Didn’t Think I’d Be Sewing COVID Masks

#sew4covidTwo weeks ago, my sister sent me an email urging me to apply my sewing skills to make COVID-19 masks. At that point, I’d seen reports that the homemade masks inadequately protect healthcare professionals―and give the general public a false sense of security. So, I resisted (maybe I was slightly lazy, too). She pushed back. I pushed back again. And the conversation ended.

A few days later, I saw on Facebook that a physician friend of mine was making masks for her clinic. She was using a pattern designed by a physician who also is a quilter. The pattern provides two layers of 100% cotton barrier with a pouch to insert a filter. Learning about this medically endorsed design piqued my interest. Through private message exchanges, my doctor friend pointed me down a valid, medically effective path. I ordered fabric and dusted off my sewing machine.

When I was about nine or ten years old, I taught myself to sew so I could make doll clothes. Later, as a hippy in the 70s, I sewed clothes for myself and my friends. When I was down on my luck after spending all my money on a wild adventure, I sewed zippers on sleeping bags in a factory. But over the last four decades, I mostly sewed Halloween costumes and window treatments. Nothing essential. Pure hobby. And not that often.

A week after my sister’s email, I was deep into sewing masks. My sister’s challenge and my medical friend’s inspiration altered my life in the last week. I climbed a learning curve, worked through pitfalls, and ramped up my production. I also connected to a community of Minnesota Covid Mask Sewists, comprised of healthcare workers, professional seamstresses, and hobby sewers like me, who are fulfilling thousands of requests for homemade masks to protect healthcare workers and the general public.

Many friends and colleagues have found my work inspiring and asked me to help them get started. Who would have thought that my sewing hobby could become a lifesaving skill? A month ago, none of us would have imagined that we’d be isolated at home or braving the front line in risky work conditions. I am blessed to be able to work from home and grateful that I can resurrect a dormant skill to help others. Hopefully, my small efforts can help us fight this global pandemic.

Rising to a Global Challenge

As people around the world have their lives disrupted with the COVID-19 global pandemic―or much worse―we all wonder what life on the other side of this crisis will be like. Our established rituals and routines no longer fit the new reality. Children can’t go to school. People can’t go to offices and attend meetings. Sports fans can’t watch competitions—live or on TV. No more dining out. No more entertaining at home. We didn’t see this coming and we don’t know what’s coming next. Most experts predict that we will find a new normal, just like how air travel changed after 9-11.

When the world, a country, or an organization experiences a major disruption, how can we cope? I offer a few thoughts on how this crisis (coronavirus and beyond) offers silver linings and rays of hope.

Return to Basics

With the whirlwind of modern life ground to a halt, I notice that people are finding comfort in basic life activities and entertaining themselves in simpler ways.  Instead of schedules jam-packed with activities for ten to twelve hours a day, people are playing board games, cooking meals, taking walks, and playing with their kids. Of course, the shelter-in-place lifestyle presents many challenges, but can it also provide an opportunity to recalibrate how we spend our time? Out on my daily walks, I see people smiling as they move to create social distance and share the outdoor spaces. I feel a sense of shared humanity. I observe families playing hide-and-seek in their yards (where I didn’t even know that families lived). It gives me joy.

Find a Cause

Dust off your dormant skills and hobbies to help you pass the time. Better yet, use them to help others and do more than pass the time. Is there something you can do in your isolation to help those on the front lines and support people who are suffering during this crisis? For example, if you’re good at online fund raising, many worthy non-profit organizations could use your help. Or maybe you have a talent, like music, that can spread joy—virtually.


There is no playbook during disruptive change. Jump in and make it up as you go along. The quilting doctor saw a need in her hospital that her hobby could address. So, she created a pattern and recorded a video tutorial. She established a program and started a local movement. Her resiliency and creativity inspired others. Now others are experimenting, sharing, and improving on her design, as well as creating other mask patterns.

Scale Up to Meet Demand

Nothing fuels innovation more than unmet demand. When I started sewing Covid masks, my ambitions were modest. But the death toll mounts and public health guidance now recommends that everyone wear masks when out in public. As a result, demand for masks has soared. I find myself thinking about how I can increase my output. I set up a production line. Broke the process down into discrete steps, preparing all the pieces in batches of 15-20, then assembling them as a final step. My error rate is reduced. I’ve enlisted others to help. My husband is curating supplies. Neighbor girls are cutting pattern pieces. We got a second sewing machine so our daughter can also sew. What started out as a hobby has become a bigger operation.

Become Part of Something Bigger

While I work to scale up my production, others in the sewing community are doing the same. Some MN Covid Mask Sewists are filling orders for hundreds—even thousands—of masks. We are sharing tips on where to source supplies. Healthcare experts give us feedback on how our masks perform in the trenches. From them, we learn about the flaws and successes of different designs. When supplies of elastic and fabric dry up, we share ideas about how to modify our approaches and repurpose other materials to keep our home operations going. I’m getting to know a whole new community of generous people. Tonight, I’m hosting a virtual sewing circle. Maybe our shared purpose will turn a bunch of strangers into lifelong friends?

As the COVID-19 pandemic illuminates, crisis motivates creative solutions (in addition to panic buying, hoarding, price gauging, and cyber hacking). Individuals innovate, communities organize, and people find ways to help each other. The human spirit is remarkably resilient and optimistic. Let’s focus on the many bright spots and look forward to better times ahead.

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity;
an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
—Winston Churchill


  1. Christine M. Palumbo on April 15, 2020 at 9:23 am

    “But over the last four decades, I mostly sewed Halloween costumes and window treatments.”
    Me, too! And I have scraps of fabric tucked away in a variety of places that I pulled out last week. And even some 1/8″ elastic; score!

    I sewed masks for my family members: Eight adults and five little children ages 6, 4 and 1-1/2. The masks for the youngsters were the hardest to make since they’re so tiny. And my trusty sewing machine — purchased in the mid-1970s in the Twin Cities — needs a serious tune-up It was really tough to sew with it. If the machine was in better shape, I would be doing what you have done, Jean.

    Thank you for sharing your inspirational story! I loved reading it.

    • Jean Storlie on April 15, 2020 at 11:26 am

      It’s great that you are joining the cause. I replaced my sewing machine from the 60s about 10 years ago but hadn’t used it much. I had to get out the manual and relearn it’s operations when I started this project. The first mask took me 3.5 hours. We bought a Singer Heavy Duty at Joann Fabrics for $150 so our daughter could help me with the masks. They shipped it to our house. It’s simple to operate, handles all the basic functions, and hums quietly. Best feature is an automatic threader (great for aging eyesight)! Your machine probably needs a tune up, but you might want to consider replacing it.

  2. Peter A. Seymour on April 8, 2020 at 10:16 am

    Good for you Jean! You are one of the most positive people I know, and I am not surprised to find you at the forefront of producing one of our greatest needs right now–masks. I think it is great that you have formed a community (including neighbors who cut cloth) and putting your energy to helping us get through this time of plague and pestilence. As the younger generation says, “Respect!”

  3. Jill West on April 7, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    How can I purchase some of these higher quality masks for family and people in my community?
    I’m in CA.

    • Jean Storlie on April 15, 2020 at 11:29 am

      I’m sorry for the slow response. I thought I’d replied last week. I am only donating my masks to local healthcare organizations, not selling them. I’m also distributing to family and friends in frontline jobs. Try searching Etsy. Some people are selling their DIY masks and using the proceeds to buy supplies to support donations.

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