Sunday, April 5, 2020

Who was that masked man?

My husband was determined to go to the fruit market last week, and I was equally determined that he not do it unprotected.   I made us each a mask with just two layers of tightly woven batik fabric.

Then came the directive/suggestion that we all wear masks in public (good guidance for all of us plebs to follow, but apparently not good enough for the president or all the minions lined up behind him on the daily dog-and-pony show).  I made several more for friends and family.  My son brought me a fancy air filter that is rated effective against virus particles, and thought I could take it apart and use the innards for masks.  Sounded like a good idea, so I proceeded to dissect.

The working part of the filter, which looks a whole lot like loosely packed nonwoven interfacing, is adhered to a grid of metal, because apparently the metal lends some electrostatic properties that help in air filtration.  But the metal is too stiff to be pleated into a mask, so I peeled the fiber away.  This was a slow and not entirely satisfactory process, with a fair amount of fiber left on the grid, and it felt as though the fibers left behind were precisely those with the glue coating, the smooth outer layer that held the whole batch of stuff together.

Nevertheless, I extracted a rectangle of fiber that I put inside the mask.  I made two masks like that, all the while thinking of how I could improve the process.

I concluded that the air filter fiber is the moral equivalent of plain old interfacing, maybe even morally superior because it's more firmly stuck together, and heaven knows interfacing is a heck of a lot easier to work with than this rigamarole with the air filter.

So my second batch of masks contained one layer of batik on the outside and one layer of medium-weight interfacing next to the face.  Since batik doesn't ravel much, I just turned the raw edge over and stitched it down.  This time I pleated the edges before finishing the side seams, and encased the pleated edge in a fabric binding.  This meant way less time in sewing and fiddling.

I also realized that stitching fabric for the ties was taking a lot of time, even after I found a lot of inch-wide bias tape in my stash, probably dating back to the 1970s.  I thought maybe I could substitute tightly woven selvages or ribbon, eliminating 72 inches of seams per mask, but then I thought to look in my stash again and found some sturdy nylon cord that required only knots at each end.

Plan A: sew a pillowcase, with our without inner layer of fiber, catching the ties at the corners.  Turn it inside out, finger-press seams smooth, pleat and stitch.  Counting the seam allowances in there, you sometimes have to stitch through 12 thicknesses of fabric to secure the pleats.

Plan B: turn batik over interfacing at top and bottom edges, topstitch.  Pleat edges, add binding (yes, just like a quilt).  Position cording inside the binding. 

Fold binding over and stitch, making sure to catch the cord in the stitching so it doesn't escape or slide to and fro.  Add a second row of stitching all around the mask. You still have to stitch through 10 layers of fabric, but four of them -- the binding -- are extremely lightweight instead of heavy-duty batik.

After I made four masks with this model, I saw an online report that gave me an even better idea.  Finish and pleat the mask as described in Plan B, up until you need to finish  the short edges.  Cut a piece of fabric or bias tape 36 inches long, center the mask on the binding, and stitch the whole length over on itself just once.  Finish the mask and make the ties, all in one step!  Why didn't I think of that?  So that will be my new plan C.

I would rather be in the studio making art than making masks, but when I contemplate my non-fiber art pals, not to mention my sons, trying to produce masks without even a sewing machine on premises, I think it's time for me to step up and take one for the team.  Perfecting my technique every time I make a new batch.

I'm still not sure what degree of protection these homemade masks offer.  You would think it's a lot more than zero, because even though viruses are small enough to sneak through porous materials, the glob of snot the viruses are riding on should be stopped even by a simple bank-robber handkerchief mask.

If this keeps up for months and months, I fervently hope that some materials scientists and microbiologists will start testing all the different fabrics and patterns circulating out there and tell us which ones work and which ones don't.  Otherwise I'm afraid that millions of sewists will have spent millions of hours making things that make us feel warm and fuzzy but don't actually protect anybody very much.


  1. I too have been resisting masks especially as I know how often I fiddle with my dying mask when I am dying fabric. I am about to join the mask makers as our hospital is calling for them not for nurses and doctors but for others working or returning to the hospital for treatment. I understand that vacuum cleaner bags are a good filter product and perhaps coffee filters? I have seen a pattern very similar to to yours where they leave one side open so you can slide in a filter. Take care when removing your mask that you do not touch the front of it put it directly in the sink to wash with very hot water and of course wash your hands. Take good care of yourself. Bev

  2. I’ve got 40 in process. Have to time the spells of cutting as that’s the part that makes various parts of my arthritic self start to hurt (neck, hands, back). I’m using a pattern that is on the Kaiser Permanente web instructions. I’m using a layer of pellon non-woven interfacing for added protection, and batik or tightly woven cotton for the inside/outside. Unfortunately donated my massive ancient stash of seam binding about 6 months ago. Who knew I’d need it so soon?

  3. I have been cutting the bottom from old t-shirts in 1" increments. Running that fabric through my hands and stretching until it rolls. Can be used as elastic loops or ties.

  4. here is a source evaluating the efficacy of various materials:

  5. I SO DO NOT want to be making masks, but you have inspired my...I'm obligated to produce nearly a dozen, and I have just been dragging my heels. I was NOT making the flat ones that you described, and the strings ALSO were driving me nuts. I will now try to make one like yours. You didn't say anything about clipping to the nose...Thanks for sharing...

  6. I have been making masks similar to the way you did. I was using single fold binding/bias tape like you, but then I found some cording I can use instead (it is called braided tape), so I am sewing that inside and turning right-side out. I have heard that furnace filters don't make good liners because they might contain fiberglass. Since I don't know what works, I am making the masks with a pocket so the recipient can decide whether to use a liner and if so, what kind. Someone said she had a headache and it might be from wearing a mask for 14 hours. There is a balance. I will be using my highest quality cotton and hope that is enough.