TREMONT – Since she began sewing masks about two weeks ago, Michelle Carter has just been churning them out.
“They’re taking me like eight minutes a piece,” she said last week in between delivering a new batch to folks in her community. “It’s what I’ve been doing night and day.”
There is a high number of people in Maine who are able to sew, many of whom are willing to put their skills towards a service. Since the state has closed public events, non-essential businesses and schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many people have been jumping on the mask making bandwagon. A newly formed site, Face Masks for Maine, is now serving as a place for guidance and a uniform effort where those in need can place orders.
“Everybody wants to help and this is what can we do,” said Kathy Stanley who owns Sewing by the Sea in Trenton and has been bombarded with requests for supplies. “That’s pretty much the only phone calls I’ve been getting … My Facebook, when I turn it on, is just loaded with face mask stuff.”
An important factor to note in the flurry to provide a base layer of protection against the airborne virus, cloth masks can help but are not a guaranteed preventative measure.
“We’re just trying to help in these frustrating, crazy times,” said Cara Ryan of Bar Harbor. “They’re limited, these masks, anything other than N95s is limited … I’ve spent a lot of time researching the different patterns. I’ve made six different designs and they all have their strengths, but none is perfect.”
Given a sewing machine as a gift when she was a child, Carter has been sewing most of her life. Trying to keep her space as sanitary as possible means regular rounds of cleaning with bleach, washing her hands and covering them when she is working.
“I sew as much as I can with gloves on,” said the Seal Cove resident. “I haven’t had anybody in my house since I started doing them.”
Carter was recently laid off from her job picking crabmeat and knew it would be tough sitting idle in isolation.
“It’s a good way to pass the time,” she said. “It’s keeping me from going completely crazy.”
When she began, Carter already had a stash of cloth to work with and was sourcing the elastic used to hold the mask on from Marden’s before they closed.
Cotton is the recommended fabric when making the masks and because there have been issues with the elastic bands, making them with straps to tie on is preferred.
“I’m very concerned about the quality of the fabric,” said Stanley, adding that cheap cotton can be too thin. “It needs to be tightly woven. It needs to be 100 percent cotton. The less you pay for your cloth, the more likely it is to have formaldehyde.”
Washing whatever cloth is used before crafting the mask is recommended in order to shrink it and be sure it is clean.
“I’ve double washed up a bunch of fabric,” said Stanley who fulfilled a few orders over the phone on Saturday. “I think people are getting it figured out. Man, a lot of people are busy.”
Demand has been high for the masks. Carter is charging $8 each as a way to replenish her supplies to make more. Not only are they going to local healthcare workers but she is providing masks to people working with the homeless, those who just want protection going out in public and as part of a Pay It Forward project for a friend whose grandson just died.
“For every one I sell I’m donating two,” said Carter, who does most of her transactions through Paypal. “I know that I’ve donated way more than two for every one that I’ve sold.
“I try to sew in the morning and then I go out and deliver and come back and sew some more,” she said, noting her contact with anyone is very minimal. “I just leave them at the door or meet somebody and just toss them in their vehicle.”
Seal Harbor resident Cherie Weed posted on Facebook that she was “going into production” as a joke and people took her up on it.
“I’m in heavy production now,” said Weed. “I’ve been asked to make 34 [masks] for Brown Appliance. Their servicemen are still going into homes and they were getting nervous.”
She also received an order for a couple dozen for some of the school employees who are returning to work in food service.
“It’s not about money right now, it’s about helping people,” Weed added.
Even if a mask cannot completely prevent the transmission of COVID–19, some experts say wearing one to train ourselves not to touch our face makes them valuable.
“What is becoming clear is many of us could be carriers without knowing it and these masks could help contain the spread,” said Ryan, who is a member of the Island Quilters Guild. “People want to make things and want to help. We know masks have helped elsewhere, so however humble and homemade these masks are better than nothing.”