Crafty islanders sew personal masks

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Changing knowledge about COVID-19 and the way it spreads means more Canadians may soon be sporting non-surgical masks in public.

Islanders who need direction on how to go about making their own masks will find a number of crafty community members are already ahead of the curve. Coming together through the Hand Sewn Face Masks for Immune Compromised group on Facebook, people who are skilled at sewing have been hard at work for some weeks researching and creating the safety gear.

Jane MacKenzie, an experienced textile artist, started the Facebook group on March 22 with immediate participation of retired midwife Maggie Ramsey as a founding member.

“I just felt like I had to do something. I couldn’t not help,” MacKenzie said, adding, “Maggie jumped right on board. She came up with the pattern because she has the medical experience.”

Other people who joined early were also thinking along the same lines, including islanders who produce clothing or textile-based arts such as Mary Holding, Anna Gustafson, Zoe Fox, Tara Huth and Najma Manx. The group formed specifically to provide cloth masks to people in the community who might need them, not to try to replace the medical quality masks that nurses and heath-care workers use in hospitals. 

“I think it was a kind of synchronistic thing. Everyone was thinking about this,” MacKenzie said. “It’s amazing when people are behind something and it just takes off. Everyone wants to help.”

The group now has 77 members, and has even been contacted by a nurse in Florida who was looking for help with supplies. (The group lent their support but asked she connect with her local sewing groups.)

While Canadian health officials started out saying that regular community members did not need to wear masks in public, there has been adjustment in the past week. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada says wearing a non-medical mask has not been proven to protect the person wearing it. However, it may help protect other people in the vicinity. 

“Wearing a non-medical mask is another way of covering your mouth and nose to prevent your respiratory droplets from contaminating others or landing on surfaces,” the health agency explained on April 7. “A cloth mask or face covering can reduce the chance that others are coming into contact with your respiratory droplets, in the same way that our recommendation to cover your cough with tissues or your sleeve can reduce that chance.”

The health agency suggests wearing masks for short periods of time when physical distancing is not possible in public settings, such as when grocery shopping. 

“With the emerging information regarding pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission, and our goal to stop the spread of COVID-19 by all means possible, wearing a non-medical mask — even if you have no symptoms — is an additional measure you can take to try to protect others around you,” the agency states.

The Salt Spring sewing group researched the best pattern to use and came up with one that includes a filter pocket. Filters can be made from substances like vacuum cleaner bags or shop cloths and need to be replaced after a single use. The cloth mask also needs to be washed after every use.

“If people are going to wear a mask they do have to be very informed and make their own choice,” MacKenzie said, but added, “We should all be behaving as if we have the virus and are asymptomatic.”

The local group is delivering 100 cloth masks to Salt Spring Community Services for its use and for vulnerable clients. Members have also been supplying friends and acquaintances in need.

MacKenzie made some for her son and his girlfriend even though they are part of the same household, just to help remind them about the risk. She has been using shirts in fun fabrics that she had previously purchased at the thrift store. 

Masks going out to other community members are sealed in a ziplock bag and come with a disclaimer about personal responsibility, as well as COVID-19 information from the BC Centre for Disease Control.

The proper way to wear a mask is to make sure it comes up close to the bridge of the nose, completely covers the mouth and goes down all the way under the chin. It should also fit snugly around the face without any gaps. Non-medical masks or facial coverings should not be placed on young children under age two, anyone who has trouble breathing, or anyone who is unable to remove the mask without assistance.

“I applaud the creativity and ingenuity of many who have taken the time to make these cloth masks and it is encouraging to see the social connections that have been made by sharing patterns and creative ideas online,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Friday.

Henry said wearing a mask is a personal choice, but reminded people that it does not make it okay to go out when ill, and cannot replace following proven measures such as hand washing and physical distancing.

Helpful tips including information on what materials make the best filters can be found on the Hand Sewn Face Masks for Immune Compromised page.

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