Keeping islanders safe one mask at a time

Keeping islanders safe one mask at a time

Turning spare time of the COVID-19 quarantine and creative energy into something beneficial, local sewers used their skills to make masks for everyone.

“I started making masks because I felt compelled to use my particular skills to assist in any way possible to do something not just fret,” Crystal Fitzhugh, former upholsterer, said.

Fitzhugh has made 1,500 since the stay home orders began in March. To achieve that number, she said, volunteers helped assemble, iron and deliver them. Her masks have gone to PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center, EvenTide, to essential workers at the post office, resource center, as well as places across the state and in Idaho, she added. Fitzhugh and her crew — coordinated by Mayra Ruano — even supplied Seattle protesters with some masks. Savahna Amaro, Fitzhugh said, not only connected the group to Seattle protesters but delivered them as well.

According to Fitzhugh, many people gave a $5 donation for the masks, which she then gave to Dr. William House’s clinic EvenTide to help cover expenses and pay for personal protective equipment, testing and general clinic costs. Tips she received have been given to local families and individuals in need. With each order, her eight-year-old daughter Isla contributed to the project as well, creating personalized cards with words of encouragement to go with each order. She has made several hundred cards that include words like believe; love; peace; strong; calm; and brave.

“I just wanted to make people feel good during this tough time,” Isla said.

Seamstress Susanna Gascoine made another 250 masks that were distributed locally as well as across the country.

“Instead of being part of the problem, I wanted to be part of the solution,” Gascoine said.

YouTube provided her with several tutorials and patterns to choose from. The pattern she chose can be worn comfortably all day partly because the ear bands, which are not made out of elastic, can be pulled away from the ear once it is situated on the face. Gascoine reached out on Facebook to see if anyone wanted masks, and she said people began crawling out of the woodwork.

Medical staff and volunteers were in need of masks — especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Long time sewer Mary Zeretzke received an email asking for volunteers to make masks and jumped at the chance to help.

“This was back in March when there was a shortage of N95 masks,” Zeretzke said. “We made masks that would go over the N95 so that they could last longer and be reused.”

The material used was a polypropylene that was difficult to work with, according to Zeretzke. Sewing in general, according to Gascoine, is a time-consuming craft.

“Sewing is a labor of love,” Gascoine said. “ It takes time and thought and you’re making something someone you don’t even know. Because it might save their life.”

Stacey Rude had not been sewing long when she entered the mask making world. A friend asked if Rude would make her a mask.

“I had only been sewing for a short time so I didn’t think I was qualified at first,” Rude said.

After watching some tutorials on YouTube, Rude dove right in.

“It was sort of a snowball effect after that,” Rude said. “Word of mouth is powerful in our community.”

Suddenly she found herself sewing 8-10 hours a day during the stay home order.

“I had a lot of fun making them, and it felt good having a purpose during these crazy times,” Rude said.

Hundreds of masks later she said she has honed her skills dramatically. While she gave many masks away, she also received donations. When materials like elastic were hard to come by, Rude also traded masks for materials to keep production going.

Although a third-generation sewer, Ruano was also new to the craft. Despite having grown up in and around garment shops, Ruano said she didn’t have the patience for the craft as a child.

Her great-grandmother Tomasa was the seamstress of her village in Zacatecas, Mexico.

“The story I was told was that if you wanted a custom dress made, she was the one to go to,” Ruano said.

Ruano’s great-grandmother taught her grandmother, who then taught her mother. While Ruano wasn’t that interested in the family business as a child as she has grown old, she has learned to appreciate what it takes to piece fabrics together.

Ruano’s masks are styled using the Olson mask pattern which has a shell-like structure to prevent it from going into the mouth when inhaling. It also has a pocket for a filter.

“It’s best with the Pelion filter because it really holds its shape after you wash and dry it,” Ruano said.

Ruano began using Mexican fabrics she had collected over the years. The colorful designs were a hit.

“I never thought my masks would be for anyone but me, my mom and maybe my neighbors. I was quietly learning how to sew for the sake of learning the skill,” Ruano said. “Particularly because there are so many skilled dewars and quilters out there. I was simply trying to learn something new every day.”

Feeling proud after pushing past a learning curve Ruano posted pictures of them on Facebook.

“When people began asking me to make some for me I was shocked, scared and humbled,” she said.

Local sewers have been busily making masks for another cause, according to Zeretzke — the San Juan Islands Art Museum. Once the county moves into Phase Three, where larger groups of people can safely gather, the museum is planning a fundraising event. Sewers created masks to sell at the event made out of fun art-themed fabrics including materials speckled with paintbrushes, easels or patterned with Van Gogh’s Iris. Proceeds from the masks would go toward the museum.

Mask production continues, and according to Fitzhugh, due to all the donations of material, she currently has a decent stockpile to work with.

“There have been dozens of volunteers and I am indebted to every single one of them. Thank you to everyone who purchased, donated and is wearing a mask, they are the real heroes,” Fitzhugh said. “And a huge thank you to all you lovely people making masks as well.”