Skip to content

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.


Two Patterns to Try

There are a lot of mask patterns available. Here are links to the two sets of instructions I followed.
“It’s Time to Make Your Own Face Mask” from The New York Times.
“How to Sew a Surgical Face Mask for Hospitals—Free Pattern” from Sarahmaker.
What is your experience with mask making?

About The Author

Melanie Falick has given the world of craft some of its most beloved books. We are proud and delighted to be working with her as editor and creative director of the MDK Field Guides. Her book, Making a Life: Working by Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live, was named one of the 100 Best Books of 2019 by Publishers Weekly.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Thank you. You’ve so beautifully articulated some of the feelings I haven’t been able to for myself, and, I’m sure for so many of us. Thank you.

    • Yes! Thank you! That’s how I feel and what I’ve been doing as an alternative.

  • Oh I wish I was your neighbor! I’ve been making many masks for hospital and first aid workers and once I ran out of elastic I began making ties out of tee shirt material. Your ties are lovely but I have requests for so many I needed to do this quickly. In such frightening, uncertain times I also feel a sense of some control when I am sewing these masks.

  • Oh, thank you for posting this!

    I would normally be knitting away, but in these times I was happy to put the double needles down and bring out my sewing machine! Like you…I have rather new machine that I purchased a couple of years ago. I used it to make a quilt for a new granddaughter back then and put it away. I had to re-learn things too.

    I just finished sewing masks for my family, friends and neighbors. Everyone I know hasn’t been able to find a mask so I had extra fabric and was lucky enough to find some elastic. I also had interfacing and some Oly fabric that I used in the middle to give them some extra filtration.

    If there is any silver lining to this crisis, it’s that a bunch of us are learning and re-learning new and old skills!

  • I agree with others, you have so well spoken our feelings on making masks. Thank you. I had a lot of stress around the best fabric and finally settled down to sewing which brought me peace. The best tip i found was folding a 1″x3″ piece of foil pie plate in thirds lengthwise (DONT use the beautiful sewing scissors!!!, my Mom will come after you!). Secure it at the nose, to firm up any gaps.

    • I love this idea. I’ve been using a 4″ piece of 20 gauge craft wire with ends twisted into tiny loops to keep from poking (why yes, I happen to have multiple rolls of craft wire in multiple colors, why do you ask?)

      But to the larger point, I’m also not a production seamstress. I made a few extra because our county now has a mandatory masks in the grocery store rule. I figured hubs can hand one to any fellow shopper who arrives without so they aren’t turned away.

    • I’ve been using twist ties. I position it in place and zig-zag over it while I am doing the topstitching to hold the pleats in place.

      • I used paper clips yesterday! My son – who just completed EMT training, thought it worked well.
        Necessity is the mother of invention.
        Now if only I can get more twill tape …

    • @SmartisJ – Smart thinking! I was trying to think of something to use other than pipe cleaners that have become scarce and I came up with the braided picture wire.

      I cut about a 5″ length and then I sewed the top seam of the mask (mine were 6 x9 rectangles). I put the wire just above the seam line and then sewed a little “pocket” around it so it wouldn’t shift when I turned it inside out. Seems to work and the nose piece can be snugged down!

  • If I had your gift of expression I could have written your first five paragraphs. Ties are what I am able to accomplish also. For no-sew masks. I’ve just not been able to take charge of the machine for anything else. This is a huge disappointment and frustration for me at a time when I need just the opposite. So, like you, I’ll just find someone who needs my ties!

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  • To conserve fabric I have been making ties by single crocheting cotton yarn in long chains. It goes very fast, and I just cut the lengths I want and overhand knot the ends. When the mask is worn, the ties will drape down and not stick out like some cotton ties might, and they are less slippery on hair than elastic.

    • Great idea. I have been making masks but find the ties tedious. Once I run out of my mother’s 50 year old stash of bias tape, I’ll switch to crochet. Surprise! I have tons of cotton yarn too!

  • I have gone from making masks to making headbands with buttons. I love to sew and my machine is old. My main worry is that the light bulb will expire! On this machine, when the light is out, the machine won’t go. It is an old Janome and I love it but I don’t get this particular feature.
    I haven’t been making big batches. My output is not prodigious, but so far I have been able to supply my family and some others who have asked. The most went to my daughter, who is a nurse in a Long Island ER who has also been sharing with the non medical staff in the hospital who were not, at first, being given masks. (!)
    I have been using fabric I love to sew with. Mostly quilting fabric. It has also been a chance to share with others and shed some stash. A local to Long Island needle arts store in Mattituck was kind enough to respond to my Instagram post about interfacing and send me some so I can continue to make the kind that use interfacing. And I got the elastic that I ordered as well so more masks are in the queue. I can’t help but think that we will be wearing these into the future.

    • Maybe just order a replacement bulb (or two) now. That way you can eliminate one worry and you’ll be able keep going if the current one expires! 😉

    • I have been making this style I heard about a few days ago on Instagram. A new free pattern from Bayron Handmade:
      This one is strictly for civilians to wear when going out of the house. It protects others from your breath or cough. It’s comfortable, washable, and NOT hot to wear.

    • Oh yeah. Twisted floral wire is what I have been using for the nose clamp thingie. I have been sewing a channel with seam binding to insert it into, on the face touching side of the mask, but not in between the layers. This way it can be removed for washing.
      Sorry to be so long winded.

      • a coworker uses the fold over things on a bag of coffee.
        Those of us who wear masks and caps every day at work are very appreciative of the masks you make

  • 8-( Forty all done and donated. 16 cut out on the sewing table. Fabric for at least another 50+ and my sewing machine stopped working last night. Keeping fingers crossed that it just needed a rest and will be operational this morning.

  • I’ve made 42 masks so far. When I ran out of elastic, Catholic Charities donated a large bag of brightly colored shoelaces that work great for ties.

  • Brava.
    Been sewing for over two weeks. For friends, family and local institutions who call for need.
    I sit at my machine, run through BritComs or costume dramas, and let the hours slip away.

    • p.s. – develop that sewing brain! I find it goes hand in hand with a knitting brain!

  • I am a pretty experienced sewer, but making something like this isn’t my favorite thing (in other words, I kind of hate it.) But I was compelled to make masks for my family, and then some friends came to mind–Michael, who is a hospice worker in LA, James, who has cancer in Paso Robles, Marilyn and her husband, who is on dialysis…I kept thinking of one more person who likely had no way to get masks of their own (or, in Michael’s case, didn’t want to take the ones at the hospital from the nurses.) I’ve been using a pattern from the Kaiser Permenente website which is easy, and have been banging them out, 10 or more at a time, in an assembly line manner.

  • I just spent the last week making the pleated style face masks for friends and family. Yesterday I mailed the final 6 out of a total of 94 made.

  • I’ve found myself stymied by the various patterns and finding the “right” combination of fit + ease of sewing, so have tried 5 or 6 different patterns (insert eye roll here). One more today that I have high hopes for…HA! Fortunately the masks I have made are perfectly serviceable and really that’s all I should be aiming for. We’re all just doing the best we can.

  • I live in a pretty rural area, so I’ve been making do with supplies on hand. My available elastic ran out pretty quickly, and my treasured stash of bandanas is now gone. (Did you know you can get more than 5 yards of bias binding out of a large cotton bandana?) I’d always heard about making bias binding and it looked so fussy, but now it’s something that gives me a great sense of accomplishment! My sister donated a favorite pillowcase, from which I made several masks, and I repurposed some tea towels because I heard those were appropriate. I have hundreds of large paper clips, so that’s what I use for nose wires and it seems to work well so far.

  • Thanks you so much for this article. I have been making masks all week and I ironed the ties last night for hours so I understand the rhythm that Melanie speaks about. Love you guys!!

  • Lovely thoughts. I get so nervous sewing you’d think I was trying to perform surgery on myself. I’ve made 4 masks so far for family and am surprised they turned out well. Now I’m gearing up to make some to donate to a local hospital/clinic (strangers!). Ran out of elastic so tried strips from stretchy knit fabric bought couple of years ago. (What was I thinking?) Between that and making ties I should have a good number of masks to donate. Anyway, you all inspire me to accept the nerves and forge ahead.

  • There is an excellent pattern from Marfy (Italian pattern maker) that fits over an N95, so you can use the mask more than once. (for my daughter/nurse, so please don’t scold). Marfy instructions aren’t the easiest but there is a detailed tutorial for beginners on Clothingengineer’s blog. This mask doesn’t use pleats and fits under the chin. I have a bunch of elastic for ties so I use that. It also can be used alone and is really comfortable with a great fit.
    I posted mine on Instagram and learned more than I could imagine about the politics of sewing for hospitals. I sew for my friends and family. 😉

  • I have made 53. My hubs is working in a hospital research lab that is now studying a vaccine and how to safely clean and reuse PPE. I made 3 for him out of my hand dyed indigo cotton fabric. His coworkers inquired if they could get some, and then my neighbors and friends as well.

    Everyone who got one asked for another to protect someone else they love. That instinct to care comforts me even though I can never relax when making them. I can’t forget what they are for and why we need them.

    So I keep going. I have tons of lingerie elastic from a project a few years ago, it works great and is very soft on the ears. No one has complained I only have craft wire left for another 11, but that paper clip tip has inspired me.

  • Thanks to all of you for making masks. Quick question: What machine would you recommend for doing simple stuff like this? My old Kenmore is no longer with me (declutter/downsizing over enthusiast).
    Thanks in advance for your input.

    • I find that my BabyLock Anna model is a very useful but basic sewing machine.

      • Thanks Kathy!!!

  • Thanks for this timely article. My boss at work asked if I’d be willing to sew masks for everyone. Getting paid to sew at work, yes! And I have a large fabric stash from my quilting days. Thank you MDK!

  • Thank goodness my sister is better at making these than I am. “It looks so simple! I used to sew a lot!” I told myself. I dug up some elastic that I’m pretty sure was left over from the last time I made a peasant dress out of an Indian bedspread (that would be decades ago). I did finally manage to get one done that kinda-sorta fit ok, then gave the rest of the elastic to #1 Sis, who dropped off several masks later that day that are much better.

    The things that connect us are endless, it seems. Kudos to all of you sewing soldiers.

  • Melanie, I hated making the ties (that folding toward the center bit, with a hot iron too close to my fingers!) but as usual I was influenced by your opinion and now I’m making ties like it’s my job. I’ve only made 9 masks but I’m making them for friends and neighbors who don’t have them and it feels good. I didn’t have any elastic and I Ike the custom fit you get with four ties.

  • I have been sewing masks for family, especially for my family that works in healthcare. My husband’s niece, a single mom, says she cannot go into a grocery store without a mask. She had a mask for herself but not her 3 year old daughter. She has no choice but to take her daughter with her to get food. So a mask for the little girl is in the mail. Makes me feel like I am helping in some way. Happily cluttered up my house sorting through fabric. Not expecting anyone to drop by, so the mess doesn’t matter!

  • I’ve made 9 of the NYT pattern for my daughters, my ex-husband, my boyfriend, myself and a few extras to have on hand in case anyone else I know needs one. Between cutting, pressing and sewing, each one took about an hour for me. They turned out so well, though, and so strangely pretty! They’re very satisfying little projects. I also loved sewing the ties, but the pressing, not so much. The steam from the iron burned the crap out of my fingers and I burned my hands by accidentally touching the iron a few other times, too. It was totally, totally worth it, though!

  • I’ve been making masks for family &friends. The interesting part is trying different patterns to find the best fit. I only make 1-2 a day. But it adds some order to my life, and is a way to let my adult kids and friends know I care about them. No one has not used them. Also my knitting mojo is “off”. Can’t find something that satisfies me. Which is strange since I ve been a daily knitter for years.

    • Exactly! I can’t settle on a “right” knitting project, although knitting has for years been the bedrock of my life, my safe haven. (And I have the stash to prove it!) But, right now, sewing two masks a day feels wonderful and holding a pile of quilt fabric that is destined to be masks brings joy to my heart.

  • I’ve been sewing masks for friends and family for about three weeks. It’s a small way to combat the pervasive feeling of helplessness. I’ve been using the JoAnn Fabrics pattern and making my own ties with a tricky little tool I acquired many years ago for an ill-fated applique quilt project. It’s a bias tape maker that looks a little like a flattened funnel that folds the fabric strip for you. You place the tip of your iron at the small end and press as you pull the fabric through. Genius!

  • This is wonderful! I too brought out my sewing machine, and was surprised at how rusty my sewing skills had gotten! I managed to make two that still don’t fit quite right, but I’m not giving up! Thanks for the recs on other patterns to try. Keep Making!

  • I thought I would hate sewing the binding and ties, and I actually love it! More than the elastic.
    Most of my sewing things- stash, tools- went ahead to England (where I’ll be moving next year) because I figured I wouldn’t have time to sew while I was here in the US and in school. Well, shows me. I kept my sewing machine here, and it paid off, now I’ve been sewing a lot in between studying. My knitting projects are paused while I sew for friends and family. I wonder how much longer the need will go on, and will I keep sewing through the summer?

  • I have been making masks following an online pattern and laughed when someone shared this with me…

  • I’ve made over 500 masks so far. I’m considered an essential employee as are my 158 co-workers. At first we used what was at hand … bandanas & cotton clothesline for the ties. The sewing machine came to work & we assembled & sewed until everyone had a mask. Then, at home, I started making for nurses, correction officers, social workers, postal workers & more for my co-workers. Now friends & neighbors as well. Supplies are hard to find. Bias-tape, twill tape, elastic, even the loops kids use for the potholder loom work as ear loops… using whatever is donated. Quilting stabilizer (cut away, not wash away), interfacing & shop towels… and a coworkers quilting stash left to her by her mom (RIP). Your ties are amazing!!!! Bless you for your contribution, your neighbor is very lucky. Thank you.

  • Can you knit or crochet a mask with cotton yarn. No one talks about this possibility.

    • Technically you could knit or crochet a mask. The problem is to knit it tight enough, so that the germ molecules can’t get thru, would render it too stiff, thick & heavy to wear. I suppose you could knit/crochet & then add a cotton liner to the inside. Neither of these could be worn by medical staff thou as they wouldn’t hold up with sanitation procedures.

  • Melanie thank you for your inspiration. I too was a sewer very young, but soon abandoned when life became busy with work. I’ve carried a tremendous guilt for not diving into the sewing of masks during this pandemic. No longer! Today’s the day it starts!!
    PS.. your Making a Life book is beautiful work! I bought a copy for my dear cousin as a Christmas gift because she’s been so inspirational in my craft life. After glancing through just a few pages and longing to read every word, I had to order another copy for myself! Keep them coming Melanie! God Bless

  • I too felt overwhelmed at the beginning. A weird resistance to figuring it out. I said to myself “SNAP OUT OF IT!” and thought ok. I’ll think of the first batch as prototypes. I tried 3 different patterns. I settled on the Sarah Maker one — and there is also an Olson one for Cleveland Hospital which didn’t have pleats, but had a fiddly pocket for a filter and once i omitted the pocket part, realized it could be made in two pieces I also made several of them. And THEN!!!! One night scrolling on twitter discovered a link to a YouTube video on how to make disposable masks from shop towels, paper clip (or pipe cleaner) scotch tape staples and rubber bands. This is like insanely easy. And if you cut small squares of fabric to place between your face and mask even better. I can whip out 30 in an hour. For normal purposes this mask does the trick. (Walking dog—etc).

    • Also I’m a terrible sewer. I broke many needles on those darn pleats. If anyone has any advice on how NOT to break needles I’d really be grateful.

  • I wish that I had read this in the beginning. I am still making masks, now more for children going back to school. I am not quilting anymore I seem to be only able to focus on masks and more masks. I am knitting a little but there is little satisfaction in it. We have been very fortunate where I live but the waiting for the other shoe to drop is taking a toll.
    I am using my skills and that is good but I still feel helpless.

Come Shop With Us

My Cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping