Sam Schipani used iron on letters to personalize this cloth mask. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Face masks are one of the most effective ways to protect yourself from catching and spreading the coronavirus. But they don’t have to be plain — in fact, a well-crafted facemask can be a great statement piece.

Cloth face masks have a few absolute rules in order to make sure they are safe and effective for civilians. The masks should be made with multiple layers of tightly-woven fabric, like 100 percent cotton. The fabric should rest under your chin and on the bridge of your nose and needs to be secure around your ears with elastic straps or ties. The wearer should be able to breathe easily with it on, and it should be washable.

“I know from my research that it’s best to not add anything that will make it harder to breathe [and wash the mask], like sequins,” said Jo Bell, the lead sewing instructor for the non-profit organization Common Threads of Maine.

Staff writer Sam Schipani wearing her homemade face mask. Credit: Sam Schipani / BDN

Within those rules though, you can let your imagination run wild when it comes to personalizing and decorating your mask. Here are a few ways you can zhuzh up your cloth face mask as you continue to wear it around this summer.

Tie-dye, fabric makers & fabric paint

Tie-dye is a trendy craft for the quarantine days. Tie-dying your face mask is a fun way to occupy an afternoon while jazzing up your pandemic look.

“I dye fabric, and I’ve used both synthetic and natural dyes,” Bell said. “I can recommend Dharma Trading for tutorials on tie-dye, fabric painting, stamping [and the like], and Artist and Craftsman Supply is a great place to find what you need.”

Bell suggested trying making your own avocado dye (which, perhaps surprisingly, produces a soft pink color) if you are interested in experimenting with natural dyes or are looking for an extra challenge. She recommended following an online tutorial from Kathryn Davey, a natural dye textile studio based in Ireland.

If you have a white or light-colored mask, you can also use it as a canvas with fabric markers and paint. Let your creativity and artistic ability run wild.

Iron-on patches, pins & paper

Adding embroidery and needlepoint is a great way to upgrade your look. However, it might not be appropriate for cloth face masks.

“I am a big embroidery person, but haven’t used it on masks, as it apparently makes the fabric more susceptible to penetration by the virus,” said Maggie Muth, founder and director of Stitch HIVE, a stitching group in Portland. “I think embroidery is probably fine, but hospitals won’t accept homemade masks with any stitching on the outside as it compromises the protection from the tiny virus molecules.”

If you want to be extra cautious or just don’t have needlepoint skills, there is a workaround: iron-on patches, vinyl and other decorations. If the iron-on decorations are strategically placed, they do not make it more difficult to breathe. (A note to crafters: beware of hot irons around elastic ear straps — they can melt.)

“It is very easy to do if one has the appropriate equipment,” said Suzanne Cox, a seamstress based in Bangor who sells masks through her Etsy shop Maine Mom Boutique. “Iron-on vinyl is available in multiple colors as well as metallic colors and also available in beautiful designs.”

If you want to make a statement without saying a word, try using iron-on letters to decorate your mask. Other iron-on options will also make a statement.

“Another idea is using the printable fabric heat transfer paper,” said Marcia Farmer, a seamstress based in York County who sells face masks in her Etsy shop Wicked Mainah Sewing & Sundries. “This allows people to put pictures, designs or wording they want onto the mask.”

You can also use pins, though careful placement is in order to make sure the pins don’t bother you and the mask stays on your face.

“Occasionally, my teenage daughter attaches an enamel pin to one of the corners of her mask,” said Julie Littlefield, who sells cloth face masks through her Etsy shop Blynd Town. “The pins she does wear are lightweight so she doesn’t feel much extra weight.”

Face mask with a pin. Credit: Courtesy of Julie Littlefield

Brooch back pins as opposed to those with rubber or metal butterfly clutch backs work best to prevent irritation while adding panache, but either are acceptable depending on how long you need to wear your mask.

“Her pins have the bar and her enamels have the rubber butterfly backs,” Littlefield said. “They don’t irritate her face, but she usually only wears a mask for 5 to 10 minutes. She hasn’t been anywhere that would require a longer wear time yet.”

Fun fabrics

If you are crafty enough to make your own cloth face mask, it opens you up to a world of possibilities when it comes to making a custom, stylish mask.

“I think that the best way to personalize and show one’s’ style [and] personality is by the fabric choice,” Cox said. “There are thousands of fabrics available from floral, abstracts, animals, outdoor themes, religious as well as solid colors.”

Muth said that she has used her hobby of collecting vintage fabrics to make some truly unique masks, made from things like scraps from a dress from the 70s, and old housecoat and an L.L. Bean flannel shirt. You can even sew on contrasting bias tape or choose a different fabric for the ties on your face mask in order to give it an extra splash of personality.

Face masks with contrasting ties made. Credit: Courtesy of Jodi Joslyn

Make sure when you are choosing fabrics, though, that you are choosing tightly-woven pure cotton, linen or silk for maximum effectiveness, comfort and durability. Ellen Anderson, a seamstress based in Portland who sells masks through her Etsy shop SingerVintage, said to avoid the quilting fabrics that she said are often used for DIY masks.

“Quilting fabrics have lively patterns, but they are not made for daily washing, their coarser cotton weave tends to pill and shrink, and the colors can fade rapidly,” Anderson said. “A more tightly-woven fabric will produce a lighter-weight mask with roughly the same filtration level.”

Personalizing your masks will not only give you a fun afternoon craft for these lazy summer days, but having a mask you truly love that expresses your personality may also encourage you to wear it when you’re out and about.

“Most of us aren’t crazy about wearing masks, but no one says we can’t do it in style,” Farmer said.