I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about masks over the past month. This seeming obsession began well before the COVID-19 outbreak began to wreck havoc on our lives. This semester, I have been teaching an Italian literature course called “Creativity in the Modern Age.” The idea was not my own – in fact, the course was not my own, I was thrown into it by accident after the semester had already begun – but I’ve adopted the subject with fervor, even though the Modern Age is certainly not “my age.” I’m thoroughly medieval, in case you didn’t know! So, as a part of our course, we are studying Luigi Pirandello‘s most famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author. This play, dating to 1921, is a thoroughly avant-garde tour-de-force of absurdist metatextuality. The six characters of the title crash the rehearsal of a play and demand that the actors and producer instead put on a rendition of their story. And what a story it is! I won’t say much more, because I encourage you to read this fascinating work for yourself and let me know how you feel about it.
The stage directions recommend that the characters wear masks that embody their emotional state. With this in mind, I wanted my students to explore the interconnected ideas of masks and identity expression. I purchased white papier maché masks and various craft supplies, and I was so excited to have my students work on this project together. Then COVID-19 completely changed life as we know it. I now find myself teaching online, with my students scattered all over the US, and my unfortunate mask project had to be shelved.
But my relationship with masks was far from over! When I was still driving into work, in mid-March, I was extremely concerned with our large staff and inability to social distance in the office. I decided that wearing a mask just made sense. I knew this wasn’t the popular “opinion” at that time – we in the US had been told that masks did more harm than good, and besides, there were absolutely none to be found anywhere. However, the reason I felt a mask was so important was that it would keep me from touching my nose and mouth at work. I am hugely guilty of rubbing my nose, touching my face, rubbing my eyes, playing with my hair…I knew I’d be a walking disaster at work. So, as I often do in times of trouble, I turned to fiber arts for a solution.
At that point, fabric mask patterns were not widely available on the internet. I was able to track down one pattern on a personal Facebook page, with directions all in Chinese. With the help of Google Translate, I was able to make sense of the pattern and sew a few for myself. They were far from perfect, but they did the job. I was able to custom tailor their fit by making darts at the top and bottom edges.
The problem with this mask pattern was that it is very labor intensive. I did make six more, spending almost 2 hours on each, and I have given them to family and friends. However, I wanted to find a better, simpler, more efficient pattern to try.
Yesterday a friend of mine posted this pattern, and today I decided to give it a try. With some tweaking, I was able to make a workable mask for my immediate family members, and I will continue to make more, which I can donate to my local hospital and other essential workers in need.
What I have found with the pattern in the above link is that it turns out rather small. When I first sewed the child size for my son, the final product would have fit a toddler. So, I added one inch of fabric to the bottom of the mask (just cut the mask pattern and add an extra inch, continuing the curve at the front part of this extra inch). I also sewed most seams at 3/8″ instead of 1/2″.
I also added one layer of quilt batting to the inside of the mask, and sewed it in to the mask itself. Quilt batting is a non-woven, thick washable filter and adds another layer of protection between the wearer and the pathogen.
For the nose wire, I scrounged around in our craft supplies for a while, and I finally settled on a double wire. The first is fabric-covered floral wire, meant for making silk flower arrangements. It has the benefit of being flexible and soft. To this we added a second copper wire. Copper has been proven to have repellent effects against coronavirus, and so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to add a bit of copper to the mask. We had no copper wire on hand, so we stripped the outer plastic coating from copper stereo cable and wrapped the inner copper filaments around the floral wire. We looped the two ends over, and whip-stitched the wire to the inside of the mask in three places – at each end, through the loops, and then at the center. We stitched the wire near the top seam of the mask, over the nose.
Finally, I used beading cord for the ear elastics. I fed it through the elastic casings using a yarn needle, and tied it together for easy adjustment.
The results are a workable and comfortable mask – though it is quite hot, we can breathe through it easily. It puckers a bit at the sides, where the elastic cinches the mask, but the mask makes complete contact around the face, closer to the center.
I hope you all are faring well, and, if possible, you can put your interest in fiber arts to good use to make masks for yourself and for others in need. If you do not know how to sew, please do a little poking around online. I have seen several great ideas for making a mask which do not involve any sewing!
Please stay safe, and hold your families close!