WEBSTER GROVES — As anxieties mount over the shortage of face masks for health care workers and others, Linda Helton’s mind recently wandered to her childhood, when her mother ripped bedsheets into homemade bandages and sent them to the war effort in Vietnam.
“I remember her rolling her bandages, and I would sit with her,” said Helton, 58, of Webster Groves. “I would stack them in the box for her.”
That memory gave Helton the idea of custom-making face masks — if not for doctors on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, for other people, such as her cousin who works in hospice and can’t simply stay home and keep the doors shut.
“This is my rolling bandage time because I have the machine,” Helton said. “I have fabric, and I can sew.”
Helton, who has a side gig doing embroidery, isn’t alone. Social media groups have sprouted online over the past few days in the spirit of making face masks and other gear. Helton joined four of them, including Masks for St. Louis, which has more than 1,100 members.
The site stresses that it’s not a single group making and distributing face masks from one location, but rather peer to peer. In essence, these are busy bees working from their own hives with whatever supplies they have or can originate on the fly. The site says these are “NOT medical grade,” but some wonder if that will matter by the end of this.
Helton’s face masks are made out of double-layered, tightly woven cotton. There’s an elastic strap and middle pinch-strip that goes across the nose. There’s an opening on the front for a filter, say something repurposed from coffeemakers, vacuum cleaner and furnaces — anything somebody can find.
“You can put a filter in there that gives you some extra protection,” Helton said of the design she’s using. “They take longer to make, but in the long run I feel like they will be more useful.”
Mary Ann Rogers, of Sews Like Crazy, a small business in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood of southwest St. Louis, also has been caught by the volunteer spirit to make masks.
“If this is a small way that we can help save lives, we are happy to do it,” she said. “It’s a stress reliever to help someone.”
Representatives from several health care systems across the St. Louis region said they are not accepting homemade masks at this time because of strict safety regulations.
University of Missouri Health Care, which has an assortment of hospitals in Columbia, Missouri, is a hybrid on the issue. MU Health Care is originating the materials and teaming up with quilting groups that volunteered to sew face masks. Their goal is 20,000 masks, but they may not have enough supplies for that, said spokesman Eric Maze.
“We will only be able to accept masks that are made with the supplies in our kits, and masks must be made in a smoke- and animal-free environment,” he said.
There seems to be an exception for clear plastic face shields that are worn over face masks.
The group Face Shields Initiative STL just formed to make 300 shields in the next week for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, said Emily Elhoffer, 26, one of the leaders of the volunteer effort that uses 3D printing and laser-cutting technologies.
“It’s a form of rapid one-off prototyping that allows you to create forms without the use of injection molding,” said Elhoffer.
She said their effort is decentralized, with more than 20 volunteers. For her part, she is working out of MADE Makerspace, 5127 Delmar Boulevard, one of three like it that are involved. They are using source materials already lying around and donations to fund an order of more plastic sheeting.
Helton, of Webster Groves, already had most of the fabric for her custom face masks. But she said she was short on traditional masculine colors. So over the weekend, with money donated by a friend, she went out and bought some of that, as well as a St. Louis Cardinals pattern. She dispatched her husband to the hardware store to buy more plastic covered wire, the kind they typically use to hold up their grapevines in the backyard.
It’s the elastic string that has been tough to come by. Helton ordered 288 yards of it online that hasn’t come in yet. A woman from south St. Louis County whom Helton met through an online sewing group gave her about 40 yards to bridge the gap.
Helton, who used to make her own clothes when she was young, said she can make a mask in 35 minutes. The dozen she made Monday were headed to a hospice house in South St. Louis County. Her cousin works there and has been interacting with grieving families.
From there, Helton plans on donating her supply to people she doesn’t know. Her Facebook page is lighting up with new contacts, more than she has time to answer. She knows what they want.
She has work to do.
“I will continue sewing because I am sure I will not be able to catch up,” she said.
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