Thursday, March 26, 2020

Elastic might be the new TP

and I mean that in a good way.

Emily and I have been sewing masks

and we have discovered that elastic cannot be had for love or money in Minnesota. We are using what we have at home. We managed a quick stop at SR Harris to pick up some more just before the store locked down along with so many other businesses. The elastic shortage is itself not a good thing - no shortage is, at a time like this - but the reason for it is. The sewing community is coming together to make these fabric masks and the scarcity of of the narrowest widths of elastic is indication that sewing folks are putting their time and skills to good use. 

Let me confess that I was initially extremely skeptical. Not of the goodness of sewing folks; never. They, given just the hint of an inspiration, would sew anything for anyone,  and in designer cotton, to boot. I was hesitant because I didn't know where these masks would be put to use. If they could be put to use. When I was in Singapore in January and the Covid-19 cases were beginning to rise in the South East Asian region, these masks were already in the markets. Like, literally sold in marketplaces, 3 for $10 and cheaper. People had for months been walking around en-masked. On trains. In malls. While running for the bus. Perhaps Singaporeans were already conditioned after SARS and the annual haze that sent them indoors for weeks and resulted in outdoor Phy. Ed being axed in schools. Anyone and everyone owned supplies of several varieties of masks, industrial, medical and now, fabric. If you wore a mask in public in Singapore, no one would bat an eyelid.  

(Unless the print were hideous and wrongly-oriented, the fabric snob in me would've said two months ago.)

So when the stories began to appear on social neighborhood apps ("I'm so-and-so and I'm making masks, anyone got 1/8" elastic to donate?") I did not jump on the bandwagon. 

Mind you, if there were anyone in the cosmos who'd gleefully mass- produce anything, it would be me (and my children). But I needed to be sure. Who would be using these masks, I asked. Do the hospitals really need these? More importantly, would using these masks endanger medical people rather than protect them? So I waited, and continued to watch the social media frenzy unfold: folks bemoaning the lack of elastic, folks wishing they'd paid attention in Homec class, folks trashing other folks who dared to suggest the possibility of selling these masks for meager profit.

And then the local hospitals started to ask for help. They would much prefer the commercial masks and N95 respirators, of course, but even handmade fabric ones would do. And the fabric stores began putting kits together and giving them out to anyone with time and ability to sew. And the national news covered the growing movement. And the medical professionals qualified. And the international community picked up the momentum.  

And their reasons were compelling: rather than replacing them, the fabric masks could be worn over existing medical-grade masks to extend their viability, for instance.

So Emily and I cut fabric and what elastic we could find and made over 40 masks in two days.

This first batch is for her classmate's aunts who are nurses in Iowa.

I finished a second batch yesterday for our neighbor's daughter, who is a nurse in Connecticut.  

Now, I'm taking a break from mask-sewing to wait to see what is needed next. It could be more fabric masks. But it could be that the real masks and respirators are finally reaching the hospitals and clinics and they no longer need fabric stand-ins. Or it could be that other organizations still do - organizations who aren't in the frontline but who care for vulnerable populations regardless and for whom medical-grade PPE isn't a priority.

Here is what I know at the moment: my local Joann Fabrics does not have mask kits. What they are handing out curbside is "enough fabric for you to sew 4 masks. No elastic. The fabric is sufficient for the ties, too - some medical organizations have said they actually prefer ties to elastic." Those were the words of the person on the phone when I called to ask yesterday.

I also know that there are multiple mask patterns floating around the internet. Some are recommended by medical organizations as being purportedly CDC-compliant, like this one. Some are contoured without pleats or designed to allow for filter inserts, like this one. Whether we sew masks to donate or for our own families, thank you for letting us use your patterns for free.

Finally, I know that there's nothing like the real thing, so the priority is to get real medical-grade protective equipment to the medical workers. If you have Real Masks at home, please donate them and sew some fabric ones for yourself and your family instead. And let's hope that the hospitals and other crisis centers get huge deliveries of real PPE as soon as possible.

Someday when this is over, we will look back at the spring of 2020 when the oddest things were in short supply. Toilet paper and eggs. Potatoes and onions. And elastic. And we will smile and remember that it was when the sewing community came together on the tenuous hope that we might make a difference in a world gone mad. It will be a good story to tell and retell. 

Interestingly, amidst the scarcity of so many other essentials, no one has reported a shortage of stash fabric. This is because - and it is a known fact - we all have surplus. Even I, who do not quilt and do not in general even like working with quilting cotton, somehow have an abundance of it. Well, for once in our lives, we are not ashamed, are we? And who knows if perhaps we hoarded precisely for such a time as this?


  1. I trust your thoughts on this - I also have been skeptical of the value of hand sewn masks. I have also heard that hair elastics might work (Dollar Store) but I don't know the status of your open businesses in MN. I have not heard of any need here in my area but will look specifically now; I think I have some stash :) Keep safe - yours in physical isolation - Cathy, Muskoka, Ontario, Canada
    PS. still miss my Dad (my DIY hero) and its been 20 years

    1. Cathy: we heard about the Dollar Store hairbands, too but as you said, i don't know whether they'll stay open after this weekend now that MN is in a shelter-at-home situation. Stay safe in Canada. I love that your Dad was (and will continue to be) your DIY hero! Mine, too!

  2. Treadle yard Goods in St Paul is giving away kits. I don't need fabric, I have plenty. For now I'm making scrubs for my husband, an infectious disease physician, so I don't have to wash his clothes again and again. After I'm done with the scrubs (I'm on my 2nd pair, I want at least 5 to last through the week), maybe I'll make masks. His hospital did not ask, but like you, I've been seeing messages, from cousins in France, and from North Memorial here. so maybe I will. My daughter started. Which pattern did you use? I think it's good to feel like we're helping in some way, not just waiting.

  3. Cecile: I used the Allina pattern:
    And yes, it did feel good to be helping, especially when it was friends who personally asked for these masks.

  4. I'm glad it's not just me! Around Philly no one has been taking masks except Temple (who isn't using them yet). I'm hoping it's because there are so many N95's stockpiled against forest fire season and companies are stepping up with them.

    Elastic is also my bottleneck; I have Mom's stash but that dates to our Stretch'n'Sew classes in the 70's. It's still surprisingly decent-feeling but there isn't very much narrow stuff (maybe a half-dozen masks' worth) and I am sure it won't survive hot washing.

  5. Thank you Thank you Thank you! I work in a facility that is low priority for restock. The fabric masks are going to prolong the use of my N95 :)
    And you're right about the lack of fabric shortage!

  6. What a gift! I could see ties being more comfortable. I also saw online somewhere that someone was using hair elastics to make these, but I think someone else already commented about that here.

    I'm going to hope that my transformation of in person into online public school classroom helps some of these people by hopefully keeping their children busy doing good things....

  7. My daughter and I are sewing masks too. We were able to make 136 with the elastic we had on and now we're making them with fabric ties which - I can confirm - are way more comfortable than the elastic ones. We just posted a tutorial yesterday, if anyone wants to make them. My daughter is hoping to make 1000 herself and get other people to make 10,000.

  8. I use a 1" strip from cotton lycra. Feed up through a channel on on side, loop around the back of the head, and down a channel on the other side, then tie behind the neck. I use the HK Mask pattern, designed by a scientist. I changed it to sew in the nose wire while hemming the top of the outer layer.


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