Suburban Survivor: What I Learned Making Masks

A pioneer woman I ain’t. But this ‘rona demands I rustle up a few survival skills, pronto. The learning curve is steep, and there’s no sign it will flatten—even as those scary public health spikes begin to flatten and we work to start the economy again without triggering a public health disaster.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about making homemade masks. True confession: I had no intention of actually making masks. “I’m no good at sewing and I’m super busy,” I told myself. “I’ll just buy some cloth masks that clothing companies are beginning to make to sell to consumers.” But delivery times for any fabric mask I could find online are 6-8 weeks.

“Okay, I’ll pull together a makeshift mask for this week’s grocery errands,” I thought, stuffing a wad of shop towels into a gaiter and drawing the contraption up to just under my eyes. I soon discovered that this get-up is hot. It fogged up my glasses. And the shop towels slipped out of my respiratory area. For next week’s grocery run, I decided, I need something better.

Plus, I wanted to make masks for my young adult sons, a few of whom are suddenly “essential employees.” (Yeah, go figure. Thanks, Virus.) My sixteen-year-old works the drive-thru at the Chick fil-A, which provides gloves and masks to employees. A couple of other sons are out doing ding-dong-dashes that are now totally legit because ‘rona. The manager has arranged the shop and delivery processes so that social contact is nearly non-existent for drivers. But still, my guys are doing things like pumping gas as they’re out and about working. They were wearing bandannas Wild West bandit style, and I wanted to give them something that could easily hold a filter. Because teenagers and young adults often carry the virus unknowingly, homemade masks help to flatten the curve.

Sew Hard

So, I hauled out my $69 IKEA sewing machine, which I typically use for nothing more complicated than the straight, easy stitches that curtains, table runners, and throw pillows require. In contrast, my mom made nearly every piece of clothing I ever wore during the 70s and 80s—even hard-to-sew stuff like prom dresses. She taught me the basics and I helped with the simpler stuff. Clothing was more expensive relative to personal income, so sewing saved money, Now, not sew much.

For me, the hardest part of sewing is the spatial visualization and attention to detail. But I found a mask pattern that is doable for me, and even has a tutorial video to help you learn the hand-eye coordination required. Even so, I struggled y’all. I won’t bore you with all the details, but trust me: I survived a series of epic adventures, including the Great Bobbin Tangle of 2020.

5 Things Mask Making Taught Me about Self-Reliance & Community

 1. Skills you learned in the 1970s are suddenly relevant again.

 I’m 52, and childhood friends living around the country have remarked how much their 2020 neighborhoods suddenly resemble the small South Texas town we grew up in. More people are doing their own yard work. Socially-distanced packs of kids are out riding bikes and making hopscotch courts in the street, freed from packed extracurricular activity schedules.

This wacky return to the 1970s is happening in my own brain and spirit. I’m dredging up skills I learned during aimless summers long ago. As I dig down past what I’ve recently learned about mobile devices, big data, and all of this millennium’s complex shiny objects, I’m rediscovering the lessons I learned on my mom’s 1950s-era Singer. All over the country, Americans my age and older are resurrecting lessons from the past to make the best of our present.


2. You’re good enough.

 Masks made during the prototype and beta-testing phase were ugly, and I often felt inadequate. “Tsk-tsk, tsk-tsk,” my tired old iron would sputter disapprovingly during my struggles. “I haven’t seen a workout like this since you were ironing your homemade Laura Ashley knockoffs during the 80s,” the iron seemed to say. “Now I’m suddenly the most essential tool in the house.”

“This household would be acing this coronavirus mess if I were a better homemaker,” I’d think to myself as other little hot messes erupted around me. But I learned to put such self-scolding aside and just muddle through. The masks became better, and I was learning how to make them more quickly.

 3. Old-school scrounging.

 I had plenty of 100 percent cotton fabric lying around from an abandoned table runner project, but elastic or tie back just couldn’t be had in stores or online. So I dispatched my husband to scour the house for hacks. He inexplicably returned with a thick, gilded drapery cord he has in his home office drawer (?). But we also found flat shoelaces, holiday grosgrain ribbon, and hair ties that would do in a pinch.

In 2019, I’d felt guilty about not having gotten around to Kondo-ing my household. In 2020, clutter is cool. Lying amidst all the crap, I might just find what I need right now. I might even need that dumb drapery cord for something. I find myself thinking like my 83-year-old mother-in-law, who grew up in an immigrant family during the 30s and 40s and still saves every bread tie and plastic bag she encounters “down the cellar.”

 4. Good neighbors have your back.

 Once I’d finished masks for family in our local area, I wanted to make more. It felt comforting to sew something predictable in the evenings after days wrestling with all the challenges of helping a small business survive.

I assumed most people had been better organized and found the masks they needed. But just in case they hadn’t, I posted a note on my neighborhood’s Facebook group on the off chance someone needed some. Responses came back in droves, even from nurses working in facilities that haven’t been able to source PPE.

“I have tie-back material you can use,” one neighbor offered. “I’ll leave it on your porch.” Suddenly, I had this huge, miraculous roll of the stuff and there was no need to scrounge. A bias tape bonanza! Rejoice.

I discovered our neighborhood is hard at work making masks and scrub caps for essential employees, health care workers, and for anyone who needs to grocery shop. It’s a suburban, COVID-19 version of an Amish barn raising. Even people who “don’t sew” are becoming sous-seamstresses, cutting fabric and elastic so that the sewers can work more quickly. I’ve always known my neighbors are wonderful, and I can’t wait to meet those I’d never met before in person.

CREDIT: Kennette Watkins

5. Meditation for a resilient spirit.

 I’ve always heard that meditation is good for the body and spirit, but I’m too hyperactive to actually meditate. “Your mind is like a roving puppy,” a yoga teacher once told me.

But in sewing masks, I’ve found a “moving meditation.” Making masks demands just the level of attention that calms my frantic mind right now. When you’re focused on keeping your stitches straight, worries about your family, your business, and the whole world lift just a little. It prepares you for the sleep you need to face what comes at you the next day.

I worry about the physical, emotional, and economic well-being of people around the world—people far less fortunate than I am who are facing challenges I can’t even imagine. I say my prayers for a bright future for them, and for all of us. I look forward to the day when I put away the sewing machine that’s taken up permanent residence on our kitchen table, as well as the ironing board sulking in a spot where I’ve always wanted to put a bar cart. But before I do that, I’ll sew a table runner from my mask scraps to always remind me what we’re learning right now.



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