Making Masks – Reflections on sewing in times of COVID-19

A guest post by Katharina Krause

The tailor shop that made my wedding dress two years ago now sells sewing kits to make masks at home. The shop window, usually a wild mix of wedding dresses and different kinds of whimsical fabric rolls for children’s clothes, now prominently features a stack of colorful masks. This shop is no exception. Be it online or in the analog world, it is nowadays hard to escape all the free patterns for masks, the calls to sew together to fight the spread of the virus, and the heated debate about whether these handmade masks are useful or not. This observation together with conversations with my mother, a dedicated needleworker who already talked about making masks in mid-January and now sends them to family members including myself, initiated the idea of writing this text.

Images of health workers in protection suits, their faces covered by respiratory masks and safety goggles, have been the ‘go to’ illustration in international news media when it comes to the outbreak of infectious diseases. This is what I see in my ongoing PhD research on visualizations of the Ebola and zika epidemics, and what we now also see in media coverage of COVID-19. In all these cases, full body protection suits create an otherworldly, sci-fi-like atmosphere and visually unite the very different diseases. Against this background, the ‘DIY-mask movement’ in the current pandemic strikes me as a new dynamic. Exploring the making of masks offers insights into both how people make sense of COVID-19 and how the pandemic becomes part of and shapes people’s new everyday life.

On the making of masks: who and why?

Interrogating the production of masks from a “making point of view” offers “insight into the embodied practices, perceptual skills, and tacit knowledge involved” (Bunn 2011: 24). So, who is sewing masks and why? The answer to that simple question is complex because there is a steadily growing number of initiatives, groups and companies that start to make masks. Therefore, rather than providing an encompassing list and discussion of the many different makers, I differentiate between two types of sewing: the sewing for others and the sewing for oneself.

Sewing for others

One example is a German online shop for sewing supplies. Next to sewing instructions for pencil cases and bibs, we now find the words “NOW is the time that we can help!” in a call for hobby needleworkers to use their skills for making respiratory masks based on a freely downloadable pattern. The website seeks to connect workers in system-relevant fields (supermarket employees, midwifes, nurses, etc.) and people with sewing skills. Via a comment section and email, the former can indicate and quantify their need for masks and the latter can respond accordingly. Here, sewing masks are one way to protect people in system-relevant jobs that at the same time face an increased risk of infection.

Other groups and individuals outside the DIY cosmos have recently turned to mask-making, too. One example is the hiking initiative “Mammutmarsch” that usually connects people to hike 100 kilometers together in 24 hours. As all hiking events are canceled due to COVID-19, the initiative has launched a website encouraging individuals to sew masks. The initiators coordinate and collect these masks and send them to regions where they find the masks to be needed most urgently. The current recipient (as of 3 April 2020) is the Red Cross in Madrid. Another example of sewing for others are mask trees that are currently emerging in Czechia, where volunteers make cloth masks and hang them into trees so passers-by can take them. In this case the masks are not made for a specific high-risk group but for everybody and serve as a more general sign of solidarity.

Sewing for oneself

The COVID-19 related news in Germany during the last days has been largely dominated by debates on the usefulness of wearing masks in public. While it is uncontested that a handmade mask cannot compete with professional FFP2 or FFP3 masks, the sentiment that ‘any mask is better than no mask’ is growing. Austria, for instance, has already adopted a rule on compulsory mask wearing in supermarkets, and the German city of Jena hopes to decrease the number of infections by making wearing a mask mandatory in supermarkets and on public transportation.

Closely connected to this development is the encouragement to use handmade masks so that the professional masks are left to those who urgently need them. These calls emphasize that wearing a mask can prevent the infection of others and understand wearing a mask as form of solidarity. One example is the initiative #maskeauf which encourages the making of masks to prevent the spread of the virus. Using the hashtag, national celebrities, amongst others, post images of themselves wearing masks and encouraging their followers to do the same. Meeting this call, sewing patterns are now shared widely, also outside of traditional DIY circles, for instance on the official website of the German city of Essen.

What is sewing masks doing?

Most importantly, the physical making of things, like sewing, can be a source of comfort, especially during crises. Gauntlett (2018) poses that “making is connecting”. I find this connecting to have many facets in the case of making masks. First of all, it offers a way to connect with distant friends and families in a time of physical distancing. My mother, for instance, cannot visit her elderly parents anymore. Sewing masks for them is one valuable possibility for her to take care of them from afar. Sewing can also create a connection between fellow needleworkers spreading a notion of “we can do this together”. This feeling of community is especially valuable when other forms of social interaction are restricted.

Secondly, making masks, proves one way of connecting with oneself. While the pandemic comes with many uncertainties, previously unknown fears and complex scientific facts, sewing can certainly be a comforting escape to counteract the feeling of helplessness, as making “affirms the self as a being with agency, acceptability and potency” (Parker 2010: xx). When the package with masks for my partner, my daughter and me got delayed and eventually lost on the way due to overwhelmed postal services, my mother got nervous and immediately sent a second stack of masks for us. When I called her to report on the arrival of that second package, she was very relieved and offered to immediately send additional ones in case we wanted more. Partly jokingly she pointed out,

“You know, usually I sew clothes for my grandchild. Who would have thought I would start sewing masks?! I am not sure I like the new pattern, but I am getting really good at it.”

For her, sewing as a familiar and enjoyable skill apparently provided one way to ease into a new, unknown and threatening situation. On the phone, I joined her laughter and praised her convertible sewing skills. Yet, her words made it painfully clear to me how the new normal may look in times of pandemics – masks instead of baby clothes – and I found it heartbreaking.

Last but not least, making masks is a way to connect with the pandemic, as craft fastens the concrete and the abstract into a material symbol (Bratich and Brush 2011: 247). Sewing masks requires thorough engagement with the virus. This starts with choosing the fabric: to kill all pathogens, it is recommended to use a type of cotton that is machine washable up to 60 degrees centigrade. Furthermore, to ensure a maximum of protection, it should still be breathable, yet at the same time as impermeable as possible. One also needs to decide on how many layers to include and how to make sure the mask perfectly seals off mouth and nose to keep pathogens out as much as possible. Finally, one has to decide which color the fabric should have. Obviously, this has no impact on the effectiveness of the mask; however, it reflects the attitude towards the pandemic. When I told my mother that I had seen images of colorful masks and asked her whether she was going to use some of the whimsical fabric out of which she usually makes clothes for my child, she strictly insisted that “this is not a joke” and that she wants the masks to look “real” and not like a children’s toy.

Masks1
“Not a children’s toy”: masks handmade by Katharina’s mum during the global COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 (Photo: Katharina Krause)

What are the masks doing?

While the idea of wearing a mask is still, admittedly, new and rather bewildering to me, on the day we received the masks from my mother I found myself explaining to my partner that it is certainly good to have them “just in case”. I noticed that it was hard and actually painful for me to clearly articulate what I meant by “just in case”. Just in case one of us gets sick and we need to prevent the infection of the two other family members and others? Just in case the situation in our hometown gets really bad and we end up too scared to leave the house without protection? Just in case we have to visit a doctor or the hospital and need to protect us and/or others from infection? The masks on the kitchen table forced me to put my fears – both for my family and the society – into words.

However, the masks do not only (help to) communicate fears related to the pandemic; textiles are also “bearers of knowledge” (Andrä et al. 2019). The growing trend to make masks is accompanied by a heated debate on their effectiveness. The sewing patterns usually come with disclaimers that the masks cannot replace professional protective clothing and with explanations of how the virus is transmitted, what a mask can do (i.e., protect others in case one is infected), what it cannot achieve (i.e., the same level of protection as professional masks) and how to handle it safely (i.e., change masks frequently and keep washing your hands). It is interesting to see and explore how the handmade mask brings together and critically engages different kinds of knowledges: the embodied knowledge of sewing as a traditional skill familiar to many, the scientific knowledge about the spread of pathogens, and the practical knowledge of, for instance, proper hand hygiene. It is crucial to note that the increasing interest in masks also shows how (perceived) knowledge (scientifically confirmed or not) about the pandemic has shifted. While in Western countries, until recently, the wearing of masks by persons without direct and close interaction with patients was deemed useless and perceived as a sign of irrational infection panic, the DIY mask movement indicates that the mask is now already much more accepted.

Given that one key motive of wearing the mask is to protect others, the mask can be a symbol of solidarity, a visible demonstration of caring for others. Here the mask potentially picks up the notion of ‘we can do it together’ connected to its making, creating a sort of collective identity based on thoughtfulness and care for others. This is already the case in China, where, as medical anthropologist Christons Lynteris (2020) has argued, “masks are also a marker of medical modernity, as well as a signal of mutual assurance that allows a society to keep functioning during an epidemic”.

Beyond that, I find that the handmade mask also has critical potential. The fact that many health professionals gratefully accept the handmade masks highlights the drastic shortage of professional clothing and thus points to a blatant problem in health systems. The World Health Organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus already warned on 7 February 2020 that the “demand is up to 100 times higher than normal and prices are up to 20 times higher” (WHO 2020). This shortage is echoed by the frequent pleas that non-health professionals should use handmade masks instead of professional ones, as the latter are urgently needed for medical personnel who work closely with infected persons. If we focus on the role of masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) in the context of health crises, we need to be sensible to questions of accessibility. In the case of the Ebola epidemic, for instance, PPEs were a scarce resource only available to health professionals, a catastrophic situation for those who took care of sick family members at home.

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DIY mask sewn by the author’s mum, Germany, 2020 (Photo: Katharina Krause)

Conclusion

I want to close this text with some critical reflections on the mask and its making. Returning to the above-mentioned initiatives and the sense of community they create, I wonder whether, and if so, where this solidarity reaches its limits. We sew for ourselves or for our families to protect the people who are physically and emotionally close to us, and maybe we also sew for the midwifes in our hometown or even for the Red Cross in Spain. While these actions are understandable and well-intentioned, they should not gloss over the fact that the pandemic makes painfully clear where solidarity ends. It oftentimes ends at closed national borders and it also ends, for instance, in Lesvos, where refugees live in overcrowded camps, often without reliable access to basic sanitary infrastructure. There, recommendations like ‘wash your hands with soap’ and ‘keep a distance to other persons’ become pure and cruel mockery. Since there is no institutionalized mask distribution in the camp, a group of four Afghan women have started to sew masks for camp residents. Making masks in this case has a much more grim and existential notion.

Furthermore, we need to be aware of the complex gender dimension that comes with crafts like sewing, knitting or crocheting which are predominantly done by women and thus often intertwined with “ideas of femininity through domesticity” (Tidy 2019: 225). The making of masks is frequently undervalued free female labour. Yet, at the same time, making has the potential to be empowering and can challenge static gender roles (Bratich and Brush 2011: 248). The handmade mask increasingly becoming a vital object in the fight against the pandemic might be one way to challenge oppressive gender roles (Parker 2010: xix).

Referring to the protection suit during the West African Ebola epidemic, Pallister-Willkins (2016) very convincingly points out that obsession with PPE and understanding it as a “technological fix” for the crisis can lead to ignoring structural factors and inequalities that need to be addressed to bring an epidemic to an end in a sustainable and wholesome manner.

Nevertheless, masks can have inclusive power. My mother, in this vein, “of course” also made a tiny mask for my one year old so that “she can be a part of it” – a gesture I find heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.


About the author

Katharina Krause is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Tübingen. Her PhD project explores the visualization of epidemics with a focus on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.


References

Andrä, Christine; Bliesemann de Guevara, Berit; Cole, Lydia; House, Danielle (2019): Knowing Through Needlework. Curating the Difficult Knowledge of Conflict Textiles’. Critical Military Studies 12 (1), pp. 1–19. DOI: 10.1080/23337486.2019.1692566.

Bratich, Jack Z.; Brush, Heidi M. (2011): Fabricating Activism’. Utopian Studies 22 (2), pp. 233-260. DOI: 10.5325/utopianstudies.22.2.0233.

Bunn, Stephanie (2011): ‘A ‘Making Point of View’. Deep Knowledge from Local Practice, with Special Reference to Feltmakers in Kyrgyzstan’. Journal of Museum Ethnography (24), pp. 23–40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41710453.

Gauntlett, David (2018): Making is Connecting. The Social Power of Creativity, from Craft and Knitting to Digital Everything. Second expanded edition. Cambridge, UK, Medford, MA: Polity Press.

Lynteris, Christos (2020): ‘Why Do People Really Wear Face Masks During an Epidemic?’. The New York Times. Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/13/opinion/coronavirus-face-mask-effective.html, checked on 3/31/2020.

Pallister-Wilkins, Polly (2016): ‘Personal Protective Equipment in the Humanitarian Governance of Ebola. Between Individual Patient Care and Global Biosecurity’. Third World Quarterly 37 (3), pp. 507–523. DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1116935.

Parker, Rozsika (2010): The Subversive Stitch. Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: I.B.Tauris.

Tidy, Joanna (2019): ‘War Craft: The Embodied Politics of Making War’. Security Dialogue 50 (3), pp. 220–238. DOI: 10.1177/0967010619834111.

WHO (2020): ‘WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on 2019 Novel Coronavirus – 7 February 2020. Available online at https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-2019-novel-coronavirus—7-february-2020, checked on 3/31/2020.

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