RANDites Use Sewing Skills to Keep Colleagues Safe

RAND recently put out a call for volunteers to craft 200 face masks for staff who need to work on-site in the Santa Monica, Washington, and Pittsburgh offices, as well as for those who need to come into the office to work on particular types of projects, such as classified research.

With manufacturing supply chains struggling to meet the needs of health care workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic, homemade masks have been filling a critical gap for workers who have been deemed essential and anyone else who needs to be around other people. Volunteer staff members including Emily Cantin, Ingrid Estrada-Darley, Jayme Fuglesten, Monica Hertzman, Ivan Honer, Brittany Joseph, Ingrid Maples, Cathy Marshall, Michelle Platt, Lee Remi, Kerry Reynolds, and Emmi Yonekura stepped up to help RAND meet this critical need.

They've shared methods and tips for creating masks for friends, family members, and the RAND community.

Resourceful Sourcing: Coping with Shortages

To be as effective as possible, masks should fit snugly over the mouth and nose, so the ability to adjust the fit is important. Even when volunteers already had fabric or were able to procure or repurpose some, they found elastic—used to create straps—in short supply. Some experimented with repurposed elastic products, such as hair ties (which can also be used in conjunction with adjustable ear guards to achieve a secure, pinch-free fit), while others opted for fabric straps, which allow users more flexibility to customize the fit but take longer to make.

“I luckily found some fabric at Walmart, but no luck finding elastic. So, I used laundry rope, leather cording, and extra-long shoelaces for the ties. I recycled gently used pillowcases for the lining, as I thought that would be most comfortable on the face,” said Platt. With a wide range of colors and patterns, Platt's homemade masks offer an option to fit anyone's style.

Monica Hertzman took her cheerful tie-dyed masks to RAND's Pittsburgh office

Monica Hertzman took her cheerful tie-dyed masks to RAND's Pittsburgh office

“Some supplies have been really hard to get,” said Reynolds. “All of my initial orders for fabric and other supplies were canceled when suppliers ran out of items.” Fortunately, she had quilting fabric on hand (“in reasonable colors, like navy blue and plain white cotton, so I didn't have to resort to the snowman fabric—yet!”), as well as high-quality men's dress shirts with a tight weave.

Experienced sewers already had most of what they needed to get the job done. “It's a slippery slope because there are so many beautiful prints of cotton and quilting fabrics out there,” said Maples, referring to her extensive fabric collection. However, she still faced difficulty tracking down elastic. “I went to Target and bought extra-thick hair bands and have been cutting those up to use. Not as comfortable as fabric ties but still does the job if the goal is to cover your face while doing essential errands.”

Cantin, a long-time accessory designer who has sold her wares on Etsy, already had a stash of materials on hand. However, she found that the pipe cleaners she wanted to use for nose bridge pieces were in short supply. “Those I got from a RAND colleague. It takes a village!” In addition to pipe cleaners and elastic, shoelaces (an alternative for creating straps) are scarce. “Stores are sold out and online retailers are backordered at least a month out. So, I was lucky to be fully provisioned!”

Hertzman made use of materials that most of us already have around the house: old t-shirts. However, she chose brightly colored tie dye for a cheerful change of pace. The masks also have slots for a nose bridge piece and a filter.

Ivan Honer demonstrates how he has been fabricating masks with his 3D printers

Ivan Honer demonstrates how he has been fabricating masks with his 3D printers

Taking a more novel approach to fabricating masks, Honer decided to put his 3D printers to use and thoroughly researched mask designs before selecting an open-source option from the website Thingiverse. The 3D-printed masks have a major advantage over conventionally manufactured N95 masks: “This mask is designed to be reusable,” Honer explained. “With this mask, all you have to do is replace the filter.” Improvising, he repurposed an unused air filter for a home air conditioner but said a vacuum bag could be another alternative.

With two printers running, he has been able to create 18 masks at a time, a process that takes 15–17 hours total. He noted that he is using three types of nontoxic plastic at a cost of about $6 for 18 masks.

Choosing a Pattern and Special Features

There are countless mask patterns circulating on the internet to match available materials and the maker's skill level. Some of the volunteers incorporated bonus features into their designs to provide added protection. For example, Platt used pipe cleaners and bread ties to stiffen the nose bridge of her masks, helping them stay in place and conform more tightly to the contours of the face. She also added a filter pocket, “which sounds tricky, but it's really pretty easy.” She used cut-up pieces of a nonwoven shopping bag to serve as filters in her masks but explained that any nonwoven fabric, deconstructed HEPA filters, or even thick paper towels could work.

Homemade masks with unique fabric patterns designed by Ingrid Maples, Michelle Platt, and Emily Cantin

Homemade masks with unique fabric patterns designed by Ingrid Maples, Michelle Platt, and Emily Cantin

Cantin, who had already been sewing masks for a health care worker friend, used a modified version of that pattern (and a Pittsburgh Steelers–themed fabric) for her contribution to RAND's stock. She opted to sew a nose bridge piece directly into the mask and added a second layer of fabric in lieu of a filter pocket.

Discovering (or Rediscovering) Your Sewing Skills

Have you considered making your own masks but think your skills are a little rusty (or nonexistent)? Don't be dissuaded. “If someone has a sewing machine gathering dust in the closet, I say pull it out and dust it off,” said Maples.

Kerry Reynolds and Jayme Fuglesten were among the RAND volunteers who gave their sewing machines a workout

Kerry Reynolds and Jayme Fuglesten were among the RAND volunteers who gave their sewing machines a workout