Seattle crafters are making DIY masks and face shields to help fight coronavirus

Local makers get creative to counter the lack of medical gear on the COVID-19 front lines.

Woman in fabric store holding up a roll of colorful fabric

Candace Frank, a costume maker by training, started fabricating face masks in response to the COVID-19 shortage. She shops for fabric at Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts store in Renton on March 20, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The idea was to go all out: a ruffled yellow robe and feathered owl mask, orange carrot-shaped pants and an elaborate dress, plus two giant rabbit heads. The costumes Candace Frank planned to make for local performance company Lucia Neare’s Theatrical Wonders would be big, bold and whimsical. But, like so many other productions, the show (set to premiere at On the Boards in April) was postponed by mandatory coronavirus closures. And so, like many other creative workers in Seattle, Frank is temporarily out of a job.

“I’m surrounded by tubes of fabric that were going out to stitchers,” Frank said on a recent Zoom call from her home studio in Renton. In the background of the low-lit room, spools of fabric, a curved measuring tool and clothing sketches sat idle. While she will not be repurposing the costume fabric she intended for the production, Frank is repurposing her time and effort to make face masks that cover the nose and mouth amidst the global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fight against the coronavirus. 

Frank’s phone buzzed. And then it buzzed again. And again. Each alert signaled yet another local crafter who had signed up for Crafters Against COVID-19 Seattle, the Facebook group Frank created to meet the sudden demand. Less than 24 hours after starting the group Thursday evening, hundreds had signed up to sew fabric masks in their own homes. “People really want to help,” Frank said. “My house is going to be a mask-making machine.”

The CDC now recommends the general public wear cloth face coverings or masks. Here's what you should know

The first batches, totaling thousands, will go out this week to the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a nonprofit working with homeless people; the Renton Kidney Center; Sequim Emergency Operations Center; and the University of Washington Valley Medical Center. About half will be used for medical professionals who are not “frontline workers,” with the rest going to nonmedical staff, or serving as backup, Frank says. 

As hospitals run out of masks, gowns and other PPE to keep medical workers safe, local creatives — many fresh out of gigs — are pitching in from behind their sewing machines, flooding social media with photos of homemade masks dotted with flowers and cute patterns. Groups across the nation have started virtual sewing circles to create masks and protective gowns, forming an ad hoc army of volunteers responding to the medical community’s calls for help. 

Self-made mask to cover nose and mouth
A mask prototype crafted by costume maker Candace Frank, who has been churning out face masks with her group Crafters Against COVID-19 Seattle (Candace Frank).

Flanked by her Singer sewing machine, Frank held up a small piece of cotton fabric, one of four pieces for the face mask she was about to make. “I think people want to have a sense of control [over] what’s going on,” Frank said. “It gives people a sense of safety to feel like part of what they’re doing can contribute to such a scary situation. And people want to thank the medical professionals who are doing all this work.”

Musician Gretta Harley was working on music for an upcoming play at ACT when the coronavirus engulfed the world. The show's been postponed, “and so has my stipend,” Harley says. This weekend, she rallied her friends and acquaintances to help make masks. “I was thinking of a virtual online sewing circle, and we could help each other figure out the patterns and chat and drink coffee.” 

That may sound whimsical, but the need for personal protective gear for medical workers is “very real,” says Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington’s state epidemiologist. “We have heard reports of health care workers wearing bandanas instead of the recommended N95 masks due to the shortages,” he says. 

For now, hospitals are relying on dwindling stockpiles, some shipments, as well as much-needed donations of PPE (such as gloves and N95 masks) from dental offices, nonemergency medical facilities, veterinary organizations, the building trades and individuals who may have stored supplies. 

Amid the global shortage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has loosened its guidance around protective gear for medical workers. But homemade masks are seen as an absolute last resort. They’re not considered PPE. 

There’s also debate on how helpful fabric masks are. Experts say DIY masks can provide a false sense of security, resulting in lapses in other protective measures (like washing hands). One study found that due to moisture retention, reuse and poor filtration, cloth masks had significantly higher rates of infection than medical masks. Another study, by the Society for Disaster Medicine and Public Health, found that while “both masks significantly reduced the number of microorganisms expelled by volunteers... the surgical mask was three times more effective in blocking transmission than the homemade mask.” 

On April 4th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance on cloth face coverings and masks. The CDC now recommends the general public wear cloth face coverings in public places where maintaining social distance can be difficult. 

Even before the announcement, hospitals nationwide reached out to the crafting community for homemade masks. An Oklahoma hospital called on seamstresses to make cloth masks so it could save N95 respirators for clinical personnel. Deaconess Health System, a provider in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, asked the public to help sew face masks. Late last week, Kittitas Valley Healthcare in Ellensburg launched a Facebook request for local makers to produce hospital gowns and masks. 

“When we need them, cloth masks and gowns are better than nothing,” says Lindquist. “These materials are certainly not as good as professionally produced PPE. Ideally, makers of these [DIY] materials connect with health care organizations locally who are in need.”

That’s exactly what the Crafters Against COVID-19 Seattle group has been doing, devising the designs for the masks in tandem with local medical organizations and others that have reached out to the group. Even so, the masks won’t go to medical professionals on the front lines. The idea is that a stash of DIY masks helps save the stock of surgical masks and N95 masks for those who need them most.

In her home studio, costume maker Candace Frank is crafting fabric masks that cover the nose and mouth to meet the sudden demand in the fight against the coronavirus. (Candace Frank)

“On any given day, we could be days away from running out” of PPE, says Melissa Tizon, spokesperson for Providence, a Renton-headquartered health care system with 51 hospitals and over 1,000 clinics in Washington and six other states. 

Conference rooms at Providence’s Renton headquarters now function as small factories, where human resources workers and other nonclinical personnel produce makeshift clear plastic, full-face shields from vinyl, elastic, foam and double-sided Gorilla tape from Home Depot. Providence has shared its step-by-step guide for face shields (which protect from droplet spatter) with other health care workers across the country, Tizon says. They’ve already produced more than 3,000 units. 

Meanwhile, to fill its need for masks, Providence has partnered with a local furniture manufacturer, Kaas Tailored. The company has converted its factory to facilitate making masks from surgical wrap and other medical-grade materials provided by Providence. Originally, Providence had planned to send out kits containing medical-grade fabric to volunteer crafters in a campaign called the 100 Million Mask Challenge. In less than 24 hours, thousands of volunteers signed up. Now that Kaas Tailored has stepped in, the kits don’t need to go out at all.

Those eager to volunteer their service might direct their energy toward The Memorial Foundation in Yakima. The philanthropic partner of the local Virginia Mason Memorial hospital plans to hand out face mask kits with hospital-grade material to be sewn together by volunteers. The foundation’s Erin Black says that for now, the hospital is not looking for masks made from household cloth. “We want to make sure that if people are taking the time to make these [masks], they are useful, that it’s the right thing,” Black says. 

Providence, Tizon says, is not calling for “homemade [cloth] products,” either. “I know a lot of people have said: Just give us a pattern and we’ll make it, but that’s not what we’re looking for. At least not for our health care professionals who are on the front lines.” 

Sometimes, the crafters are health care professionals. In Tacoma, a pediatric nurse has started to engineer her own face masks. In between 12-hour shifts at her hospital, Elizabeth Menta has been researching material density and sewing patterns with the help of her mother, a seasoned seamstress.

Usually, Menta goes through 30 masks during a shift, throwing them out and putting on new ones between patients. That’s down to two now. “We have been reusing masks for two weeks,” she says. Menta is working to make something “comparable to a commercial surgical mask,” experimenting with polypropylene. She hopes to persuade her hospital’s quality team to test her mask prototypes soon.

Masks aren’t the only medical gear getting the DIY treatment. On social media and group chats, makers and engineers are uniting to fabricate hand sanitizer, face shields and even respirators. The Facebook group Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies, started by a Bay Area engineer as a way to create an open-source design for much-needed ventilators, has ballooned into a group of over 42,000. The collective is compiling and vetting designs for medical supplies like surgical masks, face shields, suits and other gear with the help of a moderation team of more than 100 experts from various fields. 

Already, local artists and designers have begun creating prototypes for medical gear, such as 3D-printed nasal swabs, and face shields made from a 3D printed headband with a clear sheet of plastic attached to the front. Shoreline-based “3D-printing nerd” Joel Telling says he’s donated 50 DIY shields to an emergency room nurse who works at a local hospital, but he declined to specify which hospital. 

Frank Sanborn, a Seattle area software program manager, disaster specialist and self-declared “tinkerer” is an organizer for the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies group and is working to help coordinate hospital needs with the maker community. The plan: if and when needed, these local DIY enthusiasts can step in to make the gear while ensuring quality, sanitation and packaging protocols are in place. “Inherently, the majority of the world wants to be of service,” Sanborn says, adding, there is “an army of makers out there, ready to stand up and do whatever we can.” 

This article has been updated on March 24th to correct an error regarding a study about cloth masks, and on April 7th to add information about CDC’s new guidelines on face coverings. 

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