The national shortage of N95 masks and loose-fitting surgical masks has sparked an impressive response among sewing enthusiasts, who are cutting and stitching in droves to fill the gap with homemade masks. Jennifer McKee, a self-described sewing fanatic, is doing her part.

“I learned to sew in middle school, and my friends all know I love sewing, so they started sending me articles about different DIY communities making masks,” said McKee, an academic advisor for College of Engineering at Oregon State University. “It seemed like a great idea. I picked a pattern I liked and that wasn’t too difficult, then I started sewing a bunch of masks.”  

The “McKee line” of reversible masks, for fashionable social distancing.

Each night, McKee gets her “one-person assembly line” in gear, cutting fabric, assembling pieces, and attaching bands. Each reversible mask has a different fabric on either side to remind users to wear it the same way every time, and each one includes a pocket that can accommodate non-woven filter materials, like polypropylene.

It was slow going at first, but as McKee fine-tuned her technique, her nightly count increased. “At first, each mask took a long time, but I simplified and streamlined my process,” she said. “Now, if I get started right away after work, I can make about 10 each night.”

McKee uses tightly woven cotton from her ample supply of remnants. Many of the prints are festooned with bright colors and bold designs. “I’m hoping the fun colors and patterns get people to smile,” she said. “Little things like that can help in these tough times.” But she also uses conservative patterns now and then for people who don’t want a Hawaiian print on one side and dachshunds on the other.

McKee has produced several dozen masks so far, most of them destined for Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis. A few are reserved for family and friends. She intends to produce at least 100 with her current fabric supply, then order some more.

A view of the pocket sewn into all masks to accommodate hospital filters.

But restocking quarter-inch elastic bands is another story.

The legions of fellow sewists taking up the challenge have supercharged the demand for elastic. “I can’t find it anywhere. Not online, not at any store,” McKee said. “I can sew long strips of fabric to make ties, but it takes a lot longer.”

She figured out a workaround using foldable bands of soft elastic that is used to put hair up in ponytails. They’re quite comfortable around the ears, McKee says. But the mask-making community got wise to the trick, and now the bands, too, are scarce.

For more conservative dressers.

One way or another, she’ll keep going.

“This is something that’s keeping me sane through this, and I feel like I’m helping people, too, which is really important to me, because sometimes I feel isolated and anxious just sitting here reading the news every day,” McKee said. “It’s good to think I’m doing something for people on the front lines. My friends and I used to joke about what we’d be doing during the apocalypse, and I’d say I’d probably be sewing for everybody, and guess what?”

—    Steve Frandzel

Published Date: 
Wednesday, April 15, 2020