Sew Your Own Mask

How to make a mask for covid-19

Leda Raptis,

July 11, 2020

            There had been lots of confusion at first about the importance of masks. The CDC and the WHO said that we should not wear them (??!!), but the real reason was the fear that people might buy up all masks and nothing would be left for health care workers…  Finally, the course was reversed and since early July masks are mandatory in all buildings in Ontario.

            Early in March, Kingston General Hospital sent messages to everybody in research, asking for spare masks.  I did not have any, but I just got my sewing machine down to make some.  Since then I have made a total of over 750 masks, ~300 for doctors and nurses, then for patients, PSWs, physios, cleaners, all these unsung heroes. Then as colleagues asked me for some masks for their research labs and wanted to pay me, I just told them to donate to charities, like the Ontario Health coalition.  

            Here are some instructions. They are made to be tough, to withstand many washings. The edges are hemmed with the zigzag as you can see, so that sewing machine needles don’t break. The elastics are sewn on top, so that it is easy to change their length, eg if the mask shrinks in the wash.

Material:  It must be 100% cotton, because it holds droplets better.  Is it dense enough?  Hold it up against the light, it must not show light coming through. What I found works best is flannel. As it is “fluffy”, the fluff closes all tiny holes in the material. I use two layers, as you can see.

Cutting:  A cutting board with a wheel-cutter works best.  Cut a piece, 21cm x 32 cm (8 ¼ x 13 inches). The cloth comes 150 cm wide, so you can make 7 masks across, if you want to make many. Some recipes say to cut two pieces and sew them together, but I prefer to cut a bigger piece and fold it in half. That way the part around the nose is more flat.

Photo 1: The cloth piece, shown from the back side.  Fold along the dotted line

Fold the piece in half, to become 21 x 16 cm.   Hold the material in place with pins. Sew at ~0.5 cm from the edge at the three sides with a straight stitch, to hold it in place. Trim it with scissors to make it straight, if necessary.

Photo 2: The piece folded in half and sewn at the three sides close to the edge.

Pin three pleats in each side, as shown below. Place the pins at ~2 cm from the edge, so that the pins are not in the way of the foot of the sewing machine, as you will be sewing the pleats.

Photo 3: Three pleats, pinned at ~2 cm from the edge.

Cut two pieces of elastic (flat, 6 mm wide), 20cm each.

Photo 4: Cutting the elastic.

Sew the pleats with straight stitch at first. Sew the elastic too. I like to hold the material with the little tool I use to undo stitches.

Photo 5: Sewing the pleats with straight stitch.

Place one end of the elastic on top of the cloth and sew it, together with the cloth.

I do not put the elastic inbetween the two layers of the cloth, because you may want to make the elastic longer or shorter, if eg the mask shrinks in the wash or if it stretches. As it is sewn on top you can just undo the stitches easily and adjust the length.

Photo 6:  Adding the elastic.

Then sew the cloth with the pleats with a zigzag stitch to hem it. I go over it twice. Then I hem the bottom with the zigzag.

Then the same thing for the other side.  (remove the pins when done).

Figure 7: Sewing the elastics and the bottom part with a zigzag stitch

For the nose-wire:

            The nose-wire is important, because the mask must fit well around the nose and not get too much air out the top and to your eyes and glasses. I make the mask with a little “pocket” where the wire can fit so that you can take it out for washing, then you put it back in. The pocket must be made from material that is thin, also does not fray. This is because you don’t want something bulky right under your eyes, and it is better if it does not fray, because then it needs hemming, that may increase the bulk. I prefer to use “spinnaker cloth”, but you can use any ribbon.

Cut a piece, 1cm wide, 9.5 cm long. Pin it to the mask at 2-3 mm from the top edge.

Photo 8: Pinning the slip to make the pocket for the nose-wire

Sew the slip at the three sides, ~1mm from the edge. Leave one end open, to be able to take the wire out for washing, then put it back in. One side is a bit shorter, to make it easier to put the wire in.

Photo 9: The pocket sewn in place. Ready for the wire.

Cut 17 cm of wire, the kind that gardeners use. You can find it in Dollar stores.  Or packing wire. It must be pliable but plastic-coated, so that it does not rust.

Photo 10: The wire. From Dollar stores

Photo 11:  Fold the wire in half. Make it flat

Photo 12: Place the wire in the pocket.

Photo 13: Mask ready

Photo 14:  Two different colors, plaid beige, blue with hockey pucks on. Outside view

Photo 15: The masks, inside view, with the nose-wire showing

How to use the mask

To put the mask on, place the elastics around your ears. To remove it, take it off from the elastics. Do not touch the front, because it may have the virus particles you are trying to avoid. Eg do not put it in your pocket and whip it out once the mask-police shows up… Especially, do not put it on backwards (!), because then you will breathe in all the viruses that the mask retained.

You need to wash the mask once you take it out. Or at least kill any viruses on it by soaking in Ethanol, then drying it, before using it again. But, after a day of wearing it continuously you need to launder it with hot water and soap, because it does get dirty and smelly. Do not use bleach though, because you may damage the elastics. If this happens, you may shorten them, or change them.

Rinse the soap well, because if there are any traces left, it may smell nice but it may irritate your throat and make you cough.

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