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Making a DIY face mask has become the top stay-home activity during the novel coronavirus outbreak – whether it's for your own personal use or to donate to healthcare facilities. The CDC recommends wearing a face covering any time you go out in public, and several state and local governments are now requiring it as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. On top of that, medical face masks for healthcare workers have been running low due to high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE).
Hospitals are asking for donations of N-95 respirators (the CDC-recommended masks for healthcare professionals working with infectious patients). But these efforts aren't enough to keep up with the demand for N-95 masks, so businesses and good samaritans are taking it upon themselves to sew masks for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers working on the front lines of the novel coronavirus.
The PPE supply has become such a crisis that hospital workers are turning to social media to ask for hand-sewn surgical masks. Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and Instagram accounts are popping up with crafters banding together to figure out how to make homemade masks and get them in the hands of healthcare professionals. If you own a sewing machine, you can join this movement — but there are some important facts you need to know first.
The Good Housekeeping Institute Textiles Lab reached out to medical professionals, sewing experts, and fabric suppliers to pull together everything you need to know about making face masks at home, from sewing tutorials with a fabric pattern to guidelines from hospitals.
Do fabric face masks actually work?
Yes and no. They're not as effective as N-95 masks for people treating COVID-19 patients in hospitals. That being said, they're still useful in hospitals because they're being worn on top of N-95 masks to help them last longer. Even though they're made for single use, hospital workers are being told to rewear the same N-95 mask for days or even weeks at a time because of the shortages.
If you or someone you know has any N-95 masks, hospitals are urging you to donate or sell them. The CDC doesn't recommend the use of N-95 masks for anyone other than healthcare professionals working directly with patients.
If you're looking for a mask for yourself or others that are not treating COVID-19 patients, the CDC says homemade cloth masks can help slow the spread of the coronavirus. These fabric masks can help protect you in places like the grocery store or pharmacy where it's harder to keep a safe six-foot distance from other shoppers. This works best if everyone wears them because people who don't have any symptoms can still be spreading the virus through droplets when they cough, sneeze, or even speak.
What's the best material for a reusable face mask?
The best fabric for homemade masks is a tightly woven, 100% cotton fabric. You can purchase new fabric, but things like bed sheets, curtains, and woven shirts are also good options. If you're going to donate the masks, we recommend avoiding knit fabrics (e.g. jersey T-shirts) because they create holes when they stretch, which the virus could get through.
On top of a sewing machine and fabric, you'll need a non-woven interface for reusable masks to help block out particles, elastic or ties to keep it secure on the face, and a metal piece (like a twist tie or paper clip) to make it fit snugly around the nose. If you can't find an interface, you can substitute a non-woven product like HVAC filters or coffee filters, but ideally you should be using something that's machine washable. HEPA vacuum bags are also non-wovens with good filtration capabilities; just make they don't contain fiberglass.
If you're looking to sew and donate masks, JOANN stores are donating precut fabric. All 860 stores are offering the materials in their classrooms with sewing machines, which the company says will follow social distancing recommendations. You can also call the store to have the supplies brought out to your car for curbside pickup if you have a sewing machine at home and prefer to not enter the store.
There's also been buzz around shop towels (normally used by auto-mechanics) after a group of seamstresses said they can filter particles better than other at-home face mask materials. These haven't been tested by medical labs at this point and aren't yet recommended by the CDC, so you can certainly stick with tightly woven cotton fabric along with two layers of a nonwoven interface.
Will hospitals accept homemade masks?
Homemade masks technically are not hospital-approved, so some hospitals won't accept the donations directly. Check with local hospitals in your area to see if they can use your homemade masks and if so, what their policies are for dropping them off. Because this is a rapidly changing situation, hospitals are continuing to update policies.
Otherwise, healthcare professionals are making requests on social media. MasksForHeroes uses an Instagram account to post PPE requests from healthcare workers. It says some hospitals have given permission to send the requests, but other posts from individual employees may be anonymous. The U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health is also compiling lists of hospitals by state that are accepting homemade masks, including instructions for dropping them off. On top of that, clothing subscription service Wantable will give you a free label to send them your masks, which they will distribute to hospitals and first responders.
Keep in mind: it's not just hospitals that need face masks. Healthcare workers in other facilities like nursing homes and urgent care centers are also dealing with mask shortages while working with COVID-19 patients. Even non-healthcare workers like veterinarians and firefighters are left without face masks and have said they would accept homemade versions.
How do I make a homemade face mask?
We worked with Amanda Perna, fashion designer behind The House of Perna and Project Runway alum, who started sewing and donating face masks after she had to temporarily close her fashion studio due to the coronavirus outbreak. Amanda has been working tirelessly to make as many masks as possible and recruiting seamstresses to join her efforts. We also reached out to some of our top-tested cotton sheet brands like Parachute, Brooklinen, Gryphon, Garnet Hill, Cuddledown, and Authenticity50, and they have generously committed to donating fabric for this cause.
If you're looking for a no-sew version to wear yourself, check out Amanda's quick and easy DIY instructions using supplies you already have at home. Otherwise, here is her step-by-step guide to sewing medical face masks, with options for ties around the back of your head or elastics that loop over the ears. Ties are more comfortable for extended use, but elastics are easier to take on and off.
Face mask with ties
- Print pattern (If you don't have a printer, it's a 9x8-inch rectangle with 1-inch peats)
- Cut pattern out
- Cut two layers of 9"x8" cotton fabric (using the pattern if you're able)
- Cut two layers of 9"x8" non-woven interfacing
- Place cut fabric with front sides together
- Place both layers of the interfacing together on top of fabric (on the back side of fabric)
- Sew top 9” seam (2.5-3 stitch length is best) with ¼” seam allowance
- Flip open with front side of fabric up
- Press seam flat to one side
- Insert metal piece along seam between the 2 pieces of fabric
- Stitch ½” rectangle that is indicated at top of pattern (with wrong sides together) to secure metal piece
- Flip back to right sides together, stitch bottom 9” seam
- Flip back to right side out and press bottom seam
- Use pattern to help mark pleats. Pleat the 3 pleats all in the same direction, put a pin to keep them in place
- Cut binding tape at 36” per side
- Find the center point of the binding and the center point of the mask and pin the binding on the mask with the mask sandwiched between the binding
- Sew binding
- Repeat on the other side of the mask
- Press pleats
Face mask with elastics
- Cut two layers of 9"x7" cotton fabric and one layer of 9"x7" non-woven interfacing
- Cut two 6" pieces of elastic (Note: Tubular elastic is best, but 1/8" elastic also works.)
- Stack the layers of fabric, with face of the fabrics facing each other and the filter layer on top
- Insert elastic between the top and lining layers 1/2” from top on the short sides, then pin
- Stitch both short sides with 1/2” seam allowance
- Sew top seam at 1/2" seam allowance
- Center nose piece in top seam allowance and stitch down
- Pin bottom, leaving 2-3” open at center
- Sew both sides of bottom from one part of seam to the pin and back stitch. Make sure not to pin the center gap
- Clip all 4 corners at an angle without cutting the stitch lines
- Turn right side out
- Pull corners out so mask forms a rectangle
- Fold bottom opening in to the same point as seam allowance
- Press all 4 sides
- Fold in half (top to bottom) then press
- Fold with top and bottom meeting at the center fold, then press
- Start from top and take press fold to halfway to the next fold line and pin. Continue for all 3 pleats, then press with iron
- Sew 1/4” top stitch around the entire mask, making sure to close the bottom opening
- Press pleats
Check out the video above to see Amanda's step-by-step instructions in action.
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