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Sewn with love: Group makes masks to help hospitals combat coronavirus

Brenda Fotos sews masks to donate to area

Brenda Fotos sews masks to donate to area hospitals in her living room as a neighbor walking her dog is reflected in the window in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Sacramento on Thursday, April 9, 2020. Credit: Sacramento Bee / TNS/Renee C. Byer

Allison Keller is a surgical technologist at Sutter Roseville Medical Center who feels the strain on health care workers serving on the front lines in the fight against a global pandemic.

“It’s scary,” she said.

People are dying, personal protective equipment for medical professionals is in short supply and the threat of COVID-19 is everywhere, but that’s not what brought Keller to tears during a recent telephone interview.

Keller started sobbing softly into the phone when the conversation turned to the kindness of strangers such as Beth Chambers, Brenda Fotos and Quynh Nguyen, members of the Sacramento, California, chapter of the American Sewing Guild. More than 30 women from the group have worked for weeks to make thousands of masks for area hospitals, devoting time, money and materials to show they care for hospital workers who are risking their lives to save others.

“I have a difficulty with words for that,” Keller said. “It’s amazing. It’s emotional. It’s so nice that people care that much.”

Guild gets going

The American Sewing Guild has chapters across the country to promote sewing as an art and life skill. The Sacramento chapter has about 325 members, many of whom meet once a month in neighborhood groups to teach, learn and share sewing techniques, and to create community service projects. They’ve made bags for the homeless. They’ve taught sewing at the Wellspring Women’s Center in Oak Park.

Now, armed with needles, thread and their fabric stashes, they’re trying to help health care workers fend off the coronavirus.

“Your heart goes out to them,” said Fotos, a 60-year-old Curtis Park resident. “And of course you’re going to help.”

The American Sewing Guild started making masks in early March as the coronavirus crisis took hold in the United States.

“When there is a need in the community or among the members, they are very quick to respond,” said Chambers, 65, a Woodland resident who serves as president of the ASG’s Sacramento chapter. “The whole mask-making frenzy started when our national headquarters posted a need for masks from the Seattle, Washington, area.

“Many of us decided that we should really focus on the needs of our local medical workers. A few of our members started reaching out to area hospitals to determine their needs, and other requests for face masks came through friends and relatives who are working in the area hospitals.”

Members of the Sacramento chapter have now produced 2,275 surgical-style cotton masks for workers at a number of area medical facilities, including Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center, Mercy General Hospital and Woodland Memorial Hospital.

“Everyone has been really appreciative,” Fotos said.

Chambers has instructed her members to use tightly woven 100-percent cotton, prewashed twice in hot water to avoid shrinkage later. The organization’s website includes instructions, tips and a how-to video from YouTube.

“Often people make fun of us that we keep so much fabric at home,” Fotos said. “It’s called our ‘fabric stash.’ We have droves of it. My husband is not making fun of me anymore.”

Creative sourcing

Fotos said cotton and elastic have been hard to find from larger suppliers, but independent local fabric stores such as Fashion Fabrics and Meissner Sewing and Vacuum Center have helped them get the materials they need. Fotos estimated it takes her about four hours to make 10 masks using an “assembly line” system.

Chambers explains how to make the masks using cotton, elastic and twill tape or bias tape, detailing each step right down to the quarter-inch fold for a “clean finish and press.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, including grocery stores and pharmacies. The CDC website includes a tutorial for making masks at home.

Cloth masks don’t provide protection like medical-grade N95 respirators, but medical experts believe they may help to prevent an asymptomatic carrier from unknowingly spreading the virus to others. Keller said hospital workers are permitted to wear cloth masks in place of paper masks in hallways and non-patient-care areas.

Keller said the Sacramento sewing group’s colors and patterns have helped brighten up some dark days.

“The OR [operating room] is very sterile and plain. Everyone wears the same thing,” Keller said. “This gives us a chance to put something on our face that’s colorful and cheery.”

Chambers and Fotos said they’ve received more requests from family and friends since the CDC issued its new recommendations.

“Never knew my love of sewing would turn out to be important,” Fotos said.

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