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ACTS OF KINDNESS

Fighting coronavirus with sewing machines, volunteers make over 14,000 face masks and counting

Virginia Johnson, owner of Gather Here, sews face masks at her shop in Cambridge.
Virginia Johnson, owner of Gather Here, sews face masks at her shop in Cambridge.Noah Dubreuil

During an average April, Boston designer David Josef would be up to his eyebrows in tulle, lace, and satin, fitting anxious brides and their mothers for their upcoming nuptials in elaborate frocks. This year his output is slightly less elaborate. The fabric is cotton, the sewing patterns are rectangular, and demand is through the roof. He’s turned his Waltham fashion studio into a small factory where he turns out hundreds of face masks a week.

“It’s now a full-time job with a production schedule,” Josef said. “It’s as if we’re in manufacturing, I mean that’s what we’re doing basically. I sew eight hours a day, and there’s still no way to keep up with the requests.”

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Across the Boston area, everyone from fashion designers to amateur crafters are churning out masks by the thousands to help nursing home employees, homeless shelters, hospital workers, and anyone else who needs protection from COVID-19. These are not the coveted medical-grade N95 masks that are used by doctors and nurses on the front lines, but they offer at least some barrier against the virus.

Josef, along with designers Daniel Faucher and Denise Hajar, have so far made about 3,000 masks. Another, much larger group of Boston-area sewers who call themselves the Boston Area Mask Initiative have so far delivered 10,000 masks. These are impressive totals, but demand remains strong.

“I think a lot of people started sewing to relieve stress,” said Virginia Johnson, who owns Gather Here, a fabric and yarn store in Cambridge that also hosts workshops. “And then it wasn’t only cathartic, it was something that honestly helped a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a mask.”

The coordinated effort began a month ago when Stephanie Cave, who owns a quilting design studio in Dorchester, decided that it was time to start helping. Like all of us, she had repeatedly heard about the critical shortage of personal protective equipment and although there were differing opinions over the efficiency of masks, she started sewing.

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“I had the sense that they could be useful and I thought we should probably start making them,” she said.

From there, Cave, a community organizer, did what she does best: She started organizing. She reached out to her sewing circles around the city to form an army of mask makers.

“I started reaching out to people that I knew to see if there’d be any interest in collaboration,” she said. “We were getting rumblings from hospitals requesting them or potentially wanting the masks. So over the course of a week we were able to get people mobilized.”

You can see the labor of the group’s efforts on its Facebook page. The 1,300 members regularly update with posts such as “On my way to drop off 50 more, go team!” and “Kitchen island has become my sewing station.” There are pictures of masks created with all manner of prints, from jelly beans to birds. Many are making masks out of fabric they have around the house.

They trade tips on where to find coveted elastic for ear straps and sewing machine repair shops that are open during the pandemic. The group also has a website where people can sign up to help or donate, or where individuals or organizations can submit requests for masks.

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So far there have been requests for more than 30,000 masks from 135 organizations, and the numbers are growing. Cave noticed requests jump earlier this month after Governor Charlie Baker’s administration recommended that Massachusetts citizens start wearing face masks. The recommendation was an about-face from previous edicts that simple handwashing and coughing and sneezing into your elbow were more helpful than masks. Since that time, many Massachusetts towns have instituted rules about wearing masks in public. The change made demand all the more pressing.

Stephanie Cave of the Boston Area Mask Initiative.
Stephanie Cave of the Boston Area Mask Initiative.Stephanie Cave

“A lot of the need we’re trying to address are those workers in shelters and pantries, like Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, the Pine Street Inn, Rosie’s Place, and Community Servings,” she said. “We really want to help the people working with the most vulnerable populations in the city.”

Cambridge Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon reached out to the organization for masks for constituents who were finding it next to impossible to track one down.

“It’s not as if you can just buy one at the local store,” Mallon said. “Given their scarcity, it has been incredible to have a large community of sewers and crafters who are providing these masks. Everyone from my elderly neighbors to residents who live in large residential buildings want to wear them entering and exiting their buildings, in common areas and elevators.”

Gather Here’s Johnson has been making tutorial videos to help frustrated mask makers of different ability levels. Those more dexterous at their machines have been making advanced versions with a pouch to hold a filter, while beginners are sticking to basic models. Gather Here has been selling masks in addition to donating. For every mask she sells, Johnson said the shop donates one to the Mask Initiative. It’s also a place where sewers can drop off masks.

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A pile of masks that will be donated to people in the Boston area sit on the counter at Gather Here, a shop in Cambridge.
A pile of masks that will be donated to people in the Boston area sit on the counter at Gather Here, a shop in Cambridge.Noah Dubreuil

“There are donations of, like, five and they leave the sweetest notes too,” she said. “They’re like, ‘I made five for my family and here are five to donate.’ That was one of the things that inspired us to do a give-one, get-one initiative. Because we also got a lot of requests from people who need to buy masks who say ‘I just need a mask. I, like, don’t sew or I don’t craft at all.’ We realized we needed to keep selling, but we also needed to donate.”

That demand has led to 12- and 13-hour days for Johnson. Cave is also putting in extended hours, donating everything that she makes.

“I don’t care about making money on this,” Cave said. “I just want people to have what they need. Yes, it’s tiring, this is definitely more of a job than I anticipated, but if it keeps people safe and helps support them and their jobs, especially if they’re at risk and they’re doing a public service then I think ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

There is a similar effort underway in Danvers. A group called Danvers Delivers Love has made about 450 masks for supermarket workers, nursing homes, and funeral homes (they’ve also gone to workers at Beverly Hospital, Lahey Beverly, and North Shore Medical Center). More recently, the group heard there was a shortage of surgical caps, so they got to work. So far they’ve made about 200 of them.

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“I’ll smile all day knowing that I could make a small difference for someone I never met and probably never will,” said Sheila Cranney, who has been working on the masks and caps with relatives and friends.

Fashion designer David Josef has put designing wedding dresses on hold to make thousands of masks which he donates.
Fashion designer David Josef has put designing wedding dresses on hold to make thousands of masks which he donates.Daniel James Forrester

Back in Waltham at David Josef’s studio, he was busy making 50 masks for the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center in Newport, R.I.

“They have no masks for these young chaplains who are coming in,” he said. “I honestly had no idea this would take over my life. If there’s one thing that keeps me going, that gets me up at 4:30 in the morning, and keeps me doing this every single day, it’s the profound kindness of people. I got chocolates in the mail today, someone made us Easter dinner and dropped it off because we didn’t have time to cook. I get all choked up thinking about it.”


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.