DIY Masks in the Early Pandemic

home made mask

by Beth Dolinar, Contributing Writer

Remember last March? Remember your first mask hunt?

Remember when you first heard the news that the virus was deadly and contagious, and you should probably find a face mask to protect yourself and others? Back then, the masks were not yet hanging in flat plastic packages near every checkout line. Back then, high-end clothing stores hadn’t yet carried face masks to match spring dresses. Back then, my trip to Home Depot for sanding masks came up empty. 

And so I got out my sewing machine, ready to do my part like Rosie the Riveter did. The Singer had languished in the basement for years and was covered in a film of dust. Unhitching the cover, I found a tiny dead spider on the feed dog. 

Ah, the feed dog—the perfectly-named, toothy little mechanism under the needle that grabs the fabric and pushes it through. It was one of the first bits of terminology I learned when I started sewing in junior high home economics class. I caught on right away, finishing my starter scarf in record time, getting all A’s as I progressed to a vest and then a skirt. 

Even after I’d finished the class, I sewed with an unquenchable fervor.  One simple Butterick pattern spun out 10 cotton tops in a rainbow of stripes and florals. When I progressed to slacks, I only chose styles that zipped up the back; my mother warned that a zippered fly would be too tricky. I was that person in junior high who walked around looking like she had her pants on backwards.

I also was the only person who dared to wear a polka-dotted top with striped pants, an outfit I fashioned after seeing a model wearing a couture version of that combination in a fashion magazine. That model pulled it off. I’m not sure I did. Mean girls bullied me about it. 

All the way through college, I sewed much of what I wore. At some point, I became too busy—and patterns and fabric became too expensive—and I put away the Singer. Since then it has followed me, unopened in that case, through eight or ten moves. And I didn’t open it until I needed a mask. 

Last March, you couldn’t find a mask. You also couldn’t find hand sanitizer, but somehow the need for a mask took on a special urgency. Social media was rife with videos showing how to make one. This would be easy, I thought. Now, all I need is fabric. 

With most stores closed, I raided my wardrobe, pillaging the baskets of neglected shirts and skirts awaiting my next trip to Goodwill. I eyed a bohemian-looking shirt with embroidery, a garment I’d ignored for years because the sleeves were too short. I scissored into it, pulled out a rectangle, turned on the Singer and pushed it through the feed dogs. Twenty minutes and an wrinkly bit of elastic later, I had something that more or less resembled a face mask. Although not wide enough to cover both nose and face, it was fancy.

Energized by that first success, I kept going. I whipped up masks made of  T-shirts, masks of silky scarves, masks of plaid flannel with old shoelaces for ties. When I ran out of shoelaces I cut up an old bra an used the straps.

By the end of that day, masks were strewn across the dining room table. I packed up a couple and sent them to my son in Los Angeles. I put one in a cardboard tube and lobbed it onto my neighbor’s back deck. I saved the embroidered one for me.

I never wore it. Within a week, the world caught up with the need for masks, and they were ubiquitous. I ordered a few from Etsy and would pick up some especially pretty ones if I’d see them hanging by the store checkout lines. My favorite is one that has the United States Constitution written on it. 

With so many of us vaccinated, we may not need the masks for much longer. I will welcome that. I’ll probably toss most of the masks I’ve used every day for the past year. 

But the Constitution mask, and that first one I made? I’ll keep them, to remember. And as for those tops and pants from my sewing stage all those years ago? They’ve been plowed under, the way old clothing tends to be. Somewhere among all those homey garments were a few pair of pants whose zippers actually went up the front. My mother was wrong. Nothing tricky about that.


Beth DolinarAbout the author: Beth Dolinar is a writer, Emmy-award winning producer, and public speaker. She writes a popular column for the Washington “Observer-Reporter.” She is a contributing producer of documentary length programming for WQED-TV on a wide range of topics. Beth has a son and a daughter. She is an avid yoga devotee, cyclist and reader. Beth says she types like lightning but reads slowly — because she likes a really good sentence.