Much Ado About Masks

There is much confusion about masks, suddenly, in our daily lives.

Should we or shouldn’t we, when we leave the house (or even at home, if it’s a crowded house) mask ourselves?

The first question, really, is could we even if we wanted to?

Facing (um, yes, literally) this new COVID-19 reality is still somewhat surreal–but stitchers near and far are doing what they can to fill the void of mask shortages by providing home-sewn versions, and their offerings–undisputedly generous–are met with both gratitude and reserve.

Do homemade masks work? Are they better than nothing? Are there preferable patterns and fabrics for homemade masks?

I’ll attempt to answer these questions based on the information I have found scouring the internet regarding this matter.

The much-sought N95 (actually a respirator) is the most filtered protection a mask can provide. They vanished from retail shelves several weeks ago, but you may want to check your storage & supplies to see if you happen to have ever purchased any from a hardware store in anticipation of working with chemicals (or if you have lived near an area affected by smoke from fires).

In the absence of an N95, your options are a few flimsy versions of dust or pollen masks, face shields, surgical masks or several versions of home-sewn masks (including an “N95 Bra Mask,” not to be confused with an actual N95 respirator).

While there is some confusion and controversy, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is issuing amended recommendations regarding the use of face coverings, and it seems that homemade masks, and even scarves or bandanas, are viewed as better options than nothing, as a “last resort” and preferably in “combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face.”

All right, so homemade masks are not ideal but may provide some advantage and sometimes we just work with what we have. Another point in their favor–due to necessity, masks such as the N95 are also re-used by medical personnel currently. Homemade masks, such as those organized for donation by Joann Fabrics and as instructed by several other professional stitchers (there are even a few no-sew versions) worn over a medical mask, could lengthen the duration of use.

The next question is, are all home-stiched masks created equal? Probably not.

Unity Hospital in Cedar Rapids is specifically requesting that stitchers follow the Olson mask pattern of their own design. It was named after “1930s legendary maker and nurse Lyla Mae Olson” and utilizes a skin adhesive for sealing, a pocket for a removable disposable micron filter, and elastic hairbands.

Tutorial for the Olson Mask

A video by a surgeon and his wife details how to make a mask using HEPA filtered vacuum cleaner bags is also available on YouTube:

HEPA filter (vacuum cleaner bags) face mask

A commenter on the Olson mask instructional video, identified as “sicplano” and claiming to be a PhD microbiologist with “pathogen and air quality experience,” offers the following suggestions:

  • If HEPA material is unavailable, use a third layer (inner layer) of high thread count cotton fabric, synthetic fabric, or add a layer of non-woven interfacing [similar to the instructions of the video from Joann Fabric, above].
  • Offset the weave of the 3 fabric layers from one another (assisting to prevent a straight path for migrating droplets). Non-woven interfacing would also provide a more complex matrix.

Please add your thoughts and tips regarding home-sewn masks to the comments below.

Author : mdemmer

I'm a freelance writer discussing alternative health, spirituality, animals, and sustainability. I'm also a freelance writer for hire @

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