Cloth Masks

Athens seamstresses are sewing cloth face masks to save N95 masks for health care providers in the midst of nationwide and community shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers. (Photos Courtesy/Amy Baer and Adrienne Antonson)

Adrienne Antonson used to spend her days creating and planning apparel items for her Athens-based clothing brand State the Label. Now, she’s cutting up fabric pants to create the one piece of apparel that there never seems to be enough of these days — cloth face masks.

Antonson and her team of seamstresses have shifted their focus because of the nationwide and community shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not just her boutique — hundreds of Athens seamstresses, from clothing store employees to sewing hobbyists, have stepped up to help.

In order to save N95 masks for health care professionals working directly with COVID-19 patients, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends other people wear cloth masks. These masks can be used by health care workers in other wings of the hospital, physicians and nurses in doctor’s offices, those working in grocery stores or people out shopping.

“I think every human on this Earth has been very affected by what’s happening,” said Antonson, whose shop is located on Barber Street. “There’s a feeling of helplessness when all you can do is stay home. Knowing this is a problem locally that we could help fix with our skills, and we had the supplies, we had to do something.”

Seamstresses have stepped forward as the coronavirus spreads, adjusting their own designs as hospitals and nurses give them feedback on what works best.

Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center requests any cloth mask donations to use State the Label’s published design, which was posted on the clothing brand’s website in late March. The masks are double layered and stitched in the middle with elastic to hold it in place.

St Mary’s Hospital prefers a cotton mask with three pleats and ear loops with different colors for the front and back, similar to the masks Athens boutique Community is making.

These two hospitals serve Athens-Clarke County and 16 surrounding counties. Georgia reached its peak use of hospital resources on April 15, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, but this date has shifted multiple times in the past few weeks.

Seamstresses from other Athens-based clothing brands, such as Red Dress Boutique and Community, are using their sewing skills to help during the crisis.

Creating a space to help

A Facebook group, Mask Making for Athens, has more than 1,000 members with six administrators working to coordinate about 300 volunteers, material donations and mask pick-up and drop-off.

Amy Baer, a stay-at-home mom who helped start the group, never expected the number of volunteers to be so high. The group has made nearly 4,000 masks as of April 13 and still have about 5,000 requests to fill for those who requested through the group’s form, Baer said.

“It’s amazing how when you just create a space for people to safely and efficiently and lovingly give of themselves, they will step in and give extravagantly,” Baer said.

The Facebook group has two forms, one for volunteers signing up to help and one for people requesting an order of masks. Administrators prioritize requests from health care workers, Baer said.

Neither Melina DeMaria, who coordinates material pick-ups and mask drop-offs, nor Baer know how to sew, but they knew they could work together to start this movement to help health care workers.

The women do not accept monetary donations, but they encourage people to order fabric, elastic or other necessary materials if they would like to contribute.

State the Label requests anyone who wants to make masks to go through this Facebook group, and the company has provided pre-cut fabric bundles to support the grassroots effort.

Community and Red Dress Boutique have also distributed pre-cut bundles to volunteers.

Community owner Sanni Baumgärtner said the boutique offers the volunteer seamstresses compensation through a GoFundMe fundraiser the boutique started to make the masks. However, she said many who have asked to help make masks did not want to be compensated.

Mask logistics

The design that State the Label created that is now a standard for PARMC has received national attention, Antonson said, either from people requesting masks or using the directions.

Antonson thinks the shareability of the design, which is free to use on their website, made their design so popular.

The design uses two pieces of fabric sewn together with a pocket in the middle for a replaceable filter, like a high efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter used in air filters. The masks are made out of tightly woven fabric and secured with elastic.

Red Dress Boutique is using the State the Label design for a batch of masks they’re making for Piedmont with scrubs given to them from the hospital, so the masks will match the uniforms.

Red Dress Boutique owner Diana Harbour said they started their first full week of production on April 6. Harbour said the boutique also raised $2,500 for sewing machines and materials in a GoFundMe, which helped up their production capacity

Red Dress Boutique has a library check-out system for the sewing machines for people who do not have that equipment at home. They also have 25 essential employees still working in the warehouse, which is down from the 150 they usually have, Harbour said.

Harbour said they have an “army of seamstresses” working to make the masks.

Community is also sending most of their masks to Piedmont. As of April 16, Community has donated more than 2,000 to the hospital, sending about 50-100 on a weekly basis. If they have requests from other medical centers, they try to fill those as well, Baumgärtner said.

Still a small business

State the Label has given away about 800 masks so far, 500 of which went to hospitals, Antonson said. Twelve seamstresses, two of whom are still working in the studio, make up the team who creates these masks.

Antonson said they’re still selling clothes and have gotten a lot of orders. However, making masks is the main priority right now, and she said her customers would understand if orders got to them a little slower while they work to make masks.

“We’re trying to stay afloat like every other small business, too,” Antonson said.

For Baumgärtner’s shop, Community, the masks have been a lifeline to keep her small business running.

Baumgärtner and her team started making the masks after putting out the GoFundMe to the Athens community, which has raised more than $9,000. She uses some of this money to pay her employees, who she initially worried she would have to lay off when the business closed.

“I feel so grateful that something came up and we are able to produce something that is really needed right now,” Baumgärtner said. “This is a way we can contribute, and at the same time, keep the business going.”

When the State the Label masks went on sale on the website, they sold out of all 200 in 12 minutes, Antonson said, which was the fastest sell-out they’ve had of any product and shows the need for the masks in the community.

Community is selling a “buy one, donate one” mask you can purchase for $15. State the Label will sell plain white masks for $8 and hand-painted ones for $14 once they restock.

None of the mask-makers anticipate an end date for their work and will continue to make and donate masks as long as there’s a need and they have materials.

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