Friday, April 03, 2020

UPDATED: Guest article: Keweenaw joins grassroots movement to make facemasks

By Charli Mills*

Wearing one of many facemasks she has made while her shop, Sew Cranky, is closed because of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Ginger Alberti of Hancock walks her dog, Suna. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

HANCOCK -- Ginger Alberti works alone at her shuttered Quincy Street business in Hancock, Michigan. She and her husband, Mike Sabo, own Sew Cranky, selling antique hand-crank machines, offering repairs to small old appliances, and teaching hands-on history classes with sewing projects that range from pincushions to hobby horses. During a pandemic, business is hands-off. Since the business is considered non-essential, Alberti has closed their storefront but continues her work inside. (Inset photo: Author Charli Mills. Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

Alberti has joined the ranks of a global grassroots movement united to fill the gaps in a shortage of facemasks, using DIY sewing patterns shared across the internet. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic of the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19.** As state governments mandate social distancing, including Michigan's Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order, groups have turned to Facebook to hold virtual sewing bees.

Since March 22, 2020, Face-masks from the Keweenaw has used their Facebook page to coordinate a local facemask production effort to make 10,000 masks to protect essential workers and the medically compromised.

Facemasks displayed on Face-masks from the Keweenaw Facebook page. (Photo © and courtesy Stacey Parsons)

Organizers Mary Sue Hyslop, Theresa Shebby, Debra Sisco, Krissy Sundrstom, Brian Eggart, and Amy Evans have more than 300 community members online. They collaborate with Michigan Tech University, engineers, medical professionals, and sewists. Like Alberti, they are trying to do the right thing. They follow the mantra, "Protect you; protect me; protect the community."

It seems a story more suited to fiction -- the women's sewing circles save the world when the corporate manufacturing and distribution systems fail. A global pandemic is not the best time to realize that the world has a shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE).

The shortage of PPE is why the sewists are working long hours without breaks. By the end of March, Alberti counted nine days straight, sewing masks eight hours a day. She began when a relative from Wisconsin contacted her.

"My cousin, who is a maternity nurse, was the first to get a whole big batch of masks," Alberti says. "Women coming in to have babies are scared. They don't have masks for maternity."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had to draw up national strategies to contend with a shortage of facemasks.*** The CDC describes "surge capacity" as a management situation caused by a spike in health care patients. It's like a coffee shop overrun with customers when everyone wants lattes at once.

In fact, one of the CDC strategies includes limiting patient access to facemasks to those who have symptoms. Mothers in labor typically aren't sick, but they feel vulnerable. The facemasks Alberti made could help ease the fears of women entering the maternity ward during a pandemic.

CDC guidelines do allow for health care personnel to use homemade masks or even bandanas in times of crisis when medical-grade N-95 masks are unavailable. They advise medical workers to use a facemask in combination with a face shield.

Individuals and groups are fielding requests and identifying the essential needs of their communities. As of April 1, Face-masks from the Keweenaw has over 300 small-batch orders locally. In addition to making masks for four hospitals, eleven nursing homes, and twenty Veteran's Affairs employees, the group is making them for postal workers, first responders, grocery workers, and delivery drivers. Even the Houghton County Sheriff's department has requested 28 "very sheriffy" facemasks.

Michigan Tech University might not be sewing, but they are working in conjunction with the grassroots facemask effort. Joshua Pearce, the Witte Professor of Engineering at Michigan Tech, confirms the shortage is real.

"Currently, locally, the hospitals appear to be ok; however, we have not begun to see the large numbers of COVID-19 patients that are projected to be coming," Pearce says.

Pearce directs the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab, which shares product designs, programming code, and other technical tools with a global community of makers, engineers, and researchers. The work is all open-source, meaning it is free to use, distribute, tweak, and improve upon. His group is collaborating with the J. Robert Van Pelt and John and Ruanne Opie Library to 3D print face shields made of a printed collar and mylar shields based on open-source designs for local hospitals.****

"The 3D-printed masks can extend the use of medical-grade materials by up to 6 times by taking the material from a commercial mask, cutting it into squares and using it in the 3D-printed washable mask," Pearce explains.

For this reason, many designs of DIY facemasks include a pocket where health care personnel can insert the medical grade materials as filters. Other design features include some sort of flexible metal in the top portion of the mask to conform it to different shapes of faces. Face-masks from the Keweenaw works to control quality, too. They have partnered with Laser North to produce consistent nose pieces but have not yet located a source for the materials that would be consistent with medical-grade filters.

Face-masks from the Keweenaw, a local effort of home production, aims to make 10,000 masks like these. (Photo © and courtesy Laura Rajala)

When it comes to materials for masks, Pearce provides research that compares various materials to surgical-grade masks. A study from the University of Edinburgh looked at how effective different medical and construction masks are at filtering pollutant particles, some of which are even smaller than coronaviruses.*****

Surprisingly, British tea towels (your average American cotton dish towels) when doubled up are as effective in filtering viruses as are medical masks. However, the conclusion is that 100 percent cotton t-shirts or pillowcases make the best material for homemade, washable facemasks. Alberti uses 50 percent organic cotton and 50 percent eco-poly. Face-masks from the Keweenaw uses 100 percent cotton.

Close-up view of one of Ginger Alberti's facemasks. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

Alberti says, "I firmly believe that everybody should be wearing masks."

She wears a mask around her neck (her design includes elastic that encircles the head) when walking her dog in her neighborhood and pulls up the mask when she encounters others, even though they maintain six feet or more of distance -- reasoning that someone might fall or need her assistance. Alberti wants to help others and knows she first has to take care of herself.

As of April 2, the CDC and the Vice President’s task force have not yet issued recommendations that experts believe are forthcoming in regards to the use of individual facemasks. Until recently, WHO and the CDC have advised that healthy people should not wear facemasks. WHO states on their website, "If you do not have any respiratory symptoms, such as fever, cough, or runny nose, you do not need to wear a medical mask. When used alone, masks can give you a false feeling of protection and can even be a source of infection when not used correctly." [See CDC UPDATE BELOW]

However, growing evidence suggests that masks could help prevent the spread of the virus.

The official statement regarding the proper use of masks expresses a concern that people might lapse in social distancing measures or touch their masks with unwashed hands. Those taking a pro-mask stance do not suggest replacing social or hygienic safety measures. The understanding is that the medical-grade N-95 facemasks must remain available to health care personnel, and those making facemasks continue to focus on essential workers and the medically compromised. However, Hyslop points out that the patterns are available for anyone to use, and many Etsy shops are selling masks for public use.

A local group of veteran spouses wants to minimize the spread of the virus without compromising those in health care or their husbands who are vulnerable to the virus because of pre-existing conditions and service-related injuries.

Lani Junttonen says, "I have been wearing gloves and keeping a 6-foot distance between people. I've not used the masks because they are in short supply and can't purchase them. I have no problem using a mask."

Because of the shortage, several are making their own masks, like Suzanne Guttmann. "It is a no brainer to me to keep me safe and others," Guttmann notes.

Tom Inglesby, Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, recently issued a 30-Tweet argument for the use of non-medical facemasks across the US. One contention is that many people who test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic.

Tweets by Tom Inglesby, Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, advising the public to make non-medical, washable fabric facemasks. (Screenshot courtesy Charli Mills)

Inglesby concludes, "Again-all med masks should go to hospitals/EMTs. @CDCgov should issue guidelines on proper design of non-medical fabric face masks. The public could make non-medical masks themselves using available washable materials, or they may become available in the consumer marketplace.30/x."

Pearce adds, "As more and more medical sources are recommending mask use, we will need a much larger supply. Homemade masks should be used for everyone. They can also be used in the hospitals specifically on sick people to conserve medical-grade masks for nurses and doctors."

Hyslop agrees, saying, "It's time to be real."

Sewists working long hours understand that lives are on the line. Our community has a high population of elderly citizens. Distance no longer protects us from the nation's hotspots. As of April 2, 2020, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department reports four positive cases (three in Gogebic County, and one in Houghton County). Churches and sewing circles can get involved -- the clock ticks.

Essential businesses, such as the Keweenaw Co-op in Hancock, are seeing an uptick in customers using personal facemasks. The store is also increasing safety measures. Curt Webb, Marketing and Outreach, says the co-op installed three plexiglass shields at their cash registers on March 25, 2020. The hanging sheet of high-quality plexiglass provides a barrier between cashier and customers at the chest height and head.

A Keweenaw Co-op cashier is protected by a plexiglass shield. (Photo © and courtesyTodd Gast, Keweenaw Co-op Marketing/Outreach Manager)

As sewists, open source labs, and businesses work to fill the gaps in PPEs and meet a surge in demand for personal use, materials could also end up in short supply. Locally, groups are working collaboratively to source materials from area sewing cabinets. Recently, Alberti ordered $90 worth of elastic for the design she uses from a vendor in California. She says the owner answered her phone call because he's working from home due to his age while his manufacturing facility operates. He told Alberti he never experienced anything like this in his 45 years in the business. His company can't make elastic fast enough.

Facemasks used correctly with social distancing, handwashing, and diligently cleaning high use surfaces -- such as doorknobs -- can help protect those still working or in need of going out to replenish groceries. When wearing a personal mask, it's important not to touch it just as you wouldn't touch your face. Once it is in place, seal it as snug as possible around your nose and mouth.

Todd Mills demonstrates how to wear a facemask. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

Hyslop says, "We are at the point where we need to wear masks. It shows we are taking this seriously. If the essential workers such as police, postal, and retail workers are wearing masks, it lends to the authority, credibility, and acceptance of protection for all."

Wearing a mask doesn't mean you are sick; it's accepting social responsibility. We are taking care of each other.

For now, everyone agrees that essential people need facemasks, and those on the frontlines of healthcare need the best medical grade possible. The equalizing capacity of a pandemic virus is that we are all in the situation together. Cooperation and ingenuity will be our hallmarks. In the Copper Country, we understand what it is to stick together, even when authorities mandate we stay apart. The pro-mask movement is an example.

During uncertain times, Alberti says, "I take a deep breath and make masks."

CDC UPDATE: CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Click here for the recent announcement.

Resources:

If you are interested in helping the local mask movement, join groups on Facebook, including Face-masks from the Keweenaw, or contribute to the needs of Masks for the Copper Country on their gofundme site. You can also email Masksfromthekeweenaw@gmail.com and donate directly to the Masks from the Keweenaw Fund at the MTU Federal Credit Union. Donors are encouraged to use the app, online banking, or call in donations in order to reduce the spread.

For more information on open-source designs for 3D printing visit https://www.appropedia.org/MTU_3-D_printing_PPE.

For access to open source mask designs, go to https://makerhub.co/supplies.

For more information on Michigan Tech’s Open Sustainability Technology Lab and their COVID-19 initiatives, visit https://www.appropedia.org/Category:MOST.

For the most current and accurate information on how to prevent getting sick, go to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.

Notes:

* Charli Mills, Keweenaw Now guest writer and author of this article, is a storyteller and lead buckaroo at CarrotRanch.com, an online literary community.

** World Health Organization. 30 March 2020. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public

 *** Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 31 Mar 2000. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/face-masks.html

**** See our reprint of the Michigan Tech News article, "MTU Engineering Team Joins Open-source Ventilator Movement," by Allison Mills.

***** Smart Air. "What Are The Best Materials for Making DIY Masks?" 8 March 2020.

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