Mask Makers Help Keep Health Care Workers Safe

May 12, 2020

Both small businesses and individuals have enlisted in an effort to help hospitals, doctors' offices  and  employees of other institutions to protect themselves from the coronavirus by making reusable cloth masks, gowns or other protective equipment.

Columbia's Soda City Sewing is one such small business.  Normally a maker of custom children's clothing, it diverted most of its staff to making masks, and has produced thousands since late March.  Owner Bayne Dangerfield was inspired by the situation of a Massachusetts hospital, which asked local seamstresses for help.  She posted on Facebook a request for friends to let her know what offices might need masks, "and the response was immediately overwhelming."

Like many producers of specialty equipment, Dangerfield ran up against some supply problems, as the surge in mask making across the country has resulted in shortages of thread, elastic and fabric.  "But luckily," she laughed, "I have a lifetime supply of fabric, as many seamstresses do.  So we've been cutting through all the fabrics that I have here."

The shop's supply problem was shared by individual mask maker Nancy Underwood, who - full disclosure - is this writer's wife.  She turned a shortage into innovation when she, too, discovered that elastic for the masks' ear loops is very hard to get right now.  "It's like gold.  I found there was very little available.  So I kinda researched a little bit and I found that people prefer ties rather than elastic, because they say that elastic bothers their ears...after they've been wearing it for awhile.   So I thought, well, I'll just go with the traditional kind of mask that has ties." 

Scarce fabrics also forced Underwood to improvise.  "I didn't have a lot of fabric that was tightly woven enough...so I just found some sheets that I had never used, and I thought the sheets were more tightly woven and the thread count was higher so  that would be better filters." 

Speaking of filters, both women designed their masks with pockets on the inside so an additional filter can be placed in them for added safety. 

Underwood is making masks for a Columbia nursing home staff that was provided no masks, and Dangerfield's larger operation is making hundreds of masks per week for a variety of institutions, she said.  "We've sent them to veterinarian offices, to hospitals.  My pediatrician got an order of 50, different offices.  That way they can save their N95 specialty masks...that are so precious for people that face the disease right up front." 

Dangerfield is selling masks to individuals to enable her to pay her seamstresses, so she can then donate most of her masks to health care providers.  Both women said they expect to keep making masks as long as there's a need for their services.