I never thought we’d be reliving the days of knitting stockings for soldiers on the frontlines and digging victory gardens to make up for food shortages.
But through a combination of federal foolhardiness, individual hoarding behaviors, and production slowdowns in China due to their own struggles with COVID-19, here we are.
I’ve been seeing patterns for DIY masks intended to protect oneself from the coronavirus, and initially I ignored them, as the scientific consensus seems to be that such masks primarily served to protect people from their anxieties rather than infection.
Then, I saw that the CDC had approved them for use by medical staff, which alarmed me. Then my sister-in-law, an urgent care doctor, saw something I posted on Facebook about them and asked me to make some for her, because they’d be better than the bandannas and scarves that the CDC was also recommending. That was even more alarming.
It turns out that doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics, and hospitals across the country are anticipating dire shortages of masks and other protective gear (or PPE, for personal protective equipment) just as the demand for medical care from people sickened by the virus kicks into full gear. So SIL asked me to make a small stockpile for her … if, and when, they run out.
So how could I refuse? I made a sample from the pattern I’d been seeking circulating most widely, and had her try it on. She said it was too small to provide adequate coverage. Now that wouldn’t do. So we worked on adjusting the pattern to make a size that will actually provide better protection–adding an additional 2″ to the height of the mask from the 6″ in the original pattern. That’s quite an adjustment.
In addition to the size issues with the patterns out there, their dependence on elastic will keep many home-sewers from making the masks. Perhaps you too have discovered that it is no longer possible to buy elastic of any kind at Joann or Michaels or other sewing stores unless you want to buy a kit. Ah, capitalism.
The elastic I have on hand, I discovered, also just doesn’t work very well. Beading elastic is too thin and likely to break after repeated use; cord elastic is too thick to go through the sewing machine without significant cajoling; and commonly available 1/4″ elastic is too thick to be comfortable looped over the ears.
So I did some thinking. The solution? T-shirt yarn. It has just the right combination of elasticity, softness, and durability to work as ties. It sews up a lot more easily than cord elastic, and is widely available without having to leave the house. Doesn’t everyone have some old t-shirts lying around the house?
So … here is my pattern for DIY, upcycled/recycled face masks to keep you and yours a little bit safer during this pandemic. The pattern is a result of several rounds of trial and revision, and should fit most average-headed adults. Materials are based on some research (though there is a lot of conflicting evidence out there). Adjust width & height for larger & smaller people, including children.
You can make them from stuff you have lying around the house and were probably thinking about giving to Goodwill or just throwing in the trash: old pillowcases/sheets, dress shirts, T-shirts, etc. I made the mask pictured with fabric from a set of scrubs I picked up at Goodwill or something years ago (I mean, puppies) and a promotional T-shirt Matt got for something and couldn’t bear to throw away though he had no intention of wearing it. So the mask cost nothing to make except maybe a penny or two for thread.
I should note that the greatest preventative qualities of these masks reside in the fact that it will help you from infecting others should you be exhibiting symptoms or simply carrying the virus. Wearing one will also keep you from touching your face. The jury’s out about how well handmade fabric masks filter the virus out of the air, but this is true for surgical masks as well. Please do not stop washing your hands!
I hope the instructions are clear and the pictures helpful. Let me know if not. And please— post pictures of the ones you make in the comments!
How to Make Your Very Own Upcycled Pandemic Mask for the End Times
- Sewing machine
- Scraps of fabric or an old pillowcase or sheets (or similar weight fabric)
- T-shirts (new or old); lighter weight recommended
- Iron & ironing board
- Rotary cutter, cutting mat, and straightedge (recommended)
- Sharp sewing shears, ruler, and tailor’s chalk or marker (if you don’t have a rotary cutter
Using a rotary cutter and straightedge if you have it!), cut the following pieces:
- 1 8” tall by 9” wide piece of tightly woven cotton or cotton blend cloth (quilting cotton, an old dress shirt, sheet, etc.). If the cloth has a pattern, it should show right-side up when the 9” sides are on the top/bottom. This will be the front of the mask.
- 1 8” x 9” piece of t-shirt material or other thin cotton knit fabric. This will be the back of the mask.
- 1 1” strip from the bottom of a t-shirt (size L). Cut the hem off the shirt first. Avoid any printed parts of the shirt for the ties as they will prevent the T-shirt yarn from curling properly.
*These measurements result in a mask that fits an average-sized woman. Make adjustments as needed for kids or larger adults.
1) Make T-shirt yarn for the ties. To make T-shirt yarn, pull on the 1” strip until the edges curl in. That’s it! Then cut it into 4 pieces of equal length. Be careful not to stretch the yarn while cutting or your pieces won’t be equal.
2) Place the T-shirt fabric right side up on a flat surface. This will be the inside/back of the mask.
3) Place one end of each of the four ties along the outside edges of the mask, just over 1/2” from the top & bottom edges. Lay the top fabric back over the tie and pin it in place.
4) Repeat for the other 3 sides. When you’re finished, you should have a “sandwich” with the main pieces as the “bread” and the ties tucked inside as the “filling,” as shown (you can also pin in the middle of each side for greater stability):
5) Sew, using a zig-zag stitch and a 1/2” seam, all the way around the sandwich, starting and ending on the bottom side and leaving a 2-3” gap in the middle of the bottom side. I am using a walking foot but a regular zigzag foot should work just fine.
6) When you get to a corner, put your needle in the “down” position, lift the foot, and turn your sandwich 90 degrees. Put the foot back down and keep sewing. Be careful to make sure the ties remain well inside the sandwich so you don’t sew over them by accident.
7) Clip the corners close to (but not cutting through) the sewing line.
8) Turn the mask right side out through the gap left in the bottom side of the mask. Your ties should now be at each corner of the mask. Press the mask so that the seams lie flat. Be especially careful to press the seam allowances on either side of the gap so that they meet up evenly.
9) Working from the top, pin 2 or 3 pleats approx. 1” apart, as shown. The pleated part should be about 1/2″. Make sure that the pleats don’t overlap one another or they will be too thick to sew.
10) Get your iron and press along the edges as best you can (this will make the next sewing step easier).
11) Now, starting along the bottom edge, stitch about 1/4″, or as close as you can, to the outer edge using a regular straight stitch all the way around the mask. You may need to give your machine a little assist when you get to the pleats and where the ties are attached.
12) Then cut the thread and stitch again between the first row of stitching and the outside edge. This will help secure the ties and pleats. Alternately, you can sew one row of zigzag all the way around (but I think this is less attractive).
13) Tie knots at the end of each tie, trim threads, and press one more time.
Voila! Your mask should completely cover your nose and allow the fabric to wrap under your chin. I tied all four strings together in the back.
PS If you have a more prominent nose, you may want to attach a twist-tie or other thin piece of wire to the top of the mask in order to remove gaps between the mask and your face. You can either sew it into the mask after step 6, or attach it to the inside of the mask using tape or whatever once you’ve finished the mask.