Editors’ Note: Several times a week, we’re on the phone with Melanie Falick, the Editor and Creative Director of the MDK Field Guides. Conversation can range from the sublime to the latest binge of the moment. (And often to her gentle reminders that we have blown yet another deadline!) It’s never dull. This week, we discussed the phenomenon of mask making, and we were struck by the way it resonates with so many of the themes in Melanie’s exquisite recent book Making a Life: Working by Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live. With so many of us making masks to fight the Covid-19 virus, we encouraged Melanie to write about her experience.
—Kay and Ann
A couple of weeks ago I pulled my sewing machine out of a closet in my home office.
I purchased it last December but had only used it once since then—when my friend Therese taught me the basics of how to operate it. Although I sewed a bit as a teenager and here and there as an adult, I was never a natural and hadn’t owned a machine of my own in more than twenty years.
Of course, when the call came for home sewists to start making masks for health care professionals and others working on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic, I thought right away about pitching in—as a knitter I am part of a community that regularly creates for social causes.
And then I hesitated: The instructions I found online confused me. Next there was some debate about which types of fabrics were most effective, followed by reports that cloth masks might do more harm than good. On top of all that, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to run my machine without Therese’s guidance and reassurance.
I felt selfish for not forging ahead, for letting my lack of focus and my fear of trying something new and not being good at it, get in the way.
I watched on social media as industrious sewists quickly organized in order to provide as many masks as possible to facilities that wanted them. I felt selfish for not forging ahead, for letting my lack of focus and my fear of trying something new and not being good at it, get in the way.
To feel like I was helping, I made small financial donations to groups organizing mask-making in domestic factories, places where workers could produce hundreds of high-quality pieces daily while following social distancing and sanitizing protocol.
When I finally managed to sew a few masks—in two different styles as I tried to figure out which suited my skills and worked best—I discovered that I am drawn to making the ties. I cut, fold, and press long fabric strips, then feed them, one at a time, through the machine, holding the fabric steady as I press the pedal with my foot and the needle moves up and down, up and down, and forms the stitches. The process is simple, repetitive, and, for me, soothing, like working stockinette or garter stitch in knitting.
When I posted on Facebook to find out if any local mask makers could use my ties, right away a neighbor I barely knew replied yes. Quickly Regina and I started planning our “assembly line,” from one side of the street to the other.
Now the CDC has recommended that we all wear masks when we are in public. I have seen some amazing no-sew hacks using scarves and hair elastics that I am tempted to try, but I feel compelled to continue to sew. I have found that when I make a mask using fabric I like and focus and take care as I work, the stress and confusion of these strange times loosen their hold on me.
I have found that when I make a mask using fabric I like and focus and take care as I work, the stress and confusion of these strange times loosen their hold on me.
I feel purposeful and competent and actively connected to my well-being, not reliant on people or systems that are out of my control. My process is slow, which isn’t helpful to the front-line workers who need masks now, so my best contribution to that effort may be financial donations and the ties I hand off to my neighbor.
For most of us, our most important responsibility right now is to stay home and to do everything possible to keep the virus from spreading. This pandemic will, ultimately, be controlled and then we will go back to some version of our former lives. I’m not sure how many masks or ties I will make and distribute before that happens or if I will return my sewing machine to its corner in the closet when this is over. I do not know what the new normal will look like. But I am certain that working with my hands will continue to be one of my most reliable sources of solace, community, creativity, and strength.