I had the good fortune to have a mother who was an excellent seamstress. She made most of the clothes my sister and I wore through middle school, back in the dark ages when girls were forbidden to wear pants to school (can you imagine!) and the length of your skirt was closely monitored. Lucky for me, my mom patiently taught me everything she knew about sewing. By the time I was in high school, dress codes eventually relaxed and I was soon making the obligatory dirndl skirt in Home Ec, but on my own time I also made mini skirts and granny gowns—quite the dichotomy—but that was the 70s for you. Exploring the internet in search of the perfect mask, I was thrilled to discover an amazing array of DIY mask tutorials from a wide array of sewists—including Marcy Harriell of Broadway fame who starred in In the Heights and Rent. Her tutorial on 3D masks is the uplifting video you didn’t know you needed.
My school requires everyone to wear masks all the time except when eating or in a dorm room (for students) or a private office (for faculty and staff). That means when it comes to masks, I’ve pretty much tried them all looking for a style that offers protection from COVID-19, doesn’t hinder my ability to breathe during normal activity, and allows others to understand me whether I’m teaching in front of a socially distanced classroom or helping a patron at the front desk. As our understanding of how the COVID-19 virus spreads has changed over time, I have found my requirements for my masks has changed with it. At the beginning of the year I felt fairly confident that sanitizing surfaces, washing my hands or using a hand-sanitizer religiously after touching any surface, and maintaining a social distance of six feet would keep me as safe as possible when we returned to on ground classes. I worked hard to keep my hands off my mask, remove it by the ear straps, and wash it as soon as I got home. I carried a couple spare masks and my biggest concern then was foggy glasses and a muffled voice.
Now that transmission of the virus through aerosols in closed spaces without adequate ventilation has been documented (see the recent editorial in The Lancet), I decided to see what I could do to improve or replace the masks I was using to protect myself from aerosol transmission. In the early months of mask wearing when we weren’t aware of this risk, I bought several brands trying to find the one that I could wear comfortably for a solid eight hours. Probably one of the biggest problems with trying out masks is that they understandably aren’t returnable—so I ultimately ended up buying quite a few that I never used and turned to sewing several different styles in my quest for the perfect fit: pleated, Olson, and 3D. I now wear all three and have found each has their positive points. And as with everything related to the pandemic, I try not to focus on the negative but look for solutions for the problem at hand.
For everyday wear, the pleated mask is my favorite: it’s comfortable, provides full coverage from the bridge of my nose to under my chin and most importantly, doesn’t slip as I talk, and can be sewn to include a filter pocket. A nose wire helps to secure the mask, but the real game changer is the addition of an inverted pleat at the top that makes foggy glasses a thing of the past. I came across this mask hack on UK artist Sophie Passmore’s YouTube channel and for those of you working with young children or others who need to lip read or see facial expressions, she has a tutorial for a fantastic 3D window mask. There are an unlimited number of mask tutorials on YouTube, you only have to search to find the one that suits your learning style. If you aren’t a sewist, there are also tutorials on sewing masks by hand, so don’t be deterred if you don’t have a sewing machine and are interested in creating your own.
Fit Over the Nose
Probably the most important thing I’m looking for is a secure fit of the mask around the bridge of my nose. I want a tight fit—the object being to block airborne particles. I find having an adjustable metal bar allows me to shape the mask to the contours of my face ensuring as snug a fit as possible. While I know this fit isn’t as secure as that of an N95 mask, I’m not working in a medical setting that requires an air-tight fit. Any flexible wire can be used, but I prefer to use aluminum nose wires that I purchase through Amazon. If you’re making your own mask, create a tube, insert the wire, then sew closed. I recommend using clips in place of pins to avoid making holes in your mask. You can also add nose wires to any masks you currently use as they have an adhesive back and will stick to your mask so you can get the fit you want.
The Olson mask was designed by Clayton Skousen & Rose Hedgesand, clinicians at Unity Point Health, and donated masks of this style are frequently used by hospital personnel as a protective barrier over their N95 masks. I usually need to make some adjustment to get this style pattern to fit properly as it doesn’t have the extra fabric afforded by the pleated style to accommodate variations in individual faces. The Olson mask is comfortable once you get the fit right (I added a side tuck) and is much easier to insert filters into than the pleated style.
If you teach or do any amount of public speaking, then you’re probably familiar with the sensation of eating the fabric of your face mask while gasping for air so you can project your muffled voice. Just think of all the new teaching skills we’ve learned in 2020! I tried various silicone mask brackets and they were effective at keeping the mask out of my mouth, but I found they made my voice sound even more muffled. Enter the 3D mask. This mask reminds me of origami in that the dimension is created by folding and sewing the fabric. I like this mask especially for teaching and found it the best one for creating some space between my mask and my face. But, it still wasn’t great and it moved in and out with each breath I took. Enter the 3D mask hack by Sophie Passmore. She posted a video using cable ties to create a permanent 3D area (see the link to her YouTube channel above). You create a channel at the top and bottom of the front of the mask and insert the cable tie. The tension on the ties results in them bowing out and is created when you fold the top and bottom to make the mask. It sounds more complicated than it is – watch the tutorial and see for yourself!
Filti Face Mask Filter
I came across the Filti site while looking for an an effective filter material to use that offered the best protection against aerosol transmission. Tests by an engineering team at Washington University found Filti to be 85% effective at filtering 300-nanometer particles. In comparison, N95 filters are 95% effective. I use Filti for the filters in my face masks and also make disposable-type masks for quick trips out using it in place of material. Instead of tossing it after use, I quarantine the filters and masks for seven days in a paper bag and reuse. After several uses, I also sterilize them in the oven following the instructions on the Filti site. I haven’t thrown any away yet, but when I do, I’ll remove the ear cords and reuse.
Stay Safe and Healthy
So whether you are a member of the DIY mask maker movement, support one of the many DIY mask makers on Etsy, or have found your perfect fit from a commercially made mask, stay safe and healthy, and please share your experience with masks as we’re all in this together and it looks like we’ll be wearing them for quite some time.
Links to Information and Material for Face Masks
The Use of Batik for Face Masks
Original Olson Mask Pattern link
Hospital Approved Mask Patterns
Batik Fat Quarters on Etsy (I usually can get three masks from one fat quarter)
Video by Lorri Nunemaker (with Olson and pleated mask patterns plus a 25% off coupon for Filti Face Mask Products)
We made the peasant shirt one year in sewing class, and the next year was the dirndl skirt—I want to be in woodworking, tho. Ah, the 70s and sexism. While I still have a sewing machine, remembering how to use it is another matter entirely! I use the cabinet as a table.
Anyway, I’ve worked in a few schools with fabric arts classes and this seems like a good project to take on. I bet students would wear them more than anyone in my school wore their home ec. clothes!
Wow, I forgot all about the cousin to the granny gown— the peasant shirt, haha. Yes, I don’t think I ever wore that dirndl skirt. You know, sewing is a bit like riding a bike—once you get on muscle memory carries you along!