Friday, March 27, 2020

How to make a face mask

No, this is not a tutorial.  This is a critical review of many tutorials out there.  In times of trouble, sewists are always happy to step up and do something helpful, even if it might not be all that helpful (see my previous crabby posts about sending quilts after earthquakes here or here).  But now there's an opportunity to do something that might even be helpful -- make face masks for healthcare workers who can't get them from the normal supply chain.  The New York Times devoted a full page in today's paper to writing about the phenomenon.

Many hospitals across the country are asking people to sew and donate masks, and many sewists are responding with patterns and tutorials.  I spent a discouraging couple of hours looking at some of the directions and videos out there, and I think a lot of time and fabric is going to be spent in aid of masks that aren't going to be all that effective.  (What a tragedy that the president won't sign an order to mobilize production of masks by people who know how to make masks, instead of expecting us to straighten out paper clips to make shapeable nose bridges.)

First off, there's a huge range of quality being pushed in these directions and tutorials -- and by that, I mean the quality of the mask in actually blocking virus particles.  At the low end, fabric masks that kind of fit sort of snugly across your face, probably a little bit nicer than just tying a scarf bank-robber style.  At the high end, masks made from HEPA filter vacuum cleaner bags that match N95 respirators for efficacy (click here for the video).  In the middle, a whole range of patterns and materials that are probably better than the bank robber approach.

Second, there's a huge range of quality in sewing techniques and directions.

Low end, how about this PDF posted by a hospital in Indiana that begged for masks from the community.  Apparently the sewists figured out how to operate despite these "directions," because two days later the hospital begged people to stop bringing masks and give them to some other place.

I'm not sure what that rectangle at the bottom of the page is supposed to be -- a pattern?  Do you think a diagram or two would help people figure out how to put it together?

I found it interesting to watch how the sewists in the various videos actually sew.  You can sure tell the difference between people who sew a lot, and people who get roped into sitting at a machine to make a video.  In one video made by a hospital, the woman at the machine was sewing elastic into the corners of a mask.  Of course, she had the right sides together and when she neared the first corner, she stuck one end of the elastic in between the layers and sewed it in.  Then when she got to the next corner, she had to reach her fingers in between the layers to fish out the other end of the elastic and get it in position, which took her a painfully long time, since she couldn't see what she was doing.  Guess she hadn't thought to pin both ends in place while everything was in full view.

In a video made by another hospital, they got a young guy from the local maker space to sit at the sewing machine.  He carefully stitched back and forth once or twice at beginning and end of each seam to make sure everything was tight, never mind that in two minutes he was going to secure those seams with another seam crossing them.  And he spent at least a minute carefully snipping off the thread ends from every seam before he turned the mask inside out and sewed it shut, where the thread ends could have happily lived undisturbed forever.

Other tutorials showed good sewing technique but faulty clinical insight.  One sewist said that masks should be made in two colors so nurses can wear the light side out, and then when they go to see the next patient, they can turn it and wear the dark side out.  NO! NO!! NO!!!!  More than 140 people left comments to set her straight -- the two colors enable the nurse to put the mask back on correctly if it has to be taken off for a minute.

Masks seem to come in two general designs.  One is a simple rectangle, with pleats at the sides to gather in the vertical fullness that goes down over your chin.  The other is a "duckbill" -- think a bra cup over your lower face -- that is shaped with a vertical curved seam from your nose down.  The duckbill apparently provides a little more protection but requires a little more sewing.  Some designs have interior pockets that can be stuffed with additional filtering materials, such as paper toweling or tissues.

The good news, according to one of the videos I watched, is that firmly woven cotton alone will filter out about half of the virus-sized particles.  And that regular nonwoven interfacing, sandwiched into a mask, provides an excellent additional filter.

I'm not ready to start sewing masks, although I might make some for my family if things progress badly.  But if I were going to, I wouldn't just grab the first tutorial directions that popped up on my google search.  I'd kick the tires on several before deciding which one would give the most bang for the buck.  And I'd use up some of those beautiful batiks in my stash.  Lord knows, they're tightly woven...


  1. Right on, Kathy! Good review. If I had back all the time I have spent on instructions, tips, criticisms, naysayers, advice, and videos I could have produced a mountain of these. Talking with a nurse to learn that hospital's needs is the best idea. But I have to be proud of all the people willing to give of their time (and fabric)! I have tried about four different types, and know that non-medical grade masks are even welcomed by police/fire and delivery drivers. So we sew.

  2. One of our main hospitals has refused these hand made masks. There is so much more to be considered when making these. I agree the need of each hospital has to be considered before folks get their production line(s) started. All in all, you need to check with your local health agency before you start...there are other ways we can be helpful...I just hate to see folks going to this effort and then be turned down. Thanks for the post...good info and your opinion is always worth the read.

  3. Thank you for your well considered words. Personally I live in the way out away from anybody anyway, and actually rarely sew now days, so am not on the sewing bandwagon making those. Have a beautiful day, and stay healthy everybody.

  4. I haven't sewn any masks either, due to conflicting information of best fabrics, and differing requirements on elastic or ties. And if they are clean enough for hospital use. I am thinking of sewing a few for DH, as he is still working, and for myself for when I do a grocery run.