"I ain't making no stinking masks"
Hungarians making masks in a sterile environment
I feel the need to explain my ambivalence about all the publicity with regards to encouraging volunteers to create home made masks for health care professionals to protect them against the Coronavirus.
Before I begin, let me give you a little background:
My grandfather Ernest Shardlow came to Philadelphia with his family from the UK as a prepubescent. With very little education, he started working at the Frankford Arsenal as a teenager and worked his way up to become a Federal Inspector. He spent his career as a US Civilian working for the US military. He traveled the United States and the world, sometimes going to remote locations to ensure that companies who were commissioned by the US government were following specs, standards, and protocol.
His son, my father, became an engineer working in the Aerospace industry. Most of the companies that employed him were smaller businesses filling contracts given to them by the US government. He'd often talk about the strict guidelines he had to follow to ensure the quality of everything he worked on.
For two generations, my family made it's livelihood by following standards set by the Federal Government.
My father and his parents during World War 2 on one of my Grandfather's
rare visits home during the war.
Now what does this have to do with COVID-19 and face masks?
Early in March (which feels like a life time ago), our friend David walks into our house with his bulldog, Butch, and announces that I should start making masks, claiming that I'd make a small fortune. I laughed at his naivete and said that anything I created would be nothing more than a "fashion accessory."
I went on to say, "If it were only that simple. This is not a home sewing project, this is serious business and there should be science and strict guidelines behind it."
Then it started: The social media onslaught to create masks for hospitals and healthcare providers.
As a fashion designer, I'm knowledgeable about fabrics and have a very specific skill set.
Manufacturing masks to protect healthcare providers (and eventually the rest of us) from the Corona virus is not one of them.
This is life and death and needs to be done in a controlled, sterilized setting.
In this time of economic insecurity caused by the pandemic, the government must commission and fund manufacturers of face masks (in the US of course) so that the health care professionals on the front lines will have access to a professional, safe, sterilized product that will in turn provide income and jobs to people.
I have nothing but good will for the "people" (mostly women... I'll get into that later) who have answered the call to produce masks. Some are dusting off hardly used sewing machines, while some are sewing for the first time. Kudos to them.
I understand the need for action in this time of uncertainty. We all feel we have no control and taking action is a way to empower ourselves and create a sense of community. If it makes us feel better, by all means, go ahead make them, give them to your friends and family (have them wash them first!!!), but let's not be distracted away from the real issues at hand nor delude ourselves into thinking that this is a way to combat the pandemic.
My major concern is that these homemade masks will make the problem worse while conveying a sense of false security.
I asked my neighbor (from a safe distance of course!) Jennifer Diabo, MD, FAAP. And Medical Director Premier Pediatrics.
She says that this is a topic that has been brought up in her doctor circles.
I'm just going to quote her directly since she's the health care professional.
"Cloth masks, unfortunately do not offer the level of personal protection that Medical Providers need. Medical providers need and require to protect themselves from being infected with Coronavirus.
Cloth masks do not have filters and can actually increase the rate of infection from viral pathogens. They are not sterile and there is a concern that they can harbor certain pathogens. We need to keep pressing the hospital administrators and government to ensure that enough N95 masks are made and distributed. Anything less, unfortunately, is unacceptable."
"Doing our best to keep ourselves and our patients healthy during this pandemic."
~ Jennifer Diabo, MD, FAAP. And Medical Director Premier Pediatrics.
"Instead, if individuals would like to make masks at home, they can utilize them by wearing them or sharing for use and wear in the community to protect healthcare workers and others, and to decrease the droplet sprays in the community and medical settings. People can then take them home, wash them, and wear when going out in the community to stores, medical offices, etc.
As beautifully well intentioned making masks at home is, most front line providers cannot use them. We keep pushing for companies to ramp up production of N95 masks, and anyone who has them stored at home to donate them."
Now with the medical stuff out of the way, let us talk about the elephant in the room.
People (women are people!) should be paid for their work!
I have another neighbor who also has strong opinions about this. Robin Shane is a Costume Designer and Assistant Professor of Theater at Rider University. We were both tagged in the same Facebook post and we could not hide our knee jerk reactions to the expectations that "volunteers" were to fill the need and provide safe, effective masks for health care providers.
I asked her to go into a little more detail to share on this blog post:
"As far as the sewing goes, this is not making flags for the Revolutionary War soldiers. Asking people to sew anything for FREE is just wrong. I get it- people want to help- but if the skills needed were welding, or machinery repair, or even driving, the government would be offering to pay. What’s the difference? Sewing is considered a SOFT SKILL - that is, a women’s skill. Which, therefore, should be done for free. As a professional costume designer and stitcher, my professional rate is anywhere from $20-50/hour. I’m not going to give that skill away for free. And, if the government really needs help making CDC-approved masks, tested in the field, then they should be supplying me with the materials AND paying me to do it. What about a program like the New Deal or Federal Theatre Project where the government pays otherwise unemployed stitchers to sew for the government? I’m all for that!"
I have to agree with Robin. I am my own small business. Fortunately, this crisis found me with a fair amount of work in the queue and piles of fabric (not suitable for masks) to keep me busy for a while.
Sadly, I could no longer justify employing the very competent, skilled seamstress who was helping me fill my orders. I don't know what the future is going to hold, so, for right now, I'm compelled to do as much of the work as I can. I'm not the only small business who was forced to make such a decision over the last few weeks.
This pandemic is going to have dire economic consequences for so many American workers.
We have a need to fill. We need masks and loads of other equipment for hospitals and people on the front lines of this crisis. Our government needs to contract businesses and manufacturers to fill the need and actually PAY people to do the work. They'll need engineers like my father and inspectors like my grandfather to ensure quality and safety for the workers and the end consumers.
Now you didn't think I was going to make a mask that was not color coordinated, did you!?
Because I was writing this, last night I broke down and made my own mask. Again, the fabrics that I used, makes this mask nothing more than a "fashion accessory," but I did make an inside pocket for a filter.
I've since learned that local veterinarians are in need of masks since all the available masks are temporarily going to hospitals and health care providers... as they should.
I'll see what fabrics I may have that are appropriate and ask if our dog's wonderful Veterinary clinic in Rockledge are in need.
I've done a lot of research on the best fabrics to use, etc, but that's not what this blog post is about. I'll post some resources at the end if it's something you're interested in making yourself, BUT, again, this will not solve the issue... it's just something to occupy our time, make us feel better and build community.
AND one more reminder, tell everyone to whom you give a homemade mask, to WASH them before use to prevent possible spread of COVID-19 and wash them after use!
Until next time, be safe, be sane, be healthy.
PS: Please feel free to comment below and share with friends.
PPS: If you want to watch something silly, here's my impromptu facebook live on Thursday.
There's a thousand videos out there on how to make masks.
I wanted to share the one made by my friend and colleague, Myra Hawkins.
Best Fabrics for making homemade masks: