Friday, June 12, 2020

Masks and the New York Times

After all the masks I've made, the subject of whether you should in fact wear them is always top-of-mind.  I've closely followed the story of whether masks do any good (early word from the medical establishment: don't bother if it's not an N95) and how it has changed.  Now the docs are agreed that yes, we should all wear masks.  Meanwhile, a substantial segment of the population agrees that no, masks are a symbol of tyranny and besides who wants to wear a mask when out having fun in a crowded bar or swimming pool.  Now I'm focused on how you can get the attention of those in the second group, and have become convinced that we're doing it wrong.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times carried an op-ed piece on wearing masks, which prompted me to write a letter to the editor, and the letter was printed on yesterday's editorial page.

This is the first time in decades that I've had a letter published in the Times and I was interested in how carefully it was fact-checked.  I was asked where I got the 70 percent figure, and I sent two cites (here and here).  But revisiting these articles got me crabby again about how so many people use technical textile terms without properly specifying (or perhaps without even knowing) what they're talking about.

One of the articles cited showed the effectiveness of different materials in blocking 1-micron particles.  The surgical mask caught 97%; on down the line we find a dishtowel at 83%, a scarf at 62%, "linen" at 60% and "silk" at 50%.  I've seen several how-to-make-a-mask articles that similarly cite dishtowels and scarves as good raw materials.

But what is a dishtowel?  Are we discussing a cotton huck weave?  A printed linen souvenir tea towel?  (If so, a cheap one or an expensive one?)  A terry cloth hand towel?  (that's what I use to dry dishes)

Even more confusing, what is a scarf?  The graphic that accompanied the article showed a teeny weeny drawing of a fringed plaid scarf that might be wool, but might just as easily have been acrylic or who knows what.  And if you didn't look at the teeny weeny picture you might think "scarf" meant a cotton bandanna or a silk wrap.  I'm sure the particle-stopping power of those different materials varies hugely.

The second article was far more technical, and measured "different types of cotton (80 and 600 threads per inch)" as well as chiffon, satin, flannel and others.  The 80-thread-per-inch cotton was described as "Quilters Cotton" and I wondered what that was, since 80 threads per inch seems pretty flimsy to me.  It took several clicks through supporting tables and sections to discover that this material was totally unidentified.  While other materials were tagged as coming from Walmart, Jo-Ann or Wamsutta, the Quilters Cotton was N/A.

Interestingly, one of the materials tested in this experiment was a quilt -- two layers of 120-thread cotton with a 90% cotton batting.  As if many people are going to make masks out of a quilt!

I'm sure the scientists who did this research thought they were being highly precise in telling us that the thread pitch of the Quilters Cotton was 460-500 µm, while that of the spandex was 200-480 µm, but what is thread pitch?  Can I use this information to figure out what Quilters Cotton is?  More to the point, how does that help me decide what to use in sewing a mask?

I'm still waiting for some research and direction that combines scientific rigor with information that will help actual sewists make effective masks.  Rather than ask us to cut up a high-thread-count sheet -- and who knows exactly what the thread count is for a given sheet in their linen closet?? -- wouldn't it be better to provide information that would let us buy the right kind of fabric from the fabric store?  Aren't most of the people who sew masks going to be people who will work from fabric yardage rather than cutting up their fancy sheets?

I would like to know, for instance, if it's really better to use batik fabric rather than Kona cotton (I have yards and yards and yards of each in my stash).  Brand names would help.  Terms that we actual sewists actually use in talking to one another and in purchasing fabric would help.  Just because some guy in a lab says chiffon has a porosity of 3% while Quilters Cotton has 14% doesn't tell me whether I should be making my masks out of chiffon instead of the batiks and cottons in my drawers.

Hey, public health people!!  Now that you have told us that we should indeed be wearing masks, help us come up with the best ones to make.  Consulting a person who owns a sewing machine and uses it frequently would probably make for more useful research projects, as well as more useful construction directions.


  1. I too have been frustrated with the suggestion to use "quilting cotton" as if all cottons sold for quilting were equal. In my own stash I have everything from fairly loose weave ones that fray like crazy to hand dyes on cotton so tightly woven that they are next to impossible to hand sew through. Kona cottons have more heft and at least at one time were rated as 60 x 60 which doesn't sound good compared to the thread counts being recommended. But I have no idea the thread count of most batiks (more tightly woven than printed cottons but thinner) let alone commercial cottons marketed to quilters. I've tried the "hold it up to the light" test, but again, I'm not sure that's telling me how tightly woven the cloth is or more how thick the individual threads in the cloth are. And I was rather surprised when I ran across the newish recommendation to use a layer of flannel because it made the effectiveness of the mask suddenly very high. Huh - flannel. A bit warm I'd think but I do have some lurking in my stash. I just think of the thousands of homemade masks distributed in the beginning that may have been almost worthless, and each batch since better and better, but still, no real definitive guidance, yet we make on.

    Good point in your letter to the editor. Gotta get through to all those selfish people somehow! And truly, since there's so little mask wearing in my area, I AM wearing a mask more to protect myself than others.

  2. Kudos for getting published in the NY Times. Masks are mandatory here in CT for any establishment. I make mine from batik, a very tight weave, and lined with flannel. They are fine for going to the store and are not too hot to wear.

  3. I delayed making a few masks because of the conflicting and unhelpful fabric fabric information. Not to mention which style to make. I finally made some out of what-was-I-thinking batiks and then out of a bed sheet, thinking I could also salvage the elastic (turned out to be to large). In both cases, no light could pass through a single layer, so double layers should be good? I hope. Generic terms like "quilting cotton" or "dish towel" are SO not helpful and possibly harmful. I pulled out some quilting cottons that even double layer I could see through (tossed them into the machine quilting practice pile), and is "dish towel" the cheap cotton flour sack or the thick terrycloth towels?

    Besides that, I think what needs more attention is fit. I see so many with ears pulled forward and nose squished - masks are not one size fits all. And then there are those who wear mask with nose exposed. I wonder how many wear them that way because they really need a bigger mask so it's easier to breathe vs those that truly don't know nose needs covered as well.