fabric, pondered her choices. “I was a little unsure about what fabric I had that would be suitable,” she said. Fortunately, she heard that local couture designer Sloane White had started a mask production line. “She’d already cut out the masks and needed help sewing them together,” Davis said. “She gave me a bag of fabric that was already precut, washed, everything. And some elastic. And it was very lovely and generous and saved me from having to find the fabric.” Davis donated nearly 50 masks to the Multnomah County Health Department, plus another 15 for friends and family.

Working with precut, partly sewn fabric, it still took about 8 hours for Davis to sew her donated masks. “You should know how to use your machine,” she said. “But it doesn’t take any more than basic sewing skills.”

person using sewing machine to make fabric mask

Making a simple mask

Choosing the right fabric is an important decision. Ilyas referred to a 2013 Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness study that evaluated different household materials to determine how much each could filter particles and block the spread of influenza. “This study showed that cotton/polyester blends tend to be the most effective out of household materials while still maintaining breathability,” Ilyas explained. “This type of textile can be found in most T-shirts or pillowcases around the house. Despite rating the best in terms of blocking viruses and still maintaining comfort, these materials still only block about 70% of viruses. This makes them ideally suited for community and low-risk settings while still maintaining social distancing. It’s an added level of security to help minimize the risk of viral spread.”

What if you lack a sewing machine but you want a mask for your own use? “Simple is best here,” Ilyas said. “This does not have to be complicated and should not be a reason to go to the store while we are urging everyone to stay home. I tend to recommend taking an old T-shirt or pillowcase and cutting a strip of fabric about 3-4 inches wide. Take two rubber bands and pull one along each side. Fold the fabric in and pull the rubber bands over your ears to hold in place.” Rubber bands are probably not the most comfortable thing to hold your mask in place, but they will do in a pinch for short jaunts to the store. You can also use yarn for a more comfortable fit if you have it on hand.

The CDC posted several options on its site, including one for people who sew, a no-sew mask made from a T-shirt and a simple bandana mask.

If possible, Davis recommends machine-sewing over hand-sewing. “Machine stitches probably would hold up in the wash a little bit better than hand-done stitches. Because you want to be able to wash this thing a lot when you’re using it.”

person wearing patterned face mask

Wearing and caring for your mask

Wearing a mask takes some getting used to and may feel uncomfortable or irritating. “Remember that when you use a mask, every time you manipulate it, touch it, move it around, your hands come close to your face and mouth,” Ilyas said. “Sometimes when people wear a mask, they find themselves touching their face far more frequently than normal. If you wear glasses, there is a lot of getting used to when it comes to wearing a mask as your glasses are sure to get foggy. Practice wearing your mask around the house first to get a sense of how you feel in it.” Ilyas suggested a gentle skin cleanser and nightly moisturizer to offset the effects of wearing a face mask for long periods of time.

Related: How to properly dispose contaminated gloves, masks, wipes and more

Whenever you go outside your house, your mask is accumulating additional germs. Frequent washing is important. “If you are using a fabric with a cotton/polyester blend, it should not be a problem to machine wash and tumble dry,” Ilyas said. “The key is to use the hot water setting on your washing machine, as viruses do require high temperatures to be killed in the water environment.” Ilyas mentioned the creepy fact that some viruses can live on the walls of your washing machine. To be extra careful, she recommends running an extra rinse cycle with just bleach to clean the washing machine walls after washing any clothes that are high risk for viral particles.

Despite expert opinions that masks provide only a little extra protection from the virus, they still serve as an excellent visual reminder to stay a safe distance from others, leave the house only as necessary and stop touching your face.

Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat, Pixabay and Unsplash