I have a lot of shame associated with the sewing machine. When I was in high school, I ran my theater group’s costume department, mostly because I liked thrift store shopping and trying on old clothes. Despite the position, though, I never quite figured out how to use a sewing machine. My days as a theater costume director involved a lot of hot glueing, safety pinning and just making things work.
I should be good at sewing. My grandmother was a professional seamstress for years, working on everything from ballets to the movies. I took sewing lessons in the dark basement of some random neighbor’s house as a teenager, but my teacher was so frustrated with my ineptitude that she basically sewed all my projects for me.
However, writing the round-up of ways to make face masks had me thinking. The steps didn’t look all that hard. Plus I had a sewing machine in my apartment gathering dust that I purchased months ago just because I felt that every wannabe homesteader should have one.
I decided that if I was recommending that people make their own face masks, I should put my money (and, aptly enough, mask) where my mouth is.
Learning to try
First, I sought out professional help, because I was going to need it. Even though the YouTube tutorials were helpful, I wanted to have a video demonstration to share even if my mask-making experience went totally awry. I got in touch with Jo Bell, the lead sewing instructor for the non-profit organization Common Threads of Maine, which teaches people how to work on industrial sewing machines so they can eventually find jobs in the industry. Jo has also been working with the Facebook group Sewing Masks for Maine, which is coordinating the effort to donate face masks to healthcare workers around the state.
Jo said that the organization is retooling in response to COVID-19 to teach people how to sew more medical-grade protective equipment, so the set up was perfect for her to practice. She agreed to teach me how to make a Deaconess face mask, which is the style that hospitals are requesting, over Zoom.
Before we started, Jo told me that I would need a 100 percent cotton fabric with a tight weave to make an effective face mask. Luckily, I still had some from when I made beeswax food wraps. I asked her if I could use a t-shirt, too, but she explained that the stretchy material is less effective at keeping pathogens from escaping.
Jo also told me that I was going to need an iron. I didn’t have an iron, or an ironing board for that matter, so I ordered both from Target for curbside pickup. (Also, if I had known, I would have picked up pantyhose as well — apparently, new research shows that they make homemade cloth masks much more effective.)
A few days before Jo and I were going on our call, I figured out — for the first time — how to set up my sewing machine. It took longer than I’d like to admit. I had to find the setup tutorial on YouTube (I don’t have a DVD player to play the one it came with), and after watching and rewatching the video several times through, I finally felt confident enough to set up my sewing machine on my own — at least, so I thought.
A trying experience
Jo and I gathered on the video conferencing site Zoom. First, we cut two rectangles of fabric to form the mask. As I have demonstrated on several other Sam Tries Things videos, I am completely inept at cutting. The edges of my rectangles were jagged and ragged. Jo said this was fine, though — the masks don’t need to be perfect as long as they work, and besides, we would be folding the straps over the edges anyway.
Speaking of straps, we had to cut two long strips of fabric that would eventually keep the masks tied to our faces (Jo explained that you can use elastic if you’re making a mask for yourself, but hospitals prefer fabric straps as the elastic gets destroyed in the hot hospital washing machines).
My straps were more than a little uneven. I was working from an already-cut piece of fabric as opposed to a fresh piece with an even edge, which definitely didn’t help, but I hoped the imperfections wouldn’t be a problem.
Then, Jo instructed me to sew the two squares together. I forgot to put down the presser foot when I did, so my first attempt was a disaster. I had to carefully rip the seam out and try again.
Once my squares were joined together, we broke out the iron to make the pleats. I was certain there was some magic trickery going on with pleats, but it turned out to be quite easy. When I tried to sew them down, though, my machine went ballistic. I hadn’t threaded the machine taut enough, so the thread got all bunched up around the needle and bobbin. I swallowed my frustration and pulled everything out. Jo said that machine issues are probably the most common frustration for people who are getting into sewing again to make face masks.
I rethreaded my machine and tried again.
The next step was to fold and iron the straps into bias tape — folding the edges of either side in towards the center — but my straps were far too thin and uneven for that. Jo said that I could keep my straps rudimentary by simply folding them in half once if I was just using the mask for myself. That’s what I decided to do.
Jo demonstrated how to sew the straps onto the mask properly if they were formed into the bias tape. Then, she explained how I could do the same with my simpler strap by folding it over the edge, sewing one side across, and then sewing the other side from one end of the strap to the other.
My machine went a little haywire again as I tried to finagle it around my uneven straps. I was getting a little frustrated having to rip out seams. Jo said that it can be difficult to get into the groove of making masks — the first few can be trickier, but after a while, you know what to do.
Eventually, though, my mask came together. Jo demonstrated how to properly tie it on and I followed along. I may not be winning any contests for craftsmanship, but my face covering fit my face perfectly, stayed securely put and looked quite stylish, if I do say so myself.
My tried-and-true takeaways
My mask is definitely not appropriate to donate to hospitals, but for intermittent outings on walks or one biweekly grocery runs, it should work just fine. After all, I was using a bandana with rubber bands before, so this is a vast improvement.
Sewing a DIY face covering isn’t effortless, especially if you are new to sewing. However, it is possible that even the clumsiest, most novice seamstresses can make them for themselves if you’re willing to. Dust off that sewing machine and get to work.