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How these locals are making hand-sewn masks for medical workers and the community
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David Gilleland, owner of Vector Quilts & Sewing Center, works on sewing a mask that will be given to a doctor, nurse or another member of the community. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

As the COVID-19 outbreak has depleted reserves of personal protective equipment, or PPE, perhaps no other product has been in as high-demand as face masks, and within Forsyth County, a number of groups and individuals have taken it upon themselves to use their sewing knowledge and resources to sew masks for doctors, nurses and the public.

”They can be worn over the N-95s,” said Connie Valente, owner of Creative Blinds & Décor, LLC. “Many of the ones I make, they have a hole at the bottom where filters can be put in. Some of the filters are being used for a variety of products: some are the air filters from the 3M filters we use for our furnaces, some of them are even putting pieces of vacuum cleaner bags or paper towels. I’ve been wearing them as I go to the grocery store just to be a layer of protection.”

While not as effective as PPE, the CDC has recommended wearing cloth masks to “slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”

The masks can be worn over other PPE and can also be washed and worn again. Along with the masks, the sewers are seeing an increase in requests for sewn surgical caps.  

David Gilleland, owner of Vector Quilts & Sewing Center, located 515 Sawnee Corners Boulevard, has closed his business in recent weeks due to the virus and instead has been part of a team that has crafted more than 1,000 masks and already has supplies to make up to 5,000.

“We started having people ask about making masks, and actually one of my class instructors works as a nurse at Northeast Georgia, and they were asking her about making masks, and that got us started helping her,”   he said.  “As that got out, we were finding more and more people that were needing masks, so we started organizing that with people sewing, ordering in fabrics and getting kits cut.”

Along with using resources from his store, Gilleland runs a Facebook group, Sewing Masks for Forsyth County & NE Georgia, where he and others in the quilting community offer their services to help her masks made.

“We've got three or four cutting and doing the kits, then I don't even know how many, we've got 15-20 sewing, at least, it not more,” Gilleland said. 

With the store closed due to the outbreak, Gilleland puts two bins outside the location each day, one for members to pick up kits, which they sew at home, and another for them to drop off the completed masks.

“Everybody’s getting really creative, and they're doing a lot of studies because a lot of people around the country are making the masks, so we're trying to stay up to date and look at the studies and all and share the studies with people so they know what their options are,” he said.

While the online group is up to about 70 members, they aren't the only ones in the community creating masks.

Valente is a design and drapery professional and a member of Mask America, a national group, who first came across the need a few weeks ago watching a webinar of a nurse from Boston, who spoke about the mask shortage she and other health care workers were facing. 

“There were maybe 100 people on the first call, and gradually, we started making masks, and it's been really a grassroots organization that has been geared toward helping the first responders and medical community around the United States,” she said. “As we've made ourselves known, now healthcare professionals, nurses are reaching out, some of them desperate because they don't have the masks that they need.”

Mask America has now distributed more than 45,000 masks nationwide. 

“Really, it doesn't matter how much each person does, and we try to stress that because some people are saying, 'I feel bad. I only made 10.' Every single mask counts,” Valente said. “Every single person we can help, it's so important.”

While masks can be made of many materials, quilting fabric, light-weight cotton and cotton lining with elastic or bias tape to secure them and an open pouch for a filter.

“There's different sizes and different patterns, and a number of people have come up with their solution, but typically a piece of fabric cut six inches by nine inches... I'm doing a little bit larger because, for men, the smaller ones don't seem to fit as well,” Valente said. 

Here are the CDC's steps for creating a homemade mask:

Materials

  • Two 10”x6” rectangles of cotton fabric
  • Two 6” pieces of elastic (or rubber bands, string, cloth strips, or hair ties)
  • Needle and thread (or bobby pin)
  • Scissors
  • Sewing machine

1. Cut out two 10-by-6-inch rectangles of cotton fabric. Use tightly woven cotton, such as quilting fabric or cotton sheets. T-shirt fabric will work in a pinch. Stack the two rectangles; you will sew the mask as if it was a single piece of fabric.

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2. Fold over the long sides ¼ inch and hem. Then fold the double layer of fabric over ½ inch along the short sides and stitch down.

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3. Run a 6-inch length of 1/8-inch wide elastic through the wider hem on each side of the mask. These will be the ear loops. Use a large needle or a bobby pin to thread it through. Tie the ends tight. Don’t have elastic? Use hair ties or elastic head bands. If you only have string, you can make the ties longer and tie the mask behind your head.

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4. Gently pull on the elastic so that the knots are tucked inside the hem. Gather the sides of the mask on the elastic and adjust so the mask fits your face. Then securely stitch the elastic in place to keep it from slipping.

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Making the masks can be a little tough the first time, but those with experience say it gets easier the more you do.

“After you make the first one, then [it's easier,]” said Jane Rice, a member of the Piecemakers Quilt Guild. “Like this morning, I made two in an hour, but I've got in down pretty pat, and my dining room is like a little factory, so I have my sewing machine, my area to cut out, I have everything all lined up

“But the first couple of times, don't get discouraged, because it's something new it, and it takes a while to work it through.”

Rice said being a member of Piecemakers improver her sewing skills and meant “she had a great stash of fabric,” and she learned to make masks the same way many learn new skills, watching YouTube videos.

“I bet I reviewed 10 or 15 videos on how to make masks, and I got down now to where it's fairly easy for me to do,” she said.

As a former nurse who retired after 51 years in the profession, Rice said she understands the crunch healthcare workers and facilities are feeling.

“The main thing is any medical facility has a budget, and they are needing to use their budget to buy masks and gowns, so by making things at home for ancillary people, perhaps we're making them save money on their budget,” Rice said.

Rice said her career took her across the world, including Jamaica, where she said she learned to improvise while still following medical protocols, and to the Vietnam War as nurse in the Navy.

“When I got out after three years, I went through a clinical depression because I was so affected by what I saw, and we're going to see that with health care workers,” she said.

Since not everyone can make masks, Rice said everyone should get involved in their own way to help those fighting the disease.

“They need all the support we can give them because they are really like the army right now putting their lives on the line, so anything at all you can do,” she said. “If you know a healthcare provider, write a note, cards or something, give them a voice mail message, send an email of support or make something they enjoy eating or deliver snacks to the hospital for them. There's always something you can do to show your support, because they've never seen anything like that.”

Those looking for masks or to get involved can contact Valente – by email at creativeblindsanddecor@gmail.com or online at Instagram.com/creative_blinds_decor  and Facebook.com/Creative-Blinds-Decor-118243561556152  – or join Gilleland's Facebook group at Facebook.com/groups/214816089734421.