Mask-making networks mobilize
Local volunteers organize sewers, materials and delivery of fabric masks
Fashion designer and Ryerson assistant professor Danielle Martin’s latest creation isn’t something you’ll find on a runway. But it could be helping to save lives.
In mid-March, St. Michael’s Hospital reached out to Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design requesting help in producing fabric masks. Martin and her fellow assistant professor, Dr. Sandra TullioPow, answered the call. Their plan was to engage students from Ryerson’s School of Fashion and solicit fabric donations from companies, like tea towels from the department store Simons, but first they needed a pattern for students to work from.
Martin consulted with a doctor from St. Mike’s, taking apart surgical masks used by medical professionals to better understand their construction. While Martin and Tullio-Pow had considered a curved, beak-like front, they discovered that the centre seam of this design could facilitate the transmission of droplets. So they settled on the more traditional rectangular shape. “Our design has pleats at the top and bottom, in opposite directions, so it creates a box inside the mask and makes it easier to breathe,” Martin explained.
Martin and Tullio-Pow have a goal of making 4,000 fabric masks in four weeks, engaging about 70 student sewers and a dozen volunteers to help with packaging and delivering supplies. They’re just one of several volunteer initiatives that have popped up recently in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the shortage of personal protective equipment.
Canada Sews was started by Lee-Anne Moore-Thibert through Facebook on March 22. The group started in Durham Region, but quickly grew and now has over 15 regional chapters across the country, engaging close to 6,000 members. They have delivered more than 50,000 masks, scrub caps and gowns across Canada to hospitals, shelters, long-term-care facilities and food banks. But there are still over 90,000 requests to fill, including over 10,000 in Toronto alone.
Lilly Perkovic heads up the Toronto branch of Canada Sews alongside Sandra Bernick. When a new volunteer joins the group and doesn’t have any material to work with, Perkovic encourages them to reach out to community groups to solicit donations of bedsheets. “It’s actually our main fabric for making masks,” says Perkovic.
Perkovic then directs volunteers to the Canada Sews website to access patterns that she says have “gotten good reviews from nurses.” Like Martin’s fabric mask, Canada Sews uses a rectangular design with pleats. Both patterns also use fabric ties instead of elastic, which can be harder to source. “People who were working long shifts were complaining about their ears hurting from elastic,” Perkovic says. Stretchy T-shirt material makes an ideal fabric for masks and ties and it’s another textile that Canada Sews is actively collecting.
While Martin’s fashion design students are dropping off completed masks directly to St. Michael’s or Michael Garron Hospital, Canada Sews has partnered with UPS and has designated UPS stores where sewers can drop-off completed masks, caps and gowns. It is the result of a national partnership facilitated by Moore-Thibert. “Some of our members don’t drive, so then we can arrange drivers to pick up masks from them and drop them off.” The masks are then picked up by designated drivers and delivered to facilities.
Organizations can sign up on the Canada Sews website with their request for masks, caps and gowns. And Perkovic says they’re looking for all the help they can get, even those who don’t have sewing skills.
“Not everyone is sewing in the group,” said Perkovic. “Some offer driving and even just cutting of fabric.” Others have offered sewing machine repair and 3D printing tools, called bias tape jigs, that make it quicker and easier to make fabric ties. While many Canada Sews members are retired or sewing in their spare time, there are also many more that have lost work due to COVID-19. Perkovic herself is an early childhood educator who was temporarily laid off during the pandemic. But she’s now finding purpose through her work with Canada Sews.
“These last couple of weeks, a lot of our days have been 12 hours or even more,” Perkovic says. “I do enjoy helping people get involved in community work. It’s helping them to feel better and then, in turn, I also feel better.”
Since taking on the role of coordinating her regional Canada Sews chapter, Perkovic’s days are now filled with organizing volunteers and facilitating pickups and deliveries. “Now I’m actually looking forward to some time to sew,” she says. “After a couple of weeks of co-ordinating and managing. I finally got some time to do some sewing again and that was really nice. I enjoyed it.”