There’s a comforting expression attributed to the beloved television personality, Mr. Rogers, that tells us, in frightening times, to look for the helpers.
While we can’t see them right now, there are hundreds of helpers in our city who are stationed at their sewing machines, working as quickly as they can to help fight a common enemy with a needle and thread.
As healthcare facilities quickly became overwhelmed with patients from the coronavirus outbreak, and citizens with vulnerable immune systems tried to safely get through daily life, the devastating consequence was a massive shortage of protective masks.
While our local sewists can’t make masks of the same hygienic caliber as the medical grade N-95 masks that have become so scarce, they can provide some protection for those who need to leave their homes, and provide supplemental protection that could potentially extend the use of healthcare workers’ PPE. According to the CDC, fabric masks are an option during a crisis when other supplies become exhausted, and can be worn in combination with a face shield by medical workers.
“When the whole pandemic started, people said ‘don’t make masks.’ Then about a week ago, everyone said ‘no one has any masks and anything is better than nothing,’” said Elizabeth Brodfuehrer, owner of Buffalo Seamery. “Nurses were being told to use a towel, a bandana, a sleeve. They had nothing and they’re the ones on the front lines.”
Brodfuehrer, who had to temporarily close her shop at 299 Parkside, recently found herself with zero business and a ton of fabric. “I have the material and I have the knowledge,” she said. “There’s not a lot I can do, but I have to help.”
Like many parents, Brodfuehrer is currently tasked with homeschooling her children while local schools are shut down. Still, she’s finding pockets of time to sew during their naptime and after she puts them to bed. She even drafted her own mask pattern, adding a pocket on the top of the mask where a wire could be inserted to better secure the mask around the nose.
She’s just one of many sewists working remotely as part of a massive collaboration, connected mainly by social media. Groups are popping up where sewists can share patterns and advice, and get connected with healthcare facilities and vulnerable individuals who need their masks.
“Once I posted it on Facebook and Instagram, I got flooded with people from community health centers that desperately needed supplies,” Brodfuehrer said. “Jericho Road’s goal is to get 1,000 masks and a lot of people are trying to get them there. I was also contacted by a pediatrician’s office that had nothing, and they gave me a design that they needed. It’s nice to be able to connect to local places that need them.”
The call to sew for the greater good has been a welcome distraction for Arlene Wasserman, owner of Fashion Lab NY on Hertel Avenue, which offers sewing workshops and programs for all ages. Wasserman tragically lost her husband a month ago, just before the pandemic swept through and shuttered her small business.
“I closed the studio for two weeks to take care of things, and I was just about to go back when the virus hit,” Wasserman said. “Every day was a different story. First, I was going to do private classes, then I was just going to do private lessons. But by the end of the week, I had to close entirely.”
After seeing posts on social media about the dire need for masks, Wasserman dove in.
“I started doing the research on what healthcare workers really need and what we had to do to make them. For example, the fabric has to be washed in hot water. I kind of meshed all the patterns together and created the best one, using 100 percent woven cotton. I left an opening in the mask so a filter could be put in. They’re not medical grade, but they work as a great barrier against germs and infection.”
Wasserman decided to build her own army of sewists by reaching out to families in her studio community and inviting them to join the cause. She designed mask-making kits for her students that included instructions, a pattern, pre-cut fabric, and elastic, and she started handing them out curbside.
“The kids are at home going stir crazy and their parents are, too,” she said. “I had such an amazing response of parents bringing their kids to pick up the kits, and it made me feel so good to see the kids again, even though they’re six feet away.”
Wasserman also instructed her students to return the finished masks with a note for the doctors and nurses who will use them, so they could communicate their appreciation to the people working on the front lines.
Despite the immense challenges that life has thrown at her in the last month, Wasserman said this effort has given her a strong sense of purpose. “I know that being in action makes you feel like you’re doing something to help, as opposed to feeling helpless,” Wasserman said. “Now I know how Rosie the Riveter felt.”
Brodfuehrer echoed the same sentiment. “No one really needs butter lamb leggings or the goofy things I sew for fun,” she said. “But to sew something that could actually make a difference in someone’s life, it’s created a driving feeling that I’ve never had before.”
While the need is enormous, the army of sewists working to fill it is steadily growing. Brodfuehrer encourages those with a sewing machine and some extra fabric to join the cause, and welcomes them to contact her for patterns, tips, and connections to groups in need at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sewists can find additional resources and connections at www.sewthecurveflat.com.