The author, Donna Kallner, models one of her hand-sewn protective masks. She shares her instructions below. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

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Like many others, I’ve been sewing face masks. 

Early on, when cloth masks were only recommended for people who were sick, my friend Marie made a dozen for our rural volunteer fire department. After sewing she machine washed them in hot water, dried on a hot setting, and (wearing mask and gloves herself) carefully sealed them into individual plastic bags. We put those masks in the fire engine to hand out on scenes if we suspected someone might be contagious. 

Others in nearby towns went into production mode to meet the needs of people in rural clinics, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, group homes, and other places caught short on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) by the epidemic. 

Some make covers for the N-95 medical masks in such short supply. Some make masks with a pocket for removable filters, if you can find filter material. Sewers formed online groups. People who don’t sew volunteered to cut materials and assemble kits for others to stitch. Marie made another batch of masks that went to that organized effort centered in a community 20 miles away. 

Then last weekend we got word from a nurse practitioner at the clinic there: They needed an inventory of people working in public contact positions in essential businesses in our area. This inventory was to get ahead of an anticipated change in the CDC’s recommendation on the use of cloth masks. 

As we gathered information, the number was a surprise. My initial rough count was about 150 people. That included a small market, two gas stations, a convenience store, a bulk food store, the Post Office and rural mail carriers, a few restaurants and taverns still serving to-go orders a few nights a week, school workers making bag lunches for kids who aren’t in school but need nutritional support, people in shipping and receiving at the mill that is still operating, the clerks of three townships and a village and all of their poll workers for the April 7 election, and more.

Hand sewn face masks dry after sterilization. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

With nearly 15 percent of our population engaged in essential activities that involve some public contact, it seems like a good time to make masks for them. No one wants to use resources that should be going to medical personnel. Then again, medical-grade masks aren’t the only ones we can’t get. 

A local electrician told our friend at the gas station he couldn’t find masks anywhere and had to have one to go into the house where he was needed to work the next day. We didn’t ask why. We just made him a mask.

Marie and I are sewing fabric masks as quickly as we can for our community. She is sewing masks with a pocket for a filter, if we ever obtain filter material. I’m making simple pleated fabric masks without a filter pocket, which take a little less fabric so I can get a few more out of a yard of fabric. Both of us are using fabric binding or bias-cut fabric strips for ties: Our reserves of elastic for earloops didn’t last long.

Once we have a batch of masks sewn, we fire up our canning kettles. About 20 masks will fit at a time. We sterilize at a full rolling boil for 10 minutes. Then, wearing masks and gloves ourselves, we hang them to dry on the clothesline. When dry, we don masks and gloves again and package them in individual plastic bags. Masks are delivered with the following instructions:

Fabric Mask Use & Care

Fabric masks are not a substitute for medical grade masks but they offer some protection to people in non-medical essential services who may be exposed to infected individuals. They also can reduce the risk of transmission to others if you are infected but asymptomatic, and help you remember to not touch your face. It’s important to remember:

  • A fabric mask is NOT a substitute for social distancing and hand hygiene. Maintain those practices.
  • Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer before putting on or repositioning your mask.
  • Use BOTH ties — one high, one low — to secure the mask. A close fit offers the greatest protection. The mask should cover both your mouth and your nose.
  • Sanitize a fabric mask at least daily. 
  • You can sanitize by machine washing with hot water and detergent (but no fabric softener). Dry on hot setting (but no dryer sheet). However, masks with fabric ties can tangle in the wash. Here’s an alternative:
  • To sanitize by boiling, place mask in a pan of water. Bring to a full rolling boil. Boil 10 minutes. Remove from the hot water by carefully lifting the end of a tie with a clothespin or tweezers. Hang to dry in the sunshine if possible, or away from common areas if drying indoors.

While I sew, I have some time to reflect, which is much preferable to fretting, stewing and obsessing over things beyond my control. I have accepted that my stitching would not win a blue ribbon at the 4-H fair. With a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the neighboring county, it feels much more important to get these masks done than to try to make them perfect. 

The fair, and the hope of blue ribbons, only came around once a year. It was really important to farm kids like me. But maybe, now that I look back, not quite as important as the 4-H pledge, which we recited at every meeting year-round. Do you remember it?

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,

My heart to greater loyalty,

My hands to larger service,

and my health to better living,

for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural Langlade County, Wisconsin. Her instructions for sewing the simple 3-pleat face mask with ties are available here.