Do handsewn face masks protect against coronavirus?

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Masks made by Stitched Together member Danette Riddle. Photo courtesy of Danette Riddle

Across LA and the country, people sheltering at home during the coronavirus outbreak are dreaming up ways to help first responders fight COVID-19. 

Those with a knack for crafts are breaking out their dusty sewing machines and creating a vital piece of safety protection currently in short supply: face masks.

“It's brought a lot of people back into sewing and crafting,” says Mallory Morgan, who lives in the Inland Empire and runs a Facebook group called Stitched Together . “People who haven't touched their sewing machine in years or haven't even sewn before are teaching themselves as they go.”

Many are following a pattern and instructions from Deaconess Hospital .

Frayle vocalist Gwyn Strang wearing a finished version of the DIY face mask that she and her partner, Sean Bilovecky, created. The mask pattern and instructions can be downloaded free at Photo Courtesy of Gwyn Strang.

So far, Morgan’s group has provided masks to West LA VA Medical Center, Long Beach VA Medical Center, LA Fire Department, and St Vincent Meals on Wheels.

High fashion companies like Prada and Gucci in Italy are also heeding the call, along with fast fashion makers H&M and Zara.

Christian Siriano, a Project Runway winner, has his team busy sewing. Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel (now reborn as Los Angeles Apparel), said he has put his sewers to work making masks.

Fashion designer Christian Siriano posted this image of his team busy sewing masks. Photo courtesy of Christian Siriano

Hedley and Bennett have created this buy-one-give-one-free mask in their trademark artisanal style. Photo courtesy of Hedley and Bennett

But many medical centers will not take homemade masks.

Morgan reached out to several large hospitals, including Keck Medicine of USC and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, and found they are specific about accepting only N-95 masks, which are designed to form a protective seal around the nose and mouth and effectively filter airborne particles.

The National Nurses United union has made the same call. 

“We need the highest level of protections — N-95 respirator masks and other protective gear — not surgical masks or bandanas,” said union leader Bonnie Castillo .

There is still a need and market for handsewn masks, however. 

Homemade masks can be used by people who are not treating the sick so that medical-grade masks can be reserved for those who most need them: medical staff. 

Masks that conform to the Deaconess Hospital pattern, even if made from an old t-shirt or tea towel, filter around 70% of germs, according to a 2013 disaster preparedness study . Make one from a vacuum cleaner bag and the protectiveness is in the 90th percentile.

There are also deeply human reasons people are joining the mask making project: a desire for connection while feeling isolated at home, and a desire to help, using whatever tools they have onhand.

“When you sit at home, and you read everything that's going on or hear things from your friends and family who work in the hospitals, you want to make a difference, but you don't know how,” says Morgan. “I think this is a really great way for people to help out in situations where they don't know how else they can.”



Frances Anderton