November 20, 2020

My adventure in mask making: over 4,000 masks made!

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Anyone who has ever sewn, crafted, or even just looked at fabric once in their life was called to action earlier this year. Being a production seamstress, I make large numbers of items for wholesale to my clients. I never knew how much that training would come into play when fabric masks became a hot item in March. I was working such long hours, I barely had time to eat or change clothes.

By the end of September, I had made over 4,000 masks! I stopped counting at that point. Thankfully the demand subsided and I was able to get back to a normal schedule that included showering and eating regularly.

I wanted to write to my Aunt during the craziness and let her know what I had been up to, but I just couldn't squeeze it in. My dad types at the speed of light, so I commissioned him to type the audio recording that I had recorded on my phone while ironing masks. This is the letter that I sent to my Aunt.

"Monday, April 6

Dear Aunt Barbara,

I have been meaning to write to you for the longest time and something just keeps getting in the way. You know… moving, home improvements, chickens, my family, life! I have a lot to tell you, so I figured out something. I'll tell you why I am so very busy in a minute. I am recording your letter on my phone and sending it to Dad and he is going to transcribe it for me. So this is a group effort.

You will not believe the week I’ve have had. Actually, it has only been three days but it is hard to tell how long it has been and for that matter even what day it is! We have been self-quarantined since the Fifteenth of March. We are very fortunate that we can both work from home and we are having everything delivered. Of course, Clark was already home-schooled so we didn’t have to make a change there.

Early on, as this Pandemic spread and PPE became scarce, I had contacted the local hospitals telling them that I am a production seamstress and offered to help them with the mask shortage. They all said that they could only use manufactured masks that were produced under specific guidelines, but "thank you anyway." One hospital even told me that they were receiving donated home-made masks and they were accepting them just for the benefit of those who donated them because the donators feel like they were helping, but they were not even using them. Unbelievable! So, I was not making face masks. The hospitals wouldn’t use them and they were not recommended by the CDC and there were even some studies that said it could be dangerous to wear a cloth face mask because they trap moisture.

But on Friday, April 3, the media began to say that masks were suggested for everyone, even a seemingly healthy person. Some businesses also started requiring their workers to wear face coverings all the time. Friday afternoon I saw online that someone had posted a request for fabric face masks. I responded that I had some and as soon as I did that someone else asked for one too. So I told them I would put them in a basket on my front porch. I put out 21 masks and they were gone in MINUTES. So, I went to my sewing room and started making more but I couldn’t make them fast enough. My sewing room looks out over my front walk and driveway. There are flower boxes under the windows on the second floor and they cast a shadow that allows me to see out while I’m working but the people outside can’t see in. People would come up the drive and I’d yell out the window and ask them how many they needed. I would reply: “Okay, I can have those in a minute, if you can wait.” So, I would finish the number I needed and throw them out my door into the basket and then go back to the window and tell them to help themselves. Then I worked on more until the next person came up my driveway. So I asked Lawrence if he would mind if I offered cloth masks to our neighborhood. He suggested that I wait for the CDC to make an official statement, which they finally did late that evening.

I don’t know if you are familiar or if you even have the app “Next Door”. People post information about the neighborhood and offer things for sale. It’s kind of like classified ads online but just for your immediate neighborhood. I have found lots of great bargains there! On Friday, as soon as the CDC put out their recommendation, I posted on the Next Door app that I was going to make available cloth masks for anyone who needed it. I was offering these to the neighborhood free. I told them if someone wanted to contribute they could but I wasn’t going to require it. You’re not supposed to call them masks because masks are meant to protect you and these are really meant to protect other people. I said in my post: “I’ll have masks available and I’ll keep making them as long as people need them or at least as long as I can. “ Remember, I am a wholesale seamstress and I just make the same thing over and over every day and so I am fast and efficient at that process. I also have a FAST industrial machine. This is right up my alley. I wanted to help in any way I could. Within a few hours of posting the ad there were over 300 requests for face coverings!!!! I had to start scheduling them. I hated to make people wait, but they were so appreciative to get the masks that they were glad to wait. So I started scheduling 100 a day which seemed reasonable. Of course, I was also going to have to keep up with my regular clients and at some point I was just going to have to stop and see how much fabric and supplies I have. I contacted those 300 people and scheduled them through Monday. I was up until 2:30 am getting Saturday’s orders ready. I put them on my porch and people were picking them up all day. I was getting concerned because it was a creating a little bottle neck and I wanted to be sure these people were social distancing!

Saturday night I got to bed a little earlier, about 12:30. (Note from the Transcriber: She didn’t tell her DAD she was keeping such hours, he just now found out!)

Even after working so steady for two days, when I got to bed I was worrying about the people getting too close to each other when picking up their masks. I laid awake until I figured out a solution. I had two large, refrigerator size, boxes so I got up and went to the garage. I inserted one down into the other. I cut a slit it for contributions.

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Sunday morning, I opened the garage door to set out my new giant box with all the day’s orders on it. Then, I noticed something on my front porch. Someone had left a big bag of fabric and a jar of local honey. The honey had a mask request attached to it, but they said "no hurry". I’m going to order some bee fabric to make their masks. I cannot begin to tell you how sweet and neighborly everyone has been. Their kindness kept me in tears. Well, probably that and the lack of sleep. Sunday, I saw someone come up to the box to get their mask and they left a balloon bouquet. Of course, I just sat and cried again. I did get to wave to them but they didn’t leave a note and I still don’t know who they are.

I kept taking orders and by Sunday night I had reached 800 orders so I had enough to schedule the whole week. The Yarn Sales Representative that I had been making samples for lost her job. Since she now has lots of time she offered to respond to the requests and take orders and schedule them and then just send me a spread sheet so I would know how many to make each day. She had to go back and figure which of the 800 orders I had scheduled, but she sorted all of that out for me. One lady messaged that she was going thru chemo, we moved her to the top of the list. However, in the shuffle we lost her contact info, and had no way to get back to her. Finally, Dawn, the Rep, found this lady. She was very pleased to get her mask right away. It was a wonder we ever found her, and I don’t know how Dawn did it because all we knew was her first name Ka. Yea, that’s how she spelled it, not much to go on! It turned out her name was Karen, it was a typo on the message that she didn’t fix. Even now, and even though I have taken down the original post I am still getting calls by the minute. I just forward them to Dawn and she has set up pickups through another week. I get faster each day, but I cannot begin to respond to the messages and text. It’s a good thing Dawn is helping.

Again, I could not even tell you how gracious and kind and supportive most everybody has been. People have left so many kind notes and cards, which all have to be sanitized before I can read them. Their kind words are what keep me going, and crying, each day.

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Of course, there is always an exception. There have been a couple of people asking silly questions or making special requests. One lady wanted to know what the thread count is on the fabric I'm using.

A couple of other interesting calls. One was from a non-profit who requested 100 masks, so that was one day of sewing. A local veterinarian gave all of her manufactured and approved masks to the hospital and then ordered “face coverings” from me for her practice. She was featured on the news today, because she had helped out the hospital. I happened to see it when it aired; I’m watching lots of news now days. It was a nice little news piece. She texted me immediately after to apologize that they didn’t include me. She said: “I promise that I mentioned you and I gave them your name and information but they cut all of that out. I promise and I am so, so sorry that they didn’t mention you. “ I told her that was not a problem. I am not doing this to advertise my business and right now it’s better if I don’t get any more publicity!

Dad suggested that I put “the boy” to work so I hired Clark. ( Note from the Transcriber: In the recording Jaymi said that it was Dawn’s suggestion, but It was mine. No hard feelings she’s too tired to remember!) He works an hour or two a day and I PAY HIM $20 an hour so he should have a good amount in his piggybank when and if this ever ends. He has been incredibly helpful. He turns the face coverings inside out, cuts threads, labels the bags with customers' names and even cleans my sewing room. He vacuumed for me the other day and sucked up my cloth measuring tape so it cost me that, but I’m okay with it, he is so much help. The other morning he worked for two hours while he sat on the couch and watched TV so it’s a pretty good gig for both of us.

I ordered 32 yards of fabric yesterday. I ordered 500 yards (that was all they had) of bias tape which should be very helpful since I have been making it…cutting, folding, ironing….this should be much faster. I have just been using my fabric stash up until now which it turns out was much larger than I realized. I’m really not counting the money, I don’t have time to sanitize it. But I can tell that people are being generous.

It is now Tuesday April 7. Last night was the first night I got to bed on time. I finished up by 10 pm and went to bed at 11pm. I think I have a good routine going since I don’t have to manage the calls and orders. That’s allows me to keep sewing and be productive and occasionally take a shower!

My neighbor had commented on the post, requesting masks, but he was way down in the post so he hadn’t been scheduled. I saw his wife come across the street and look at the masks that were out. I grabbed a couple of masks and packaged them up. He was in the yard when I went out but I stayed on my side of the street. I yelled: “Hey, I’m gonna throw these at you” I checked the traffic and threw them at him. He said: “Thanks” and we talked for a few minutes. When I threw them, I had stepped into the street a bit and didn’t move back out of the street. I almost got run over. (Note from Transcriber: Just so you know, I taught my daughter NOT TO PLAY IN TRAFFIC and stay in your own yard!)

If you are wondering how I make these masks ( since you know about sewing) I cut one 14”x 8” rectrangle, fold it in half, right sides together and sew the short sides together then flip it right side out and iron it and add a single 3”x 8” box pleat in the middle. Next, I make the ear loops with 34” binding strips that I have cut and then zig-zaged all the way down the length of the binding, I stop in the middle and attach one side of the mask and continue on and sew the binding on the other side. The trick to being fast is called “chain piecing”, you never take that first piece off the sewing machine you just add the 2nd piece and keep going and then when you are done you clip everything. (Note from Transcriber: Isn’t she clever?!?)

Today it is about six o’clock and I am almost done. That's my hundred for the day!

Wednesday, April 8

We are now in the lowest part of the house. We have lost electricity and cell service. Losing cell service is the strangest of all things! Dad and Clark were supposed to watch LEGO MASTER together via FaceTime at 9pm. That was exactly when the power went out. (Note from Transcriber: Clark was interested in the storm he didn’t think about missing Papa. Papa, on the other hand, was not happy!) We slept down stairs because of the storms. Strong winds and hail. About 3 am I woke up to the sound of our air conditioner coming back on. Everything was fine with us. Lots of limbs in the back yard. In the neighborhood everyone’s trampolines had blown down all over the place. One was even on the top of a two story house. On one nearby road nine electric poles in a row had been blown down. We suspect a small tornado but that hasn’t bend confirmed yet. We’re thankful that we’re okay and that we have power because lots of people still don’t.

Thursday, April 9

Because of the power outage I had to put out a sign that explained that I was unable to complete the day’s orders. Up until now, I had been packaging the masks by order and putting the person's name on the package. Today, though, I just put them out without names. I think that will work better so I can continue to put them out throughout the day and not have to have all orders out at the same time. Less stressful!

I am going to have Dawn schedule the next week for only 60 a day, so I can better keep up with my regular clients. I have also started ironing two strips of bias tape at a time and that makes me faster.

Note from transcriber:

This letter has a couple of accompaniments. Or maybe one of them came with this letter. Any way, two things coming that I hope you enjoy. Please be diligent in taking care of yourself.

Love from ALL of us"

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Thankfully the fervor eventually died down and I was able to get back to a relatively normal schedule. I still have the occasional request for masks, but nothing like before. I am so very thankful to my neighbors who kept me going with their notes, messages, and kind words. And I am thankful to my mom who taught me to sew when I was little. Who would have known that our "old-fashioned" skills would come into play in such an important way. Recently, I've been working on restocking my fabric stash. :)