Volunteers patch up medical mask shortage with sewing skills

Apr 1, 2020

Across Mattapoisett, Rochester and Marion, residents of all ages and levels of sewing skill have been combining forces to stitch cloth versions of medical masks to send to Sippican Healthcare Center, hospitals or individuals in need.

At Sippican Healthcare Center,  Laura Bradford Zell said that employees are “trying to cover our faces so we are not exposing residents,” because “residents don’t leave the facility, but we do.”

Zell works at Sippican Healthcare Center, and collaborated extensively with Marion Town Health Nurse Kathy Downey to research mask patterns.   

The two found that it’s best if the masks have a metal insert in the area of the nose that can mold the mask to the face, such as pipe cleaner.

The duo’s research showed that properly made cloth masks had comparable efficacy as paper masks after six hours.

Zell said that because of the shortage of personal protective equipment, some nurses have been asked to reuse masks for days on end, which is potentially dangerous.

So, she started research and rallied some other sewers: Kathy Bliss, Kim Berg, Maureen Sperry, Cynthia Vaccarro Hicks  Dana Anderson and Lyn Kuhl to help. “Before I knew it I had an army of people sewing,” she said.

The sewers are now getting requests for donations from hospitals and assisted living facilities. If Zell gets donations of masks that don’t meet her carefully crafted standards, she passes them on to individuals or grocery stores.

“I’m glad that people are involved and overwhelmed by the generosity,” Zell said.

Although the Sippican Healthcare employee has organized a number of local stitchers, others have started in on the project independently.

Krystina Savaria of Rochester used to have a small sewing business and put her seamstress skills and supplies to good use when she saw a post on Facebook.

So far, she has donated the masks to Nantucket Hospital, Charleton Memorial Hospital and to individuals.

“I got so many messages,” Savaria said, adding that “I don’t want any money, because there are so many people in need.”

Her unofficial goal is 50 masks and her 13 year old daughter has been helping to cut and trim fabric. However she said she will make more if she can, tackling a couple each day. She also hopes the crisis is over soon.

Jean Schneider of Mattapoisett heard about the effort after her sister-in-law posted that her niece, a former Mattapoisett resident who works in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in Washington state, was looking for masks.

Schneider has sewn on and off throughout her life, and was able to tackle two patterns for the masks.

She has also turned the process into a family project, with her teens helping to cut and iron fabric alongside their grandmother.

“Everyone helps in their own way, and it almost becomes like a small assembly line,” Schneider said, to describe the process.

Schneider and her family have made about 25 masks so far and can probably make twice that with their materials. 

Because of supply shortages and craft store closures, volunteers are thinking outside the box on alternative materials. Zell is now experimenting with ties for masks, which are less than ideal because they lead workers to touch their faces more often. Still, “what else are we going to do?” Zell asked.

While supplies last, community members have been incredibly generous with them.

Savaria posted on Facebook looking for elastic and “within hours a few people in town gave me some,” she said.

Though homemade masks emerge from a dire shortage, Zell is confident that given time and enough material there will  be enough cloth masks.  Then crafters can move on to other supply problems (the next may be single use plastic gowns).