They’ve put the (foot) pedal to the metal. With a national shortage of personal protective equipment leaving frontline medical professionals and other health care workers with few places to buy it, citizen who sew having been sitting down at their sewing machines, making simple cloth masks and donating them – by the thousands.
Locally, a group formed under a new organization called the “Million Mask Challenge” quickly organized an Arkansas chapter. Kristi Jones of Fort Smith, who immediately notes that she is only one of many volunteers, describes what this local group is accomplishing. (To keep current with these fast-moving and amazingly productive volunteers, join the public group Million Mask Challenge-Arkansas on Facebook. Their output and innovation increases hourly.)
It started with pattern-sharing for simple face covers. Layers of cotton fabric, approximately 9x9 inches, folded into four pleats. Cotton flannel on the inside. Two side casings to stitch the pleats in place. Elastic ear loops slipped through the casings, or fabric ties to knot behind the head, top and bottom. There is a channel for an optional, bendable nose wire.
Through Facebook and phone calls, the local chapter began fulfilling requests from in-state and in-town nursing home, assisted living facilities and home health care groups. Jones soon saw that her service should be in organization – record-keeping, collection, delivery and communications.
She’s served as a central dispatcher, connecting makers with materials and sharing smarter sewing tips discovered by members. Other volunteers follow up the requests for masks or are locating more facilities to help.
“When I joined the national group, they asked me to be the liaison from Arkansas. They’re a great admin team,” she said. But Kristi started a Facebook group specifically for Arkansas. She connected with another group that helps to vet requests, but also created her group’s own process to review requests only for Arkansas. It was an organizational step that accelerated local production and delivery.
Kristi said the group has solo, home sewers but also families and teams of friends who (separately) formed assembly lines. Some members are so prolific and efficient that they can cut and sew more than 20 masks a day.
“I bought a sewing machine, but I quickly learned that’s not my skill set,” she laughed. “I’ve been most proud of those people who sit for hours and hours, sewing all day. Their backs hurt, their fingers hurt, their eyes hurt - they’re tired.” Kristi cheers for them online, to encourage everyone.
The resourcefulness of the entire group has been amazing, she said. Innovations are invented and shared almost every day.
Kristi connected locally with Fab Lab, a 3-D printing lab, and with Derek Goodson of UAFS. Both labs focused on the need for particular plastic headgear to fasten clear face shields. Both labs have also created other related protective equipment and components. Locally, Kristi is aware that PRADCO has also fabricated face shield harnesses.
Most of the MMC-Ark volunteers ply the needle arts. Besides sewing face masks, some members have crocheted soft “ear savers” that allow ear elastic to be adjusted more comfortably. They also have sewed buttons on stretchy headbands for the same relief of pressure and friction on the ears, caused by wearing a face covering all day. Kristi encourages donations of medium-to-large buttons. Empty your button jars and stashes!
One donor gave 68 pounds of fabric. Kristi washed it to shrink and prepare it for cutting. The ideal fabric is closely woven, 100 percent cotton and cotton flannel. Fabric patterns differentiate the masks’ inside and out.
Meeting the specific requests of each facility is the group’s goal. MMC-Ark volunteers have sewn more than cloth masks when asked.
“Kim Davis Chambers found a source for patient hospital gowns and asked us whether we could add sleeves,” Kristi posted on Facebook. “Of course, we can! The next day, Kim's friend Nancy James, who volunteers with an outreach organization called CURE, made available thousands of gowns! That same day, I asked for sewists. That's when Sara Hattabaugh, Karen Merrell Seymour, Kris McConohy Scott, manager of Central Sewing Center, and Lori Garvin stepped up to sew and recruit other sewists,” she wrote.
“Look at this circle of people who don't know one another but are saving the lives of skilled doctors so they may save the life of someone you love!” her post concluded.
“I’m so proud of everybody,” she added. She’s never asked the age range of members, but in photos, she has seen retirement-aged women with their mothers; husbands ironing, sewing and delivering; youngsters being taught to sew by parents and grandparents through on-the-job training and younger children packing masks for delivery.
Those who can’t sew a stitch can help. Any size of donation can go a long way, Kristi said. “Don’t think it has to be much!” Local vendors have given discounts and in-kind donations. Cash donations of $5-$10 can buy fabric, elastic or buttons or help pay for shipping costs in-state. The need to make and deliver even more masks is ongoing, Kristi said.
Cotton face coverings protect against the spread of infection from the wearer’s coughs and sneezes, afford some protection to the wearer and remind them not to touch their face. Cotton masks are not as effective against infection as medical N-95 respirator masks reserved for frontline medical professionals. Cotton masks are recommended by the CDC for caregivers of vulnerable people and for everyone to wear in public, while practicing hand hygiene and distancing of at least 6 feet from others outdoors and inside.
“Please, just reach out,” Kristi said. “We will find a way you can help. People who use social media can find the Facebook page Million Mask Challenge-Arkansas. There is a Paypal donation link.
Those without internet access can mail a check to Million Mask Challenge-Arkansas, 2801 Fresno Street, Fort Smith, Ark. 72901.
Contributions will help volunteers provide masks for health care workers in Arkansas nursing homes, assisted living and other health care facilities where patients and workers are vulnerable.
Central Sewing Center of Fort Smith will take phone calls for the organization at 479-452-3256.
“We have been able to find safe ways to drop off materials, pick up finished masks, deliver – we will make it work,” Kristi said. Volunteers are required to be safe in all activities.
Some “remote assembly line” work is possible.
“I spoke with a potential volunteer who said she could sew if someone would cut fabric for her,” Kristi said. She knows of people working together in that way. One volunteer is sewing and supplying only the fabric ties to provide for others to use with the pleated face coverings they have made.
Demand will continue for these basaic face coverings for some time. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison and the state Department of Health recommend that everyone wear masks in public. A state health department alert says, in part: “Face coverings help prevent the spread of Covid-19. ... Phasing in normal life will require more diligence in personal preventative measures, not less. When current restrictions on where we go and how we gather are loosened, we must double down on preventative practices.”
The Million Mask Challenge-Arkansas Facebook page provides downloadable patterns for those who may want to sew masks for themselves and their own families. Refer to the page’s ‘No Sew DIY’ unit to see several ways to make masks without sewing.
The group does not sell or provide masks for the public. Its mission is focused on providing these basic protection masks for workers who are caring for others, who are in need of such supplies.
Those who can join or donate to the Million Mask Challenge soon learn what Kristi says. “It feels really good to be helping.”