Tara James began making face coverings shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hammered her greeting card business.
Many of the stores carrying her cards closed when quarantine began, but the bills continued to pile up, leaving James unsure of how she’d care for her family.
“I filed for food stamps, and I remember getting a call and just crying on the phone. The lady rewarded me for the month of March and April,” said James. “I told her, ‘I didn't know what I was going to do’.”
In that crisis, she came up with the idea to make and sell face masks.
Now James is one of many Angelenos who are spending their days sewing, looking for income or for a sense of purpose, when life feels like it’s coming apart at the seams.
James said the masks sustain her financially and mentally, paying her bills and keeping her mind busy.
“When people buy masks, it’s like ‘This mask is bomb, I’m about to buy it and put it on.’ For me, it's like, ‘Yo, I bought milk with their mask. I paid a bill with their masks,’” said James.
All the masks on her website are now sold out, but there is a demand for more masks. James said one of her biggest limiting factors is the scarcity of materials.
Most fabric stores are sold out of cotton fabric and elastic. Some suppliers say they’re waiting weeks for new materials to arrive on backorder.
Raquel Jacome, a system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she faced a similar problem when she started making masks with her roller derby team, the Los Angeles Renegade Rollergirls.
The group recently finished an order of over 450 face masks to donate to organizations in Covina.
Jacome says she managed to buy bundles of material from an “underground market of fabric.”
“I end up finding this fabric person who works at a fabric store who's like got a stockpile in their apartment in Baldwin Park,” said Jacome. “I actually secured like 35 yards of material.”
Those who can’t find a fabric dealer are getting creative. Ever Carlin is a 14 year old who’s using materials around her home.
She made her own face mask from old bed sheets.
“Sometimes I cut up shirts or pants and use that material,” she exclaimed.
With many newbies to face mask making like Carlin, there’s a demand for people and resources to teach these apprentice tailors.
Carlin learned how to make masks in a Zoom class from a local textile arts group called The Sewing Arts Lab, but many of these classes are sold out across the county.
Others are finding their support online through groups formed around making masks.
Becky Morgan and her daughter formed a Facebook group called Stitched Together. It’s meant for people to connect over their desire to make face masks for different causes.
The group has over 8,500 members and collectively has donated over 100,000 masks to different organizations across California.
Morgan said the community has been a great place for people to learn sewing basics like making patterns and how to troubleshoot a grinding sewing machine.
“There are a lot of problems that can go wrong with the machine. So if they might have a problem with the stitching, they can show a picture in the group. Sometimes two dozen people will respond saying ‘try this’ or ‘try that’,” she said.
Morgan also said not all her relationship building has been virtual.
She said mask making has given her something to bond over with her stepmother who lives in a nursing home.
“[My stepmother is] an amazing seamstress, and she has made over 700 masks herself now, and she has told me a few times how this is really helping her get through this time because it's giving her this greater sense of purpose each day, and it's giving her something to do,” Morgan said.
For Tara James, sewing can bring a deeper sense of meaning. James learned to sew from her mother, who worked as a seamstress.
Her mother died three years ago from multiple sclerosis.
“Whenever we went to the studio, I'd just be up underneath my mom. I just listened to her. I'd watch her. She'd have me cut out patterns. She'd allow me to cut things. Sometimes she allowed me to play on our sewing machine and just sew with her,” she said.
James added that mask making days remind her of her mother, especially when she runs fabric through her sewing machine and looks down at her fingernails, which she said look just like her mother’s.
James said she occasionally works from early morning to late night to finish a stack of masks.
“I had no clue what I was going to do when this started. And the fact that I keep proving myself wrong in the midst of that doubt is just, man, I feel like I could do anything,” she said.