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Armed with sewing machines, ‘Sew We Care’ hand-makes masks for Massachusetts

With health care facilities across the state confronting shortages, volunteers band together to help fill the void

Saloni Jain held bags of masks for delivery while talking with her mother, Manisha Jain, who was sewing masks to donate to local facilities.
Saloni Jain held bags of masks for delivery while talking with her mother, Manisha Jain, who was sewing masks to donate to local facilities.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The patterned drone of the sewing machine has been constant, much like the ringing doorbell alerting the family that another bag of materials has been left at the door. Whatsapp message notifications buzz as fabric is snipped and a steaming iron hums. The Jain household of five in Dover has become a makeshift assembly line, churning nonstop for the past three weeks.

Outside the house, more than 100 volunteers across the Commonwealth are donating fabric, learning how to cut and iron patterns, and sometimes sewing themselves, leaving the materials in a bag outside their front doors.

The bags are ultimately picked up and brought to the Jains, who are leading an effort to craft and donate hand-made face masks to health care facilities to help protect doctors and nurses from the novel coronavirus.

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Manisha Jain and her newly formed team, “Sew We Care,” are following the lead of many other home-bound Americans who have transformed their kitchen tables into temporary production floors and recruited family members as shop workers to meet the needs of overwhelmed front-line workers.

“It’s amazing to see how the community has come together during a time like this,” said Jain, who has made it her personal goal to sew at least 50 face masks a day with precut and ironed cotton fabric that others leave on her doorstep. “It’s totally a war effort. The people that are at war are our health care workers, and it’s our duty to help them.”

 Manisha Jain's work station.
Manisha Jain's work station.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Sew We Care, which started from a simple Facebook post last month by Jain looking for five volunteers has evolved into a dedicated team of people from 30 towns across Massachusetts and New Hampshire, creating and distributing more than 1,800 masks to nearly 35 facilities.

With a growing queue of requests from doctors, nurses, and volunteers at local hospitals, health clinics, and homeless shelters, Sew We Care has committed to making at least 2,200 more masks for nine facilities. Their next project to tackle is 500 masks for Beverly Hospital after Jain received a donation of more than 50 yards of fabric from Spoonflower, a North Carolina fabrics and home decor store.

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Spoonflower chief executive Michael Jones said he and his team saw the need for masks and materials early on, while watching the N95 shortage hit Asia and Europe before it affected the United States. Out of the gate, the company committed to donating $10,000 to the Mask Response Project, which they’ve already started with their sewing team, and shipping them out across the country. They’ve sold 4,300 yards of fabric at cost for crafty Americans — which Jones says is equivalent to about 51,275 face masks — as well as connecting hospitals with coalitions like Sew We Care.

“On one side, it’s great to see people coming together. It definitely pulls at your heart strings,” said Jones, who will be launching do-it-yourself mask kits with ready-made cut fabric and bands by the end of next week. “We have fabric, we have sewers, and community members across the world."

“Doing nothing just doesn’t feel possible.”

Jharna Madan of Reading calls herself Jain’s second-in-command, helping with outreach and streamlining the army of volunteers they’ve recruited.

“We share the concept of ‘seva,’ which means giving back,” said Madan, referencing her Hindu upbringing where selfless service was ingrained in her. “We are doing it for our future generation. It’s our moral, civic, and human duty, because who would have thought we’d be in the middle of a pandemic?”

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Vinod Kapoor has turned both his Lexington home and Needham restaurant, Masala Art, into hubs for the sewers in the area to bring their completed masks so that Jain’s husband, Myank Jain, can bring them back to Dover.

Kapoor’s employees in the restaurant use fabric masks while participating in curbside pick-up.

“The whole world is suffering,” said Kapoor. “These are hard times and we have to stick together.”

Following a design that has been approved by Emerson Hospital in Concord, Jain insists that getting involved doesn’t require any sewing experience, but she is looking for people to donate cotton fabric and thread, learn to cut the design and iron out the fabric so that she and others can get right to the sewing. While many of the people that are actively involved in this coalition have never met, they have communicated through Whatsapp, recruited on Facebook and just had their first virtual meeting through Zoom, where nearly 30 participants met digitally for the first time.

So far, the logistics have worked well.

“Every 30 minutes, there’s a package at my doorstep. My husband has to bring it in, sanitize it and mark it down as delivered,” said Jain.

While she gets to work with the brightly colored fabric from Spoonflower —baby blue and pink striped, others with coral-colored elephants and polka dots — for the doctors and nurses at Beverly Hospital, Jain looks to further channel her creative energies with her team of like-minded people.

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“This is my duty," Jain said. "I don’t know how I would survive this without doing this. This is a wave, and it cannot be stopped.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Northeastern University School of Journalism.