The first time I went food shopping wearing a face mask to protect myself from COVID-19 infection, I admit I felt a little silly. No one else in the supermarket was wearing a mask. The mask felt stuffy, and I couldn’t itch my nose. Two weeks later, the majority of people in the supermarket now wear face masks, including the employees.
It’s not easy to find face masks. The surgical quality masks are reserved for medical personnel, who need them most. The rest of us must scrounge around for old N95 masks left over from home-repair projects, or possibly an old surgical mask hidden away in a first aid kit.
I have a few of these leftover masks, but to outfit everyone in my family with a mask for the uncertain length of this pandemic, I needed to make my own.
Making a Mask Isn’t Complicated
I started by looking online for mask patterns. There are a lot of them, but most were too complex for my rudimentary sewing skills. Some were outrageously simple (a scarf and two rubber bands), but they didn’t look like they’d survive a trip through the supermarket. I wanted a sturdy, useful mask that would provide some protection from this nasty COVID-19 virus.
The pattern I settled on is a simple rectangle with three pleats and two ear loops or ties. I pulled apart a worn-out surgical mask in my first-aid kit (left over from when my youngest child was born), and used that to make a pattern.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends everyone wear a fabric face mask in public. There’s some debate about whether any breathable fabric will actually block the COVID-19 virus, so it was difficult to figure out which fabric to use. Vacuum cleaner bags are supposed to work well at blocking the virus, but they’re thick and might contain fiberglass fibers.
Shop Towels To the Rescue
Peter Tsai, the man who invented the technology used in N95 masks, told the Washington Post that shop towels would make effective masks because the non-woven fabric filters droplets better than cloth. Shop towels are those usually blue non-woven paper-ish towels used by mechanics to clean grease off their hands.
Shop towels are stronger than paper because they’re made with paper and plastic fibers. They’re also washable (gently). I rushed out (wearing a mask) to my local Walmart and picked up rolls of white shop rags and blue shop towels. Rustle around in your garage or basement, and you may find a roll lurking there.
If you can’t find shop towels (about $3 per roll) in stores or online you can use a high-quality cotton fabric that’s thin enough to breathe through, but thick enough to stop droplets that may contain viruses. Quilting cotton, which is thin but tightly woven, is a good choice for fabric masks. I made a few fabric masks as well as shop-towel masks, using the same pattern. You can cut and sew shop towels just like fabric.
A Sewing Machine is Useful, but Not Necessary
Here’s what you need to make this mask: shop towels (or fabric), a sewing machine (or needle and thread), elastic or ribbon, plastic twist ties (or pipe cleaners), pins (or clips), and clear tape (or hot glue). I used a sewing machine, but you can hand-sew the mask or possibly glue it together with hot glue (I didn’t try this, but hot glue is amazing).
To make the masks prettier, you can use fabric for the outer layer, and a shop towel for the inner layer. You can make the mask either with ear loops (I find them easier to wear) or with ribbon ties. Instructions for both are below.
If you find the idea of wearing a home-made mask silly (these aren’t pretty, I’ll admit), please know that you’ll look even sillier in intensive care wearing a respirator. This COVID-19 pandemic will end, and life will return to normal, but until that happens, please suit up in a mask (any is better than none), gloves and hand sanitizer every time you go out in public. Stay safe and healthy, everyone!
How to Make a Face Mask for a Pandemic
Shop towels are usually blue, but white ones are also available. I found these in rolls at my local Walmart, but they’re available online too. If you can’t find shop towels, use high quality cotton fabric, thin enough to be breathable. I used leftover quilting cotton to make fabric masks.
Cut out an 8 1/2″ long by 7 1/2″ wide rectangle, and a 7 1/2″ square from shop towels. Place the square on top of the rectangle, leaving 1/2″ of extra material at the top and bottom. This will be the front of the mask.
Place a 5″ long plastic twist tie (or a 5″ pipe cleaner) in the center of the top edge of the square piece of shop towel.
Tape (or hot glue) the twist tie in place.
Fold the top edge of the rectangle down over the twist tie, and pin in place. Fold the bottom edge of the rectangle up over the bottom edge of the square, and pin in place.
Sew along the top and bottom edges of the rectangle, keeping the twist tie inside the seam on the top edge.
Place the mask right side up on a flat surface. The enclosed twist tie is at the top of the mask. Place a ruler along the right side of the mask. Starting at the bottom of the mask, mark the right edge at 1 1/4″. Make additional marks at 2 1/2″, 3 1/4″, 4 1/2″, 5 1/4″ and 6 1/2″.
Do the same for the left side of the mask.
Starting at the bottom of the mask, pinch the fabric on both edges at the 1 1/4″ mark, and fold it up to the next mark (at 2 1/2″), creating a pleat. Pin the pleat in place. Pinch the fabric at the 3 1/4″ mark, and fold it up to the 4 1/2″ mark. Pin in place. Pinch the fabric at the 5 1/4″ mark, and fold it up to the 6 1/2″ mark, and pin in place. You’ll end up with three pleats.
Sew along each edge of the mask, carefully keeping the pleats in place. Remove the pins as you sew to avoid breaking the needle on a pin.
Flip the mask over and pin each end of a 6″ piece of 1/4″ wide elastic to each corner of one side of the mask. Repeat for the other side of the mask, and stitch the elastics in place, sewing back and forth over the elastic to make sure it’s secure.
Voilá! Your mask is finished!
Slip the loops over your ears, and bend the top of the mask so it fits snugly over your nose. Pull the bottom of the mask down so it covers your chin, and wear whenever you’re in public.
If you don’t have elastic, you can make ties out of two pieces of fabric ribbon, each 34″ long. Pin the center of each piece of ribbon to the front of the mask.
Sew the ribbons in place on each side of the front of the mask.
The finished masks. Neither one will protect you completely from COVID-19, but any mask is better than none in this pandemic.
You can also make a mask out of fabric using the same pattern. This mask is made from left-over quilting cotton, which is both breathable and tightly-woven enough to provide some protection from viruses.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends you wear a fabric mask whenever you’re out in public.