The Masking of America – Or – Saving Civilization One Fabric Scrap at a Time

Home sewn masks on the writer’s sewing table

Those whose prepping skills have heretofore consisted solely of collecting guns and ammo are having a rude awakening these days. The fatal flaw for those whose planning extended only to “I’ll use my guns to take whatever other supplies I need” is that they failed to plan for an “incomplete” apocalypse.

The “incomplete” apocalypse we are currently experiencing has law and order still in place (and no zombies, dammit) but does have shortages of essential supplies – from hand sanitizer to N-95 masks – that you can’t just go out and rob from your neighbors.

In the face of these widespread shortages of personal protective equipment due to COVID-19, and beyond all comprehension, the country has seen a resurgence of home sewing. Yes – as in your mom’s old Singer.

Commercial tailors and clothing companies started retooling for sewing masks too, but what we are now seeing is a veritable army of home seamstresses riding to the rescue of health systems large and small. These home sewing citizens are providing tens of thousands (if not millions) of masks of all descriptions to help prevent droplet spread in a society under quarantine. Some health systems are even accepting home sewn medical gowns that are washable and reusable. 

What up until recently was considered a quaint and outdated home hobby, not even taught in schools anymore, is now proving that sewing skills and equipment are “essential” and should be included in the new prepper paradigm.

Healthcare organizations started running out of supplies back in March and were forced to figure out innovative ways to sanitize and reuse masks that were designed to be disposable. Some hospital workers were issued ONE N-95 a week, for a device which is supposed to be disposed of after each patient. Some workers were given a simple paper bag in which to store their mask in-between shifts. With sketchy compromises like that is it any wonder that the medical world started accepting any help it could get? 

The donated cloth masks, while not as effective as regular medical masks, are used by health workers not in direct patient care or even as covers for the regular masks as they are being reused.

Now that the general public has been told to cover up in public to help prevent droplet spread, the demand is even greater for face coverings of whatever sort. Do-it-yourself videos are all over the internet using everything from bandanas to socks, to army-issue skivy shirts.

Could any of us have imagined this scenario a year ago –  even preppers?

I bought some extra elastic in February thinking I might need to make a few masks for my own personal use in public, but I never imagined that the entire healthcare industry would virtually run out of personal protective equipment.

Fortunately, I’ve been a home sew-er ( as opposed to sewer – ha!) since I was a teenager, amassing a horde of fabric according to the cardinal rule of quilting – “She who dies with the most fabric, wins!” 

Think of a fabric stash as a bit like an ammo stash, only more colorful and more versatile. Last year I cleaned out scraps that were less than 3 inches square, but I’ve still got scores of yards of raw material to work with. ( I am not a hoarder, I am not a hoarder …)

I’m set for fabric, but I never imagined that certain widths of elastic would be sold out of every online retailer and even some warehouses – with a wait time of weeks to months. I never imagined that I would be scavenging elastic cording out of the bottom hems and hoods of my jackets. Then I never imagined that I’d be cutting up pairs of spandex tights to use as “jersey loops” instead of elastic. This commodity has gotten so scarce that I’ve also heard of people cutting up dollar store ace bandages for elastic.

I’m sewing masks for our office patient parents to wear so we can conserve our medical masks. Trying to determine which homemade online mask design was “best” was not something I trained for in medical school. Pleated? Shaped? Pockets for a filter? What kind? Furnace filter? Shop Towel? Vacuum bag? It’s mind-boggling, and genuinely useful studies are scarce. We are basically all making this up as we go along and hoping for the best.

I am purposely trying to avoid using tie strings instead of elastic ear loops, reasoning that young mommies with a baby on a hip can’t use two hands to tie on a mask. Also, being a pediatrician, I worry about strangulation hazards with long strings.

There are home sew-ers out there who are churning out hundreds of masks a week while they are stuck at home. In my opinion they are true home-bound heroes. I can’t begin to touch those numbers because I’m still working, but I’m well on my way to two hundred so far and am becoming more efficient as I go. Cutting out fabric on my office desk in-between patients is also something that I never imagined that I would be doing during this madness.

Am I the only one who finds a bit of irony in the fact that millennials who seemed perfectly willing to sacrifice their elders to this pandemic, are now having their butts saved by those same elders armed with home sewing machines? There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

So remember kids – prepping isn’t “only” about guns and ammo. Sometimes it’s about something as mundane as elastic and your mom’s old sewing machine.