Helping one stitch at a time

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Local sewers are helping health care facilities and workers facing PPE shortages by making fabric masks and even gowns.

Handmade fabric masks are most helpful in prolonging the life of more protective masks that can filter the coronavirus.

Local women sew handmade masks, gowns for health care workers

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified over the past few weeks, U.S. health care facilities and workers put out an urgent plea: they were in need of personal protective equipment, or PPEs, such as gowns, eye wear, gloves and masks. Many businesses and organizations stepped up, donating their extra PPE supplies. 

Another group that came to the rescue? Sewers.

Armed with sewing machines, fabric, thread and elastic, they’ve used patterns, tutorials and just a bit of ingenuity to turn out thousands of handmade masks—and even gowns—for medical professionals, first responders and other frontline workers around the country.

One of these sewers is rural McGregor resident Roberta Hass. She began making masks a week ago, when one of her daughter’s friends, who works at a hospital in Madison, Wis., was concerned staff would run out. In just a few days, she’d created 50.

Meaghan Schneider, who lives in Marquette, and Fran Passmore, of Monona, learned about the PPE shortage online. So far, Passmore has made 40 masks for two health care facilities, while Schneider has cranked out 100 that were distributed to a hospital, several nursing homes and for personal use.

“It takes me about 15 minutes to sew one,” Passmore said. “I have a sewing background, so it’s not too hard to pick up.”

“Anyone with a sewing machine can do it,” Hass added.

The most basic masks have two layers of 100-percent cotton fabric. They’re gathered at the sides, with elastic that holds the mask behind the ears (hair bands will also work). Hass puts a strip of wire across the top of hers, which helps cinch the mask down.

Some of the nation’s sewers are making masks with liners inside, while others are creating them with pouches, so health care professionals can insert their own filters.

The ladies are utilizing fabric they have on hand, making masks in vibrant colors and fun patterns.

They developed the masks with detailed plans provided by hospitals, as well as online tutorials.

“The important thing is to know what is OK with the receiver of the masks,” Hass stressed. “Guidelines have to be followed.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has advised these handmade fabric masks don’t fully protect wearers from the coronavirus. But that’s not necessarily what they’re meant for, said Schneider.

“You can cover the ones that do filter the virus,” prolonging their use, she explained.

And any protection is better than none for those who don’t have a mask at all, she shared.

“They would be a buffer for anything you’d breathe in,” said Hass. “And if they say we should wear [masks], they will be good to have on hand.”

Prairie du Chien’s Diane Slotman is also putting her sewing skills to use, but on a bit larger scale. She’s making protective gowns. 

The idea came from Debbie Johnson, the activity director at Great River Care Center and Turner Pointe Assisted Living in McGregor, who’s the daughter of one of Slotman’s friends.

“I was talking with my mom one evening about some of the stressors facing health care providers and one was that we were very likely to face a PPE shortage in the near future, and that we had been given direction to start thinking creatively about re-usable PPE,” Johnson said.
“She was researching things online for the best types of materials to use, sending me goofy pictures and ideas to cheer us up because she knew we are under a lot of pressure, and she called Diane. Diane, without hesitation, asked my mom why she couldn’t just sew gowns.”

Slotman has helped with costuming at many high school plays and musicals. Using a disposable lab coat as inspiration, she and fellow volunteer Arlene Trautsch developed a pattern. They determined bed sheets would make the best fabric.

“They’re big and washable,” Slotman said.

She was able to get some sheets from Couleecap in Prairie du Chien, where she also volunteers, and Great River Care Center is now accepting gently used donations from the public. Simply drop the sheets off at the front of the care center if you’d like to help out.

Slotman said the gown creation process is time consuming.

“You have to take out all the seams, press and wash the sheet, then double it over and put the pattern on,” she explained. “Then you have to cut another piece of material to make the sleeves.”

Secure cuffs have been made using the pant legs of pajamas and sweat pants from size 6 months to 2T children’s clothes.

As of Friday, Slotman and Trautsch had completed four gowns, with a couple more in the works.

“Now, we’re concentrating on cutting them out and getting them ready,” Slotman said.

The gowns are “one size fits most people.” They tie in the back, allowing workers to adjust the tightness.

Slotman said she’ll continue to make gowns as long as she has sheets.

“They may not be needed,” she acknowledged, “but you don’t know what will happen in the future. Then you can fall back on them.”

No matter the size of their contribution, all the local sewers are happy to participate in the nationwide movement.

“It’s nice to know I can do something to help,” said Schneider. 

“Especially for the medical community,” added Passmore. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”

“They have to be at work,” noted Hass, “and this is something I can do from home. Many hands makes lighter work.”

It also teaches humility, remarked Slotman: “It’s healthy to look outside yourself.”

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