COVID-19 Mask Makers Are Part Of A Bigger History

May 22, 2020

As the U.S. struggles with shortages of personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, volunteers have jumped into action. Around the country people are sewing masks, for healthcare workers and community members at risk for contracting COVID-19. But sewing for a cause fits into a much bigger history.

“I started making masks for my husband, who was a healthcare health care worker,” Karina Neill said. “And then for my elderly neighbors, and more friends. And then the doctor, he asked me if I can help them make masks out of OR [surgical] drape. And at that point, they're like, well, I will need help for this.”

Neill lives in Carterville. A photographer whose business has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, she now leads a sewing group of 11 women who have made hundreds of masks for the community.

The women don’t meet in person to sew. But the volunteer work they’re doing is part of a long history of women taking up needles and thread as an act of service.

Laura Kidd is a professor with the Fashion Design and Merchandising program at Southern Illinois University. She said this kind of work goes back to the very founding of America.

“During the revolutionary before and during the Revolutionary War, it became an act of patriotism for women to spin their own, spin their own yarns and produce their own clothing, [both] the cloth and then the clothing,” Kidd said.

At the time, and for much of history, most women knew how to knit and sew. Large-scale efforts to make needed goods continued to happen during wartime. Women would knit socks and bandages for soldiers who needed them.

The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic also prompted the Red Cross to encourage women to sew masks — something Kidd said is very similar to what’s happening today.

“Because there are many people that were against wearing masks but many people thought that wearing masks was good. So there was still that kind of fight. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to wear?”

Over time, though, these kinds of efforts became less common. Wartime supplies came from industry, not individuals. Handcrafts also lost popularity, said Kidd.

“When World War Two ended, all of these hand crafts sort of fell by the way, it kind of was relegated and it wasn't really considered patriotic to knit anymore,” Kidd said. “It was just sort of forgotten or ignored.”

Knitting and sewing have seen a surge of renewed interest in recent years. Neill said she learned to sew when her daughter was younger and wanted a pink coat. After failing to find one in stores, Neill Learned to sew and designed one herself.

Then, years later, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“To be honest, I have never made masks before. But since I knew the basics of sewing, I said like I don't think it's gonna be difficult, and it's not,” Neill said.

Neill’s sewing ladies make two varieties of masks. One for anyone in need and the other for healthcare workers. The first type is made from regular cotton fabric. Neill donates these to anyone who needs one — elderly neighbors, police officers, essential workers.

The supplies are donated, dropped off on front porches or picked up from local sewing stores who have offered supplies.

Chuck Clark owns Calico Country Sew and Vac in Carbondale. He started offering fabric packs left outside the store.

“It's totally on the honor system. There's a box on the front porch. And there's a sign on the box that says that there's bags for making masks for healthcare workers,” Clark said.

Clark said his store could have remained open during the lockdown in Illinois.

“We have been told that we could be open because we had supplies that were necessary for mask making. Our staff is in the high risk category most of them, so it's not worth it's not worth the risk. This is our alternative,” Clark said.

Volunteers like Neill have picked up the fabric and distributed masks around the region. Other fabric has come from local sewers, along with elastic and wire needed to make more closely fitted masks.

The second type of mask Neill makes are for healthcare workers. Those use surgical drape from Southern Illinois Healthcare and go to the staff there.

“They are also scared of being infected, they also have families to go back to, and maybe just a little mask, like kind of gonna brighten up their day,” Neill said. “Because somebody's thinking about them. Somebody is caring about them.”