Corona Diaries: Thursday, April 9, 2020

How to sew a face mask

  • A fabric square, preferably tea towel or t-shirt, around 20×20
  • Patience
  • Sewing needle and thread (OR) sewing machine
  • Pins
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Fabric ties, 18” in length and ¼ to ½ inch thick
  • Sharp scissors

1. Fold your material in two; measure a rectangle of 6.5×9.5. Cut along the crease, and then cut through the crease, leaving you with two rectangles of the same size. This will feel like you have done something wrong. Press down the instinct like you pressed down the surge of panic when your brother texted you asking for masks because your mother still has to go in to work.

2. With the pattern or “right” side up, pin one tie end per corner of one square of fabric. Try not to swear too loudly when you stab the pad of your finger with the needle because even though you like to sew you’re out of practice and kind of bad at it anyway. Gather all the ties at the center. This will be harder than it sounds.

3. Take your second piece of fabric and place the pattern or “right” side of that piece against the ties and pattern side of the first piece. Begin to pin it together. Realize you’ve done it wrong and unpin it, only to realize one pin from the end that you had actually done it correctly. Redo your work. Try not to get frustrated at yourself; this only works when you realize you’re not frustrated, you’re scared that your mother needs a mask. That she needs to go to work.

4. Sew a tight line of stitching ¾ of an inch away from the fabric’s edge. If you are hand sewing, you will suffer several pinpricks. If you are sewing by machine, you will pause to rethread several times. So what? What else have you got to do? Go to a bar? Check out a band? Ha.

5. Make sure you anchor your tie edges thoroughly. When the needle passes through the fabric of the tie you think about your brother, nineteen and alone in a dark room three hours away. You have already stitched the corner twice. You do it a third time to be safe for him. Leave an inch or so of unsewn space.

6. Pause to get a spare cut thread away from the dog. Breathe.

7. Through the inch of border not yet blocked, work the fabric inside out. Tug the ties and, by the ties, the corners out into the washed out light of the sewing machine. Your shoulders hurt because it’s 11:05 at night and you’ve been up all day working but also because you are, a little, carrying the weight of worry and expectation and the inability to change anything on your shoulders. You’re not meant for this. None of us are meant for this.

8. Think, for a brief and helpless moment, about all of the people who were already carrying so much weight on their shoulders. Think, for a brief and breathless moment, of how much their back and knees and hands must hurt. Think, quietly, of how you want to help them. Go back to sewing.

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9. Tuck the loose unsewn edges inside and then pick up your pins again. You are supposed to make three small creases, folds to help the mask contour better to the face. You pin them clumsily together, even though three folds makes the mask look so small. You check the instructions again and unpin and refold, except this time it looks worse. This is a ludicrous thing to cry over.

10. Sew a straight line ¼ inch from the edge. This will be easy when you are not sewing over the folds. When you do sew over the folds, it will be difficult to keep the fabric in line, to prevent bunching and loss of tension, shape. A mask alone will not save the people you love. But it will, might, maybe can do something to protect them—to protect those around them. To help, somehow. Some way. You painstakingly rip out and resew the stitches on the fold, again and again, until they work.

11. You were too squeamish to ever be a doctor. You were not skilled enough to trust yourself with the responsibility of a life that wasn’t yours. You try to fathom what it must be to be a doctor right now and work yourself up too much, so you lean back and take your two melatonin and line up the mask for the final seam along the edges, securing the final pieces of the fold.

12. Try on the mask in the mirror. It gapes, a little, around your cheeks, but the comments on the article you read to prepare say it will do that a little, won’t be a perfect fit. Doesn’t need to be a perfect. You were six when your brother was born and he was immediately the whole world to you. You watched his hair start out white blond and darken to the same color as yours, your father’s. He outgrew you, outpaced you in the subjects that challenged you, became someone entirely himself. The comments say the fit doesn’t need to be perfect.

13. You wash and dry the mask and stack it with more, pack it away in a little box. You label it with your mother’s address, pay your postage online and drop it into the mailbox on the corner by the drug store at 6 in the evening. When you get home you don’t go inside; you walk around the block, and then another block, until you are at the lake. It’s painfully windy and the damp in the air stings your cheeks. Your brother learned to ride his bike on that winding concrete path. You remember him riding faster and faster, your parents chasing him on longer legs than you, until they were far away and almost out of sight.

14. Take a moment to mourn the pinprick on your finger. Take another moment to be grateful it is not a needle through your nail. Breathe and sew a tight line of stitching around the edge of your fear, wrapping it tight and away. Tug out the ties and accept that you have done what you can, here, for now. Tie your mask to your face. The fit is not perfect. The stitching is not textbook. Breathe through it anyway. Stand and walk back home.

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The Corona Diaries is a joint project of the Renaissance Publishing Staff. Each week during the series, a different member of our staff will share their day-to-day experiences with working from home, social distancing and the other ups and downs of living through the pandemic.


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