Sewing with a purpose: Kent State student creates masks to donate amid COVID-19 outbreak

Alyssa Hertz, junior fashion design major, works at her sewing machine creating masks to donate to hospitals in need. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing shortages in the U.S. for items like bread, hand sanitizer and toilet paper at local stores. But for first responders and medical personnel, the critical shortage of N95 respirators, a crucial piece of personal protective equipment (PPE), threatens the health and safety of these vital workers. 

Alyssa Hertz, a junior fashion design major at Kent State, is trying to help lessen this shortage by sewing surgical masks at home to donate to medical facilities in need.

Hertz was studying away in New York this semester before the university canceled classes and remembers what it was like in the state that now has more than 29,100 reported cases.

“We were constantly aware,” Hertz said. “It was really unnerving to be riding the subways and have my face and hands exposed.”

Hertz heard there was a mask shortage and while she doesn’t consider herself to be in the high risk category for contracting COVID-19, her father, who has an autoimmune disease, is high risk and isn’t leaving the house at all. 

“It just didn’t sit right with me that people couldn’t feel safe literally breathing the air around them,” she said. “So I heard there was a shortage and I saw designers like Christian Siriano posting that he was going to make them; I figured why couldn’t I? Obviously we have all this time on our hands now and I have an abundance of fabric here, so I figured why not?” 

THE SHORTAGE

According to The New York Times, there are several factors that contribute to the shortage of masks. Part of the issue stems from the amount of citizens anxiously buying masks, which limited the commercial supply chain. The prolonged coronavirus outbreak in China, where half the world’s masks are produced, also decreased the supply. The Times also noted the coronavirus outbreak occurred after a “particularly mask-intensive few months,” referring to the wildfires in California and Australia.  

N95 masks are the “gold standard” because they have the ability to filter out small, airborne particles, including the coronavirus, and liquid that could infect the wearer, according to Fast Company. The article continues, “These are the masks that should be going to doctors in COVID wards who are at the front lines of this crisis.” 

As the virus continues to spread, medical personnel are forced to resort to less-protective surgical masks, which are also becoming harder to find as the supply of personal protective equipment intended to keep health care workers safe continues to dwindle.  

Several companies are working to help medical personnel during this shortage. According to The New York Post, companies like Apple and Facebook have pledged to donate millions of masks. 

JOANN Fabric has also helped in the effort by giving free materials to customers to make protective masks and gowns. On their website, customers can watch several tutorials and view sewing patterns to help in the process of creating these masks to be donated to hospitals and other medical facilities. 

SEWING THE MASKS

Hertz went on Facebook Live on March 22 to show others what she was doing, to answer any questions about how others could help and to make contact with those interested in receiving some of the masks.

“One nurse commented on my video and said some of her faculty have to wear the same mask all day,” Hertz said. “Those blue paper ones are kinda fragile, so to have to wear the same one all day isn’t great for them. The ones I make can actually be reused. If you want to throw them in a washing machine, you totally can.”

Hertz said making the masks isn’t hard to do. To make sure the masks she’s making provide accurate protection, she has been following guidelines posted to the CDC website. 

“It’s literally just two pieces of fabric. I pin my elastic inside, flip it right side out, add the pleats, do a top stitch all around and it’s done,” she said. “The only time consuming part is cutting out the 6×9 squares [of fabric] because you need a lot of those. If someone is an experienced sewer it’s a super-easy thing to do.” 

Some of Hertz’s friends who don’t know how to sew reached out to her about wanting to help. Hertz put them to work cutting the 6×9 pieces of fabric for her and dropping them off at her home. This way, all she has to do is pin the elastic and stitch the mask together, creating a mask-making assembly line. 

Hertz said donating fabrics like extra bedsheets and networking are also ways to help in this process, aside from sewing.

“Networking is definitely a big thing,” she said. “My mom can’t sew, but she’s been telling other people that, ‘Hey, my daughter is making these, anyone that wants them let me know.’ So she kinda networks for me in that way and spreads the news.”  

The masks Hertz makes are being donated to hospitals, individuals and other medical facilities in need. After her Facebook Live post, several people messaged her and expressed an interest in getting these masks. 

“A lady from my church said her son works at the Cleveland Clinic and they have a bunch of elderly people that need masks,” she said. “My mom works at Akron General, so I’m looking to see if they’re taking masks. Usually the hospitals get precedence over a doctor’s office. Hertz said someone from a nursing home called for masks because there weren’t enough masks in the facility to protect the staff or elderly people who lived there.”

She wants people to know that while making masks is a great way to help others during this time, it’s not the only way to get involved. 

“Anyone can help in any way if they take what they’re good at and use it in whatever the situation is,” Hertz said. “Sewing is my thing and this is how I’m using it. I have friends who are helping people do at-home workouts. Others are sharing easy recipes to make during quarantine, or posting fun activities to do with kids at home.”

“It’s all about using what you know to help.”

Maria McGinnis is a features/opinion editor. Contact her at [email protected]