For the last three weeks, I’ve been sewing fabric masks. This is not something I ever expected I’d do in my lifetime, but here I am, buying up fabric and spending my free time sewing pleats and curves, and trying not to stitch my fingers together. At first, I thought having all of this time at home would mean lots of time to say, write my next book. But you know what? I can’t concentrate on writing. I can’t even think about a book right now. What I can focus on is trying to do something useful. Practical. Beneficial to someone else.
Then: A Corduroy Alligator
Years ago, my mom taught me how to sew. Just like my grandmother taught her when she was a girl. Over the years, I fumbled my way through a few dresses, some skirts, some tote bags—nothing too fancy. My skills were limited. (I vaguely remember my high school Home Ec class, in which I sewed a wonky apron, a quilt square, and a tie snake with buttons for eyes.) In my thirties, I took a quilting class and made a pretty awesome wall hanging that has the most crooked seams you ever saw (remember Frankenstein’s monster? That’s the kind os seams we’re talking about here). As it turns out, I’m better at making “artsy” things, where it doesn’t matter if the seams are straight and there is no need for things like darts and gathers and zippers.
My mom and my grandma both sewed partly out of necessity, partly out of practicality, but mostly out of love. My mom made most of the dresses she wore in high school and college (and she’d kept some, which she showed me once, and nearly caused my head to explode). She used to wait for patterns the way we wait for a new album to drop. When I was a kid, she made clothes for me, too. (I didn’t always like them, of course, but in retrospect, the fact that she made things like pants and blouses is seriously amazing to me.) But the coolest thing she ever made for me was an alligator costume made out of green corduroy one Halloween. (I think I was about 8, and I’d give almost anything to have that costume now.) It was two shades of green, and she used a sharpie to draw on the scales, and I thought it was the most awesome thing I’d ever seen. And I kinda wanted to wear it all the time.
My grandma did the same thing. She made her own clothes, and like my mother’s, you couldn’t tell they didn’t come off a clothing store rack. That is to say, the seams were perfect and the clothes fit their owner like a glove. My grandmother sewed my mother’s wedding gown, and her veil. It’s still hanging in my parents’ attic, and I’m still amazed every time I see it.
My granny sewed too—what I remember most is the quilts she made for everyone in the family (and y’all, we had a big family so this lady was BUSY). She was always trying out new quilting patterns, and I remember finding her quilt frame set up in a spare bedroom once—I was baffled by the contraption, and couldn’t wrap my head around how she used it. But when she presented me with a finished patchwork quilt, it was magical. To this day, I feel like a part of her is with me in that quilt.
In my family, the ladies sewed partly because they didn’t have the luxury of buying in a store. But really, they sewed out of love. Because we make handmade things for the people we care deeply about. We hunt down the right materials (the ones that suit them just perfectly), and we take our time to learn the pattern or create one especially for them. Then we take our time in making this thing, and we fill it with love because we’re thinking about that person the whole time we’re making it, imagining their face when they see it, how they’ll use it, how it might make them happy, how they’ll always have this part of us with them.
All those years ago, when my mom taught me to sew, I just thought maybe I’d make some cool dresses. Maybe a quilt. I never thought that I’d be sewing hospital-style masks, hoping that it might protect someone, or save a life. Sewing was just this novel thing for me, but now it’s something entirely different.
Now: A Different Way to Show You Care
Now, as I’m sewing these masks, I’m thinking of the doctors who have treated me over the years, the nurses who cared for my family members every time they were admitted into a hospital; the nurses who cared for my mother and grandmother as they were dying of cancer; the therapists who helped my grandfather; the caregivers who showed such kindness and compassion to my family members (and remember, we were a big family, so that was a LOT). And that’s just my tiny window of experience: if you take those people and multiply their number by ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million, then you approach the number of health care workers who are on the front lines—right now, today—fighting to keep us alive. And that’s not even touching the all of the others out there protecting us—because there are so many of them, in so many professions, going to work every day to help someone else, and hoping they don’t come home and infect their loved ones.
So now I’m re-learning all the tricks my mom taught me (a piecing chain, making bias tape, clipping the curves). I’ve watched tutorials, I’ve joined some groups, and I’m still struggling to sew straight seams, but I’m getting better. I bought fabric online, on sale, and I’m fortunate to have a little money that I can spend on cloth, elastic, and thread that won’t melt at high temperatures. I’m extremely lucky that I can work from home, and stay safe and isolated, and sew for a few hours when my regular work is finished for the day. I don’t have kiddos that depend on me for care, and so I have this luxury of a little extra time to spend on something else that is deeply personal—and some days feels like a tiny drop in the bucket, but still feels like the one thing that I can do to say thank you to some folks taking care of all of us, and pay it forward—just a little.
My little sewing machine has seen more action in the last three weeks than it’s seen in the last twenty years. Partly, I’m sewing out of practicality, but mostly it’s out of love. And gratitude. And hope that we can all have a little more compassion for everyone around us, and do our part to protect each other.
Because it’s up to us. We’re in this together.
>> If you’d like to sew some masks to donate to hospitals or clinics, check out Relief Crafters of America, where you can get patterns, tutorials, and information about shipping your finished masks to folks who will send them to areas that need them the most urgently. (Different groups have different patterns that hospitals have requested, so be sure to get that info before you start sewing.) There’s also Sew. Some. Good. based out of Greenville, SC and the Carolina Mask Project. And these are just a few that I’ve joined—there are tons of groups out there you can join, and if you don’t sew, you can donate fabric or supplies. Every bit helps. Every way that you help matters.
>> If you want to make a mask for yourself, or for your friends and family members (because yes, we should all be wearing one if we have to go out in public—it protects you, but also everyone around you), then check out these two easy tutorials for a pleated design and a curved design with a pocket for an additional filter. Here’s another with fabric ties instead of elastic.