Like countless Minnesotans in this COVID-crushed economy, Katherine Elliot recently found herself without a job. A fashion designer by avocation, she supported herself with a great day job — selling high-end clothing at Nordstrom Ridgedale Mall — until she was let go earlier this month.
After taking a deep breath, Elliot took stock of her situation. “I said to myself,” she recalled, “’I need to have something that’s meaningful to do while I’m trying to figure out the next direction in my career.’”
For Elliot, doing something meaningful meant finding a way to help others: If she could use her skills as an advanced seamstress, designer and business owner — even better. She’d heard about armies of home sewers creating simple cloth masks to keep themselves and others from spreading COVID-19; while those efforts were clearly worthwhile, Elliot was really interested in finding a big, complicated project that cried out for her sewing skills.
“Mask-making seemed cool,” she said. “And many of the masks that people are making work great for regular folks.” But what about health care workers, who need extra protection from the virus? Elliot had heard about mask shortages in local hospitals and clinics, and her research showed that simple cloth masks didn’t really provide the extra virus protection they need.
“The challenge for me then became, ‘How can we help first responders?’’’ Elliot said. “The masks they need require special fabric and are much more complicated to construct.”
It didn’t take long for that big, complicated project to fall into Elliot’s lap.
A friend who ran a Facebook page linking helpers with those needing help received a request from North Memorial Health Hospital. Health care workers there were short on medical-grade masks and were looking for volunteers to construct and donate as many 2,500, using a special pattern and fabric — upcycled material commonly used to keep surgical equipment sterile that is usually discarded after one use.
Leslee Jaeger, M.D., an OB/GYN who works at North Memorial and Maple Grove hospitals, embraced the idea of reusing the fabric for mask-making. She’d seen that the fabric was being discarded and she’d been itching to find a way to reuse it: “A lot of this thinking outside the box came from my work in the developing world, in Haiti, where they had to reuse material more frequently than we do in the U.S.”
Quickly, with the help of a number of North Memorial supporters, a pattern that would be safe for hospital workers was identified. While physicians and nurses already had access N-95 masks, all other workers at the hospital needed masks like these.
With the fabric and pattern in hand, the hospital needed an army of skilled sewers to complete the task. Amy Grady, a Bloomington-based attorney with connections to the hospital board, offered to coordinate mask donations. She and Elliot met through the Facebook page, and Elliot jumped at the chance to head up a significant portion of the project.
“I had time on my hands,” Elliot said. “I have skills. I was thrilled to have something useful to do.” Plus, with her concentration on sustainability, she felt ideally suited for the project. Elliot reached out to her friends in the Twin Cities fashion community, hoping to find skilled sewers willing to construct masks. A committed group — mostly designers, industrial sewers, manufacturers and even college professors — stepped forward. Sewing machines at the ready, they named their group The Masked Crusaders, and set out to assemble thousands of masks.
Making the masks requires skill — and patience.
“These masks have to be made one at a time,” Elliot explained. “It has to be done carefully, so that it is not going to fall apart when it is on the provider who supposed to wear it all day.” And because the masks are designed to be reusable after sterilization, she said, “We also want them to last. Constructing them takes a lot of expertise, but the people on this team are all committed to getting this job done.”
‘A nice nugget of hope’
Tegan Sickeler definitely knows her way around a sewing machine. A skilled artisan aiming for a career in costume design, she was wrapping up her B.S. degree in apparel design from St. Catherine University, when COVID-19 put her plans on hold.
A major requirement of the degree is completing an internship in the field. Sickeler had lined up a prime spot working with the department’s dress collection, but that was no longer possible under the statewide stay-at-home order.
Anupama Pasricha, associate professor and department chair, explained that faculty scrambled to find an alternative for Sickeler.
“We had to replan what Tegan’s internship would look like,” Pasricha said. “We had to make a plan so that she was able to complete her internship and have some meaningful experience.”
Then assistant professor Jacqueline Parr learned about the Masked Crusaders and their ambitious goals. She immediately thought of Sickeler: If she were interested, this could be the perfect internship project.
“They are recruiting individuals within the community who have these sewing skills,” Parr said. “Their mask pattern is more complicated than some of the other patterns, and taking on and completing this project would require skills that are applicable to her internship requirement.”
After so much uncertainty, this news was thrilling.
She explained how the masks were to be constructed from a fabric called Halyard H600, that can filter particles of 3 to .3 microns and can be used to create personal protective equipment (PPE). Constructing them would take time, mass production skills and attention to detail.
“[Parr] said, ‘This is legitimate PPE material that is needed to be sewn into masks and they’re reaching out to home sewers. Would this be something you’d be interested in doing for your internship?’” Sickeler recalled. “I said yes right away, because I’ve been trying to find a way to be useful to people and stay busy during all of this.”
The next step was to prove that Sickeler had the sewing chops to get the job done. “The organization is vetting people,” Parr said. “They wanted sewers who are following the instructions so that when they are given to hospitals they are that medical grade. It’s that quality control process, making sure they follow all of the right instructions.”
Once it was clear that she could handle the assignment, Sickeler was given fabric, a pattern, a template and a link to an instruction video.
“If you follow the pattern and the template it’s actually kind of hard to mess it up,” she said. “It is a little finicky. The fabric likes to shift when you are cutting it. But it’s not too terrible to sew on. So far my machine has been handling it.”
Several elements set Masked Crusaders’ masks apart from other popular mask designs, Sickeler explained. “With this very specific design you have a top wire, and then there’s a bottom wire which is folded up and then pleating the front when you’re putting it on over the face the pleat blocks any airflow and you have a very tight fit against the face and you have ties that are nice to get that secure fit and there is wire in both the top and bottom so you can shape it to your face.” There is also a pocket that fits tightly around the wearer’s chin.
After completing her first masks, Sickeler developed ways to streamline the process. After cutting and prepping the fabric in advance, she’s managed to shave her sewing time down to 13 minutes per mask.
“Tegan definitely has advanced sewing skills and she’s graduating so she’s at an advanced level,” Pasricha said. “That’s why she’s able to manage it in the time and manage it well. A home sewer may be able to do it but it won’t be as efficient and there may be some errors along the way. She’s able to use her skills in the best possible way.”
The project has been a welcome distraction for Sickeler, who made 50 masks within the first two weeks.
“It was a really nice project to just fall into and focus on,” she said. The goal of completing the masks in the most efficient way possible has been a welcome distraction in a stressful time. “I’ve been plugging through and trying to get as many done as fast as possible. I realize the need for this and it is a really great opportunity to be able to give back and get involved. Hopefully this will help somebody. Hopefully this will do some good. That’s been a nice nugget of hope.”
Pre-COVID, masks used by medical professionals were often thrown away after one use. But now, this time of shortage has encouraged people to develop creative ways to reuse and even recycle materials.
Sickeler was provided with four sheets of the recycled PPE fabric. A committed zero-waste designer, she made the most out of what she’d been given.
“I’ve been really conscious of trying to avoid wasting any of this fabric because I do realize it is a really precious resource right now,” she said. “That’s been a big goal of mine. We’re already eliminating waste by reusing this fabric. That’s a big piece of why I wanted to be involved in this project. Hopefully someone will get some use out of this material that would have just been discarded anyway. It’s a really neat feeling to give a second life to something. It’s a hopeful light in this difficult time.”
The fabric in the masks can be sterilized using an autoclave and reused up to five additional times.
“The beautiful thing about this fabric is once we make the masks they are then autoclaved at the hospital and then this mask can be sterilized up to five more times,” Elliot said. “You’re getting that much use out of it. Last week I gave them close to 1,400 masks. With sterilization, that’s the equivalent of 7,000 masks.”
Elliot and Jaeger have developed a system for collecting the material and distributing it to sewers. Jaeger collects the material at the hospital, and then leaves it, along with other materials, including wire for nose shaping, in a box on her front porch.
Elliot usually drops by on Saturday morning and picks it up. She then meets with her group of sewers in a nearby parking lot, with enough space for social distancing. “I let them take as much as the fabric and other supplies they need. At the same time I collect the masks that they’ve created. Then I drop off the finished masks.”
It’s not just the Masked Crusaders who’ve taken on this cause. The group of sewers quickly expanded to include other groups, including Minnesota Mask Mayday, the Somali American Women Action Center and Grace Church in Eden Prairie. With their sewing powers combined, the mask makers have been remarkably productive, Jaeger said, exceeding their original goal by more than 1,000 masks.
“We seem to have fulfilled the numbers that North Memorial needs,” Jaeger said. At well over 3,5000 masks, she explained that representatives from the group are now reaching out to area police and fire departments and nursing homes to see if they could use the masks.
Though she wishes that there weren’t a need for volunteers to make masks like these, Sickeler said that she’s been happy for the distraction that sewing them has created.
“I’ve really thrown myself into this project,” she said. Having something useful to focus on has helped her cope — and given her a sense of purpose each time she sits down at her sewing machine. “That’s been a nice nugget of hope. Hopefully this will help somebody. Hopefully this will do some good.”