THE ART OF MASK MAKING: The ArtsQuest Family Responds to Region’s Need for Personal Protection Gear

By Amber Galdamez, ArtsQuest Senior Communications Coordinator

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many retail items into a sudden state of near nonexistence, even for front line staff like healthcare professionals, first responders and grocery workers. These items include everything from disinfectant spray to non-surgical face masks—the latter a feature Gov. Tom Wolf recently asked all Pennsylvanians to wear when leaving the house in order to protect themselves and others from potentially spreading the virus.

As the need for masks increases, the community has stepped up in a big way by hand-making and donating hundreds to thousands of masks to essential workers, as well as their own friends and family. We spoke to a few of these local heroes with strong ties to ArtsQuest to find out how they started mask making, why it’s so important and how to get involved.

terry-masksArtsQuest Hospitality Specialist Terry Blackman estimates she has made at least 125 masks so far for friends, family and medical personnel. Blackman, who was a patternmaker for more than 20 years before changing careers, is now using her prior knowledge to give back to those working on the front lines and to protect family and friends. Even though Blackman is no stranger to needle and thread, she encourages everyone to take part. “You don’t have to know how to sew to make masks,” she says. “The Internet has many creative ways of making masks to help protect yourself when you need to go out. From taking an old pair of spandex leggings and cutting them up to using a handkerchief tied around your nose and mouth.”

20200408_143124ArtsQuest Teaching Artist Mallory Zondag is a mixed media fiber artist who specializes in felting, dyeing, weaving and now—mask making! Zondag has completed about 150 masks so far and isn’t slowing down. Though she admits mask making is a little less creative than her typical projects, Zondag says it’s still in her wheelhouse since she’s already familiar with working with fabric and sitting behind a sewing machine for hours at a time. A graduate of Pratt Institute, Zondag says that friends from school who are also making masks noted, “It feels like the good old studio days (and) the endless sewing we did when we were there.”

Zondag says she was inspired to start mask making after she was contacted through The Troy, N.Y-based Arts Center of the Capital Region in collaboration with The Turban Project, which were looking for people to sew and donate masks in the capital region. “It felt like something I could do to try and help in this crisis, so I started sewing nonstop. I’ve been both donating and selling masks to help pay for materials for the past three weeks.”

20200408_143259Becky Shoemaker, a teacher at the ArtsQuest Glass Studio, has sewn more than 50 masks in response to the crisis and was inspired by the need to keep her friends, family and co-workers safe during the pandemic, as well as keep busy while sheltering in place. As a studio seamstress, Shoemaker previously used her skills to make air hose protectors for the hot glass studio. Although the protectors require different materials than face masks, they are also focused on helping keeping people safe. The style of mask that Shoemaker has been sewing generally calls for a more intermediate level of experience, but she says, “a beginner could catch on quickly.”

ear-savers2An additional but equally important feature of mask making comes with handmade “Ear Savers.” The longer and more frequently that healthcare workers and first responders wear masks with elastic, the more likely they are to develop irritation and even infection behind the ears. Former ArtsQuest employee and volunteer Allison Mackenzie Demko is crocheting and using various fabric to make custom ear savers being donated to hospitals and other agencies in need during this time of crisis. Her efforts are part of Masked Tigers, a collection of Girl Scout Troops and community members in the Northwestern Lehigh School District making personal protections masks for those on the front lines. To date Masked Tigers have made and donated over 3,200 personal protection masks throughout the region.

Still have questions on mask making? Check out the resources below:

Q: Would you encourage others to try their hand at mask masking, and if so why?
A: I would definitely encourage it because I think anything we can do to help during this crisis is worthwhile. If people already know how to sew, then it’s a great project for them and if people don’t already know how then this is a great time to learn a new skill. There are tons of how-to videos online and you could hand stitch some if you don’t have access to a sewing machine. I also think the more homemade masks we can make for people to wear in public the better. Medical grade masks need to be saved for medical workers, but we should all be wearing some type of mask when going out in public. – Mallory Zondag

Q: Which nursing homes and hospitals have you donated to and how did you get in contact with them?
A: Independence Court in Quakertown, which is where my stepfather-in-law lives, and Mask Force Facebook group is making them for local hospitals, Phoebe Allentown, Good Shepherd and many other places. – Terry Blackman

Q: What can I do if I can’t sew?
A: There are many things you can do without sewing. Cut t-shirt strips to be used for elastic, which is getting harder to come by; knit or crochet ear savers; or help collect and distribute supplies for others making personal protective equipment. We are all in this together and everyone can play an important role. – Allison Mackenzie Demko

For more information on how to start making masks of your own:

Stay safe, friends!