People across the US are sewing masks to donate to the vulnerable. Some say it's helping to calm their feelings of powerlessness.

Haylee RuprightHaylee Rupright with her child, making masks in her Ohio home.
  • After the CDC altered its guidelines to advise people to wear masks outdoors, many crafters began sewing homemade face masks.
  • The Internet was flooded with how-to videos and photos of sewing patterns designed for people to use when creating a face mask.
  • But the evidence around homemade face mask usage is mixed, and some experts say using the wrong fabric can make people more vulnerable to infection.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Haylee Rupright, 26, wondered if she was pushing it too hard. In one night, she and her 20-year-old sister Emilee had made 16 face masks out of Haylee’s extra quilting fabric, using the sewing machines they have had since they was 10, with a pattern Haylee had devised. They were exhausted.

“But there’s a need for these masks,” Haylee said. So they kept going.

Haylee and Emilee Roper are two sisters that live in Wood County, Ohio. In the two weeks since March 24, they have sewed over 60 masks for their community, where there’s been at least 20 cases of coronavirus.

Since Ohio’s lockdown, the sisters have been social distancing and mask-sewing in their own homes. Haylee, who’s married with an 18-month-old, works in her kitchen, video chatting with Emilee while she sews at the dining room table of their parents’ home a short walk away. Their grandmother, who taught them how to sew, has gotten into it too, making 20 of her own masks from her own home.

“People just come pick them up from my front porch, whoever needs them,” said Haylee.

“The veterinarian clinic, they took a few,” said Emilee.

As recommendations on homemade masks change, it’s a call to arms for crafters, who are turning to the time-honoured tradition of do-it-yourself, or DIY, to make their own masks. Sites like YouTube and Pinterest are flooded with craft guides for mask-making, Instagram is full of mask-wearing influencers, and quirky avocado-covered face masks made from t-shirts are some of homemade craft shop Etsy’s best selling products.

The internet is being flooded with advice on how to make homemade face masks

“Here’s how you can make your own face covering in a few easy steps with items you can find around the house, like an old scarf, a bandana, or a hand towel,” US surgeon general Jerome Adams says, advising the public in a CDC-branded video, holding a red Washington Nationals towel up to the camera.

Along with the video, the CDC is recommending no-sew DIY face mask designs, making use of old T-shirts and even coffee filters, and the rest of the internet is following in Adams’ footsteps.

On the e-commerce site Etsy, homemade face masks with kitschy patterns are bestsellers, and the number of face mask sellers increased in the last two weeks to nearly 20,000sellers. In March, there was roughly one ‘face mask’ related search every 2 seconds, according to Etsy press representative Lily Cohen.

On Pinterest, where usage is at an all-time high, there’s been an increase in people sharing face mask sewing patterns and face mask designs, some of them polka-dotted, others crocheted. On YouTube, there are tutorials for all kinds of face masks, from those made without a sewing machine to one made from a reusable grocery bag and pipe cleaners.

One doctor’s wife crafted him a mask out of a vacuum bag. “I even cooked bacon to see if I could clearly smell it, and I could not,” emergency medicine physician Ryan Southworth said. “It’s worth noting that any mask is better than no mask.”

A 21-year-old deaf education major at Eastern Kentucky University got to work creating face masks for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. The masks are designed with clear pieces over the mouth for lip-readers. “We have no prior experience in sewing, so we are working hard to get a local group together to help with the high demand,” creator Ashley Lawrence wrote in an email to Insider. She added that demand is high, and the response has been overwhelming.

Medical schools and universities have also gotten into the DIY spirit, with Dell Medical School, Vanderbilt Medical Centre, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Kaiser Permanente all offering downloadable mask patterns on their sites.

Man face maskDrew Angerer/Getty ImagesA man wearing a face mask walks past the Franklin Square fire station on April 7, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Some people are making masks to cope with feelings of powerlessness

Children’s book author Colleen Paeff is one of many sewing masks using the free pattern Kaiser made available online. Right now, she’s sewing them for friends and family, but eventually she hopes to create masks quickly enough to be able to donate some to hospitals as well.

“When I sat down to make the masks, I felt good because it was something that I could actually do to make a difference,” she told Insider. “There’s a powerless feeling with this whole pandemic. But as I started making the masks, I started thinking about all the people I care about who might need a mask and do I have time to make that many masks and it just started to feel a little overwhelming.”

Paeff lives in Los Angeles, California, where masks are now required when going outside. She spent four hours making four masks on April 2, and while on the phone with Insider, Paeff was using a seam-ripping tool to tear out seams she had created to re-do them.

“I’m thinking that maybe it will take 20 minutes per mask once I get better,” she said. “I didn’t start making masks right away because I was worried the hospitals wouldn’t accept them. Of course it’s a sad state of affairs, that hospitals now need them. But it’s nice to be able to do something to help.”

When it comes to homemade masks, some fabrics work better than others

As people rush to their sewing machines to create their masks, it is important to remember that when it comes to homemade masks, some fabrics work better than others. One study found sweatshirts work better than t-shirts, while towels may work better than scarves, Insider previously reported. But whether the material is cotton or polyester, studies show that nothing works as well as an N95 mask, which healthcare workers are using.

Masks are intended to protect people against the coronavirus-laced droplets that are emitted when people cough or sneeze, and sometimes even when they scream or sing. While the evidence on the efficacy of homemade masks is inconclusive, and some fabrics can even absorb viral particles, many experts say masks may be better than no protection at all. As long as they are cleaned and sterilized between uses, masks could help to prevent asymptomatic people from spreading the disease, by catching their droplets of saliva.

But the research on homemade masks has been mixed. One 2013 study found that surgical masks were three times as effective as makeshift masks, while a 2015 study found that homemade masks failed to block out 97% of particles.

The authors of the 2015 study wrote in a follow-up note published in BMJ that the cloth masks they used may not have been washed well enough. “If health workers choose to work using cloth masks, we suggest that they have at least two and cycle them, so that each one can be washed and dried after daily use,” they said, adding that sanitizer can be used to clean the masks throughout the day.

“Homemade masks may absorb larger droplets which could absorb or even permeate through the mask to the back side, where the virus can get very close to the nose and mouth,” Emiel Denhartog, associate director of NCSU’s Textile Protection centre, told Insider. “Alternatively the transfer may occur around the mouth or to the hands and fingers when removing the masks.”

But for a country experiencing a shortage of surgical and N95 masks, and an increasing rate of infections, droves of Americans are finding comfort and hope in DIY masks. Many are donating masks to hospitals in an effort to fill the gap left by a production shortage, and the rate of donations shows no signs of slowing down.

“We plan to keep working until we run out of supplies or, knock on wood, our machines don’t go down,” said Haylee.

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