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Now that we have experienced life during a pandemic, there are a lot of things that have permanently changed for us. COVID-19 has done a lot of damage across the world, and human behavior during today’s pandemic has been both fascinating and disappointing to watch. Particularly in the USA. Seriously people, we can do better!
It’s clear that face masks should be worn outside of our homes and in public places, especially where social distancing is difficult to maintain like in grocery stores. Face masks feel especially critical for us here in Arizona where we are currently spending a couple of months and where COVID-19 is surging. Our face masks actually feel like they are just about the most important things we have because we are in an area with significant community transmission.
One of the simplest things we can do in terms of our own behavior, is wear face masks to keep other people safe. So we decided to add a bunch of face masks to our wardrobe, and to our packing list as well. They are relatively inexpensive and simple to make. They can be washed and reused. There are tons of different patterns and instructions online. They can also be made from common materials, such as clothing and material we already own.
Related post: Ode to Packing (during a pandemic)
Looking at History
Between 1918 and 1919 an H1N1 influenza pandemic spread worldwide and infected about 500 million people, which was a third of the world’s population at that time. According to the CDC, there were at least 50 million deaths worldwide and about 675,000 deaths in the US. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the “Influenza Mask Ordinance” was first passed in San Francisco. And similar requirements were adopted in states all over the USA after that. That history sounds so familiar right now. We do have a history of requiring face masks during a pandemic in the USA! 100 years later, COVID-19 feels new and unique to us because the last time we took a pandemic seriously here in the USA was not in living memory for most people.
Getting Used to Face Masks
We saw people wearing face masks on occasion in the USA. When we started traveling to other countries in 2014, we realized wearing face masks was more common in other places. In fact lots of people have been wearing face masks on a regular basis for the past couple decades. Events like the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak and the 2006 avian flu pandemic were enough to teach people in many different countries about the value of face masks. And now it’s time for people in the USA to get back on board with the idea of wearing face masks. Especially during pandemics.
The first time we wore face masks ourselves was in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2019. As soon as the annual burning season started the sky turned orange and every single local person we saw was wearing a mask. So we bought N95 masks to help us cope with the heavy ash and smoke in the air when we were outside. We actually ended up wearing masks inside the apartment as well when we noticed the air quality was bad enough to leave a film of ash on the coffee table. When we left Thailand we still had an unopened bag of N95 masks and I kept that safely stowed in a pocket in my suitcase as we kept traveling. Just in case.
Related post: 3 Weeks in Chiang Mai
We were in Mexico from end of December 2019 until early May 2020, and as COVID-19 became a pandemic, we were paying very close attention as things evolved. Starting in March of 2020 we were ready to start wearing face masks again. We stopped by a couple of pharmacies but there were no medical masks available where we were staying at that time, so we pulled out our unopened package of N95 masks. But after talking to my two sisters who work in healthcare we decided to save those masks for our eventual flight back to the US from Mexico. So at that point we wore our bandanas folded into face masks and we used rubber bands around our ears from when we bought broccoli at the grocery store to hold the bandanas in place.
When we arrived back in the US my sister Becky was anxiously waiting to help take care of us. Before we arrived at our Airbnb for a two week self imposed quarantine, my sister had deposited a supply of medical masks along with two weeks of food and cleaning supplies for us, which was amazing. We wore our medical masks on walks around the park next door, and quickly realized how easy it is to use up paper medical masks. They are designed to be worn for a single day and then disposed of, which is not realistic in the current situation. We’d rather leave those masks for healthcare professionals, including my sister and brother in law in California, my sister in Texas, and my brother in New Mexico. Medical masks are critical for healthcare professionals to safely do their jobs. We don’t want to contribute to a mask shortage that puts healthcare professionals at risk.
Related post: Our Trip Back to the US During COVID-19
Personalizing Face Masks
While we were still in self-imposed quarantine my sister and brother in law went and got us our first set of cloth masks at their local farmer’s market. We were thrilled to wear our new cloth masks, but they didn’t fit perfectly so we started trying to figure out how we could make them fit better. I decided to order elastic cord material for the ear loops, which helped a ton! I cut new longer loops for Alison and new smaller loops for me, and then our masks were much more comfortable.
A couple weeks later our friend Cathy, who we met in Germany and lives in the same town as my sister Becky, gave us a gift. Cathy made a pair of cloth masks just for us in two different sizes, since we are such different sizes ourselves. Cathy said she had been making masks using a template she found online. And Cathy made a couple of really important improvements that we have adopted.
With that fabulous extra cord it’s easier to take your mask on and off without touching the face of your mask, and without needing to put it down on other surfaces when you don’t need your mask on your face. Having my mask around my neck makes it feel like a more essential and permanent part of my outfit, and my routine. We aren’t supposed to touch our faces, and I don’t want to touch my mask unnecessarily either. I especially don’t want to take my mask off and stuff it in a cup holder in the car, or in my pocket, or in my backpack.
I think this extra loop around the neck is brilliant! I want my mask with me and on me all the time when I’m out, even if I don’t need it on my face at the moment. When we go out the door for any reason, including walks in the neighborhood or in the woods, I like being able to have my mask around my neck so I can pull it up over my nose quickly if I see a group of people who are not social distancing. And when I’m getting in and out of the car to go shopping for groceries I can pull my mask up or down very easily by the ear loops without touching the face of my mask. This very simple improvement is something anyone can do to the masks you buy.
If you have access to a sewing machine…
We have access to a sewing machine when we are with Alison’s mom in Arizona. She’s a very crafty lady and she always does a little mending for us as well as some creative sewing projects when we are together. We took 81 year old Mom out of her retirement community in Tempe in early June, so she could avoid the alarming community spread of COVID-19 there. And we made sure to bring her 64 year old Singer Featherweight portable sewing machine along to Flagstaff with us so we could make face masks together.
This is where I turn the post over to our guest blogger, Alison’s Mom Libby! Or Mib as I like to call her. She’s going to explain the process of making our new custom face masks.
Notes from Mom:
Before you begin, read through to the end. It helps you decide what type of cord materials to use and how many beads you need.
Supplies for one mask:
- Two small pieces of cotton, at least 11″x16″ each’
- One 4.5″ tin tie from a coffee bag (if you want to buy in bulk, we ordered these tin ties).
- Narrow elastic cord (we ordered this cord), or narrow strips of cotton knit cut crossways from old t-shirts (see below, under “adjustable cords and beads”).
- Beads with 4 mm holes, two for the ear cords plus additional beads for decoration (see note at the end).
- Small safety pin for pulling the ear cords through the side casings of the mask.
We made lined masks with two pattern pieces. The outside is the larger piece. The inside is the smaller lining piece. We customized the patterns by measuring the distance between the tip of our nose and the tip of our chin. Then we transferred those measurements to both pattern pieces. We made sure to talk while taking the measurements, since the distance from nose to chin is longer when we open our mouths.
We used cotton fabric, and washed it first. It was fun to pick a few pieces of fabric from Mom’s stash, and hear the story of each one. The winner was a piece Alison picked that was originally part of a skirt her Mom first wore 40 years ago. After we used up all of Mom’s stash of material we went to the fabric store and bought more. For some masks we duplicated the same fabric for the inside and outside, and for others we used different fabric for the outside and inside liner to make things more fun.
Mom’s Mask Recipe:
- Place patterns on the fold of the fabric as indicated.
- Cut one outside and one inside lining piece.
- Mark sewing lines for the nose and chin, noting the arrows and where they stop on the nose.
- Start with the nose and chin. With right sides (the printed or pretty sides) of each piece together, fold along the nose and chin lines.
- Pin the outside piece at the pointed end of the arrow, which indicates the end of the stitching on the nose.
- Stitch the outside piece following the direction of the arrows, stopping at the pin.
- For the inside lining, you can stitch the entire line.
- Use an iron to press each piece.
- Start with the outside piece, with the wrong side (the plain or less pretty side) toward you, with the nose up.
- Fold the edge over along the top of the mask.
- Add pins except at the bridge of the nose.
- Holding the outside piece with the right side toward you, pull the ends of the mask out until a V forms at the bridge.
- Check the wrong side to see that the pleats on each side of the V have formed evenly.
- Press firmly with your fingers.
- On the right side, stitch the folds of the pleats in place.
Fit the two pieces together:
- Fit the inside lining piece into the outside piece, making sure the lining is pushed all the way in, with even borders of the outside piece showing.
- Make sure the pieces have the wrong sides together.
- Make sure the noses are together, and the chins are together.
- Pin in place.
- Fold the top edge of the nose over twice toward the lining to form the casing.
- Make sure the casing is just wide enough to accommodate the tin tie which you will insert later where the casing passes over the bridge of the nose.
- When the casing fold is flat, press and pin it.
- Sew casing leaving a gap over the nose so you have a place to insert the tin tie.
- Insert a 2 1/4” piece of tin tie, which is half of a tin tie from a coffee bag, and center it.
- Sew carefully along the gap to complete the casing. Do not sew through the tin tie!!
- Sew across the casing at each end of the tin tie to keep it in place. Do not sew through the tin tie!!
- The chin is in some ways easier than the nose because it’s not used as a casing. But it’s still a pain in the neck!
- Folding the chin edge involves a lot of fabric. You have to fold it and ease it together, and swear a little in the process.
- Fold twice, press, pin, and sew as you did for the nose.
- Finally, the easy part!
- Fold, press, and pin each side of the mask to make a casing for the ear cord.
Adjustable cords and beads:
- Use elastic cord (we ordered this cord) or make cords from cotton knit or old t-shirts.
- Sizing is tricky. Two cords must fit inside the beads you are using.
- When cutting cotton knit, cut across the fabric because it has the most stretch. Knit will not ravel, so a narrow strip will fold in on itself and make a very satisfactory cord.
- If using cotton knit, cut 1/2” wide strips in the stretchiest direction of the knit. You will need to experiment, so test the knit to determine the direction of the stretch and what width of the strip that, when doubled, will fit into your bead.
- Cut two ear cords and one neck cord.
- We used 10″ long strips for the ears.
- We used 15″ long strips for the neck for Ali, and 20″ long strips for the neck for Alison.
- If using elastic, the same lengths should be adequate.
Attaching ear cords to your mask:
- If you’re using t-shirt cords, the more you pull on the cords the more they will roll up and stretch into slender cords.
- To pull cords through, attach a safety pin to one end and feed it through the casing so you can pull the cord through.
- If adding decorative beads in addition to an adjusting bead, do it now! We bought a wide variety of types of beads just to make things fun (including these beads).
- Add the decorative beads before you place the adjustable bead.
- We put the decorative beads at the lower part of the ear cords, close to the mask.
- Force both ends of the cord into the adjusting bead.
- Repeat on the other side of mask.
- Ali’s trick for getting two cords of t-shirt material through the beads was to pull one cord through, then nest the second cord in the first one and pull it through.
Last but not least…
- Try on the mask and adjust the cords to fit comfortably over your ears.
- Attach the neck cord and adjust accordingly for length. You can tie the ends of the neck cord to each ear loop. Or loop the neck cord through ear loops and tie the ends together.
- Tie the ends of elastic or knit to prevent fraying or unraveling, or merely as a decorative finish.
- Now put on your mask and carry on!
That’s it! Mask up!
My parting message for this post is that masks are here to stay if you care about other people, your family, and your community. I would never want to put my family in danger by exposing them to infection. And I will treat other people’s families the same way. That’s why we want to have a bunch of different masks to choose from, and why we always wear our masks if we might be around other people.
Remember to treat your mask like you treat your face – don’t touch your mask if you don’t have to! Face masks are basically sponges for whatever they come in contact with, both inside and outside. So try not to touch your mask when you are out and about. Disinfect your hands immediately if you do touch your mask. And make sure to wash your masks on a regular basis.