April 01, 2020
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Sewing groups around Maine create face masks amid shortage

Courtesy of Connor Pelletier
Courtesy of Connor Pelletier
Connor Pelletier, 15, left, crafts face masks to donate to health care workers, in his St. Francis home.

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Crafty Mainers all around the state are sewing face masks to help alleviate the national shortage in personal protective gear that is facing medical workers and others who must be out in public.

Abby Gilchrist, owner of Fiddlehead Artisan Supply in Belfast, said Monday that she posted a message on her store’s Facebook page a few days ago about stitching masks at home. The messages soon began to pour in from crafters who were looking for ways to help.

Gilchrist is searching for volunteers to organize the huge outpouring of interest from stitchers so that masks can be distributed to where there’s a need.

Similar efforts are happening around the country, too.

“I got such a huge response from people wanting to make masks,” she said. “People want to sew — I bet we could have thousands of masks being made every day. And people are needing masks.”

Of course, Gilchrist knows that homemade masks are no replacement for medical-grade equipment. But she’s operating on the assumption that if frontline medical workers and first responders have no masks, a homemade mask is better than nothing.

“Clearly, a mask made out of clothing cotton and sewn by a home stitcher is totally not ideal,” she said. “My hope is that in a few days, this entire coordination effort will be completely pointless — that there will be a million masks floating around, and we won’t need this.”

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In Aroostook County, bestselling author Cathie Pelletier of Allagash and her friend Mona Taggart Bouchard of Fort Kent reached out to friends in northern Maine through their new Facebook page Friends From Northern Maine after hearing about a mask project in Illinois Friday night.

“By 10 p.m. that same night, we were approaching 100 members with all kinds of private offers to help,” Pelletier said.

Among those was Allagash native Cynthia Harvey, 68, a retired U.S. postmaster who lives in Caribou and said she grew up just below Pelletier’s house.

“My mother was a seamstress, and she quilted when I was growing up. She passed away in 1992, and in 1998, her first great-granddaughter was gonna be born, so I took her material that I had kept and made a quilt for that daughter. And since then, I have been quilting,” Harvey said.

Harvey said she plans to continue making the masks “as long as the elastic holds out. “It’s hard to find the elastic,” she said.

Fort Kent Community High School ninth-grader Connor Pelletier of St. Francis also immediately joined the cause. The 15-year-old honor student owns a sewing and sign business called Connor’s Craft Shack.

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“I normally sew quilts and hair scrunchies. I decided to help make these masks because it was something that was in high demand and needed to be made. I always try to do my part in everything I can,” Pelletier said.

John Porter, an official with MaineHealth, a health care network that includes 12 community hospitals in Maine and New Hampshire, sounded a dubious note when asked whether his organization would accept donations of homemade face masks.

MaineHealth increased its inventory of masks at the start of the crisis and is working on conserving its supply right now, he said.

“Clearly our preference is to use medical-grade equipment made by manufacturers specifically for medical uses. That would certainly be our first choice,” he said. “We regard ourselves as being in pretty good shape. … We are seeking out new sources. I can’t tell you at this point if that would include crafters.”

But another hospital official, Kate Carlisle from Central Maine Healthcare, which operates hospitals in Lewiston, Rumford and Bridgton, said her organization has a different take.

“We would gratefully accept them,” she said about the homemade masks. “They are considered by the CDC to be ‘of last resort’ as regular masks, but we anticipate that if they are worn OVER an N95 respirator, they could prolong the usable life of the respirator. This would help us conserve resources at a time when there are national supply chain issues.”

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Ideally, she said, the masks are made with woven cotton fabric — not latex— and use fabric ties, not elastic bands, to hold them in place. Prototypes she has seen feature two layers that form a pocket where a fabric dryer sheet could be placed, for filtering purposes.

Gilchrist and others say that the homemade masks could help a variety of people, including postal workers, school staff who are handing out lunches to students and people with compromised immune systems.

“I think there’s a need in every single town for these masks,” she said.

She has also started a website that aims to coordinate the making and distribution of face masks in Maine, and hopes that people who are skilled at organizing will sign up.

“If a few people stepped up, I think this whole organization could work,” she said.

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