Facing up to the new normal

If you’ve wondered why and how to make masks, then this post is for you.
These were some of the first cotton masks I made, way back (as in a few weeks ago) when making masks was not quite the done thing

Making facemasks almost broke me. Apparently I saw the need for cloth masks to help in our battle against the coronavirus pandemic some time before many other makers of things cottoned on. And my friends at the Eastern Cape Craft Collection Shop, where I normally sell my Friday bags, thought it was a great idea too.

It was such a great idea that even if I cut and sewed and doubled over and straightened up all day and half the night, dragging in #him, my mother and my neighbour to help, it was never enough to meet the demand. People would be waiting at the shop doors when #him was due to deliver a consignment and the masks would be sold before he got there. There was a near stampede.

I can’t believe I started looking forward to lockdown, looming then, because I could stop making masks. And when it kicked in, I swore I’d never make a mask again, ever. In South Africa, we have a complete lockdown – we are all basically under house arrest. Even if I wanted to make masks, I figured, I wouldn’t be able to sell them.

I churned out masks in the fortnight leading up to lockdown. These are some of them

But the need and demand for cloth masks kept growing as more and more evidence emerged that wearing masks is one important part of helping slow the spread of the virus. It’s easy to do your own research. For a start, try here and here. I’ve also included practical information at the end of this post.

Suddenly, everyone and their aunties were making them. I enjoyed seeing small and even tiny enterprises promoting their masks. I would study their designs and note their wording. I’d wish them well, mightily relieved that I wasn’t making them.

For sale

It was and is not so great, though, to note the vitriol against people who dare to sell masks instead of giving them away for free. I guess the reasoning is that if you use your skills, time and money to make masks, you don’t need any earnings, but should survive on air and water.

It’s interesting that the same vitriol is not directed at the big companies that have got in on the act, churning out thousands of masks a day. But as far as I am concerned, they are all good, mass produced or handmade … the more masks getting to people, to everyone, the better. What you choose is a personal thing.

Anyway, some people have asked for my masks, and I have found myself back in the land of making masks. This time, though, I have been making them at a slower pace and with more pleasure.

My masks (well, the ones that I sell) leave me for R50 a mask – less than US$3 – which barely covers the cost of the materials, let alone the time. On-sellers may add a small mark up. I won’t apologise for that.

Make your own

However, I encourage people to make their own if they are that way inclined.

If you are interested, I have drawn on several designs, as well as measuring against my own face, to come up with an evolving pattern for my masks. My sources have included this, this, this and this.

I prefer a design that shapes itself over the nose and I use two layers of tightly woven cotton (cotton, it’s been shown, is one of the best materials to use for a homemade mask). My favourites are locally made shweshwe, soft denim (more recently), African cotton prints and quilting fabrics. Luckily, I have a healthy amount of supplies that I’ve built up over the years to create bags: we can’t leave our cages to go shopping, and if we could, the shops would be closed. But you can use anything, even old clothes, to make masks – as long as it’s cotton. Silk is good too, but I wonder how long it will last.

And I experiment with the design, more or less every time I make a mask. Recently, I’ve been creating a mask that is deeper in the centre so that it tucks neatly under your chin. I find this mask more comfortable – and it covers more of my face, which is better – but some prefer a smaller, shallower mask. So I make both.

A neighbour handed me some pipe cleaners, and I’ve sewn in small pieces to allow the wearer to adjust the mask to fit snugly over their nose.

Later today, I’ll work on a version without a middle seam, using darts to shape it – great if you’re looking to showcase a beautiful piece of fabric and you don’t want to cut it into pieces.

Masks for free

Some of the masks I make are not for sale. Inspired by the mask makers of Rhodes Village and Zakhele, I got involved in a small group in my area. So far, we’ve made more than 100 masks, which have been distributed, for free, in a local community. I am always blown away by the kindness of strangers.

Nomama Mei explains how to use masks
She hands out printed material with the masks. Pictures: Supplied

Nomama Mei, the curator of the Kwelera National Botanical Garden, has been at the forefront of distributing these masks, handing out printed pamphlets in isiXhosa and explaining and demonstrating in person why and how to use the masks and how to care for them.

Our group has used mostly our own stashes of fabric. Some of us have got pretty fancy with our designs; some of us have used simple masks that pleat or gather on the sides – a couple more ideas if you are looking to make your own.

Masks we made to hand out in the local community

No sewing needed

You can make a mask even if you can’t sew. There are plenty of ideas on how to make a no-sew mask, but I particularly like this video and this one – it’s amazing what you can do with a bandana or rectangle of fabric. I think they look very funky, indeed.

And why not get funky? Or not. It’s up to you. It’s the new normal, this wearing of masks. You might as well own it.

Information is key

It’s really important that people know how to wear masks and care for them so that it does not become part of the problem. The following is information that I put together to share with my masks (whether free or for sale). You are welcome to use it in any way that you wish.

About this mask

The South African government guidelines recommend “at least two layers of suitable fabric or three layers of such fabric (two layers plus an extra third barrier layer in the centre)”.

Most of our masks have two layers of thick, tightly woven cotton and, occasionally, other suitable cloth: we find that more than two layers of thick, tightly woven fabric impedes breathing. If we cannot resist using a thinner, beautiful fabric, we compensate by using a thicker lining or adding a third layer.

You’re unique

Faces come in different sizes because we are all unique (like your mask). That is why we have used a generous length of elastic (or ties on some masks). Please add a small knot to the elastic if you wish to shorten it. Also, you can tighten the sides of the mask by gathering the elastic – just pull the elastic or ties to gather.

 After use

  • Wash immediately in warm, soapy water. Your mask will last longer if you wash it by hand, instead of machine.
  • Dry, preferably in the sun. Iron.
  • Please DO NOT MICROWAVE this mask. Some have metal nose wires, depending on availability.

 When wearing your mask:

  • Make sure that it covers your nose and mouth completely.
  • Do not touch the mask and definitely do not touch the inside of the mask.
  • Remove it at the elastic – don’t touch the front of the mask until you’ve washed it.

Don’t let anyone else use your mask.

Why wear a mask?

This cotton mask will not prevent you from getting the coronavirus. Evidence is that it will:

  • Protect others from your droplets (when you cough and sneeze). You may not even know you have the virus – many people do not have any symptoms, but they can still spread the virus.
  • Stop you from touching your face, which will help reduce your risk.

“I protect you and you protect me.”

Other crucial things to do include:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water frequently. Also do this before putting on your mask and after taking it off.
  • Maintain a physical distance of at least 1.5m from other people.

It is better to have two masks – one that you are wearing and another that is being washed.

Stay safe!


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