Journal of the Plague No. 9: Poorly Sewn Masks

If you’d like to make a scientifically-researched, beautiful, super-hygienic mask, you can follow my friend Iris’s excellent mask-making instructions. But if, like me, you haven’t sewn anything in thirty years, you can still get in the act and make yourself (and perhaps some people who are very dear to you and will forgive your lack of skill) a functional mask, with optional nosepiece.

(It helps if your mom lives with you and remembers everything she has ever learned, including how to sew, but, at least if you have a sewing machine with a cult following, there are also lots of friendly strangers on the internet who will help you out.)

This pattern starts with the one published in the New York Times but adds a few tweaks and comes with real life illustrations.

First, what you need:

  • Two squares of cotton fabric cut to measure approximately 9.5” by 6.5”. You do not need to cut them very well. I’ve been using an ancient sheet (I’m guessing from the 1960s—my grandmother dated most of her sheets but weirdly not this one) and some calico I bought about ten years ago thinking I was going to make baby slings.
  • Something to make ties. I found some ribbon I’m going to experiment with, but in the meantime we’ve been using doublefold binding tape. Making it into a tie is sort of a pain, but it’s weirdly satisfying.
  • A sturdy twist tie, if you want to make the optional nose piece. The top piece from a bag of coffee beans is perfect.
  • Some pins and possibly some tape.
  • An iron is handy.
  • A sewing machine, though you could do all of this by hand.

Making the Ties

To make the ties, I cut the binding tape into two pieces, each 12”-13” long (again, the exact measurement isn’t very important—we are a large-headed family, and these have been plenty long for us).

Unfold the tape, cut it half so you have four pieces, iron it flat, and then pin it as shown above and iron it again. (NB That’s if you have double wide tape—if you have the normal kind, skip the cutting it in half step.)

Then you sew the ties shut with what you hope will be an elegant and neat seam. Unless you’re me. Then you just sew them shut and figure no one is going to look closely, except possibly at the picture you decided you’d post on your blog.

They’re not pretty, but they’ll do.

Now you’re going to attach your ties to your cloth pieces. So exciting! It will start to feel like you’re making an actual mask!

Making the Mask

Pin the ties pointing inward (protip: make sure the pin heads are pointing out—they’ll be much easier to take out.

You’ll want to pin the ties to the edges of the inside of one of your pieces and have them facing in, which is counterintuitive but will make more sense once you sew the whole thing together and turn it inside out. If, like me, you have poor 3D vision, just trust me on this one. Then you want to bunch all the ties together in the middle. I will sometimes even tape them in place at this point, as you don’t want to sew them into the seams of your mask by accident.

Put your other mask piece on top. If it’s a pretty piece of cloth, like this one, you want to make sure to put the pattern part face down. Again, it seems wrong, but you’re going to turn this whole thing inside out in just a bit and all will become clear.

Pin all the way around your mask pieces except for a gap of perhaps four inches or so on the bottom, which you don’t want to sew shut yet, because it’s what you’re going to use to turn the whole thing right side out.

Once you’re done, open the gap and turn the whole mask inside out. Unless you are a much better seamstress than I am, it won’t be very even, but happily that doesn’t matter—this is a mask, not a wedding gown.

Then you end up with something that looks kind of like an actual mask!

If you’re using the optional nose piece, you’ll want to take the coffee bag closer or heavy duty twist tie or whatever you’re using and and stick it through the hole all the way up to almost the top of the mask—just about a quarter inch or so from the top. Some will have some glue left on them, which is helpful for keeping it in place.

Adding the Optional Nosepiece

Even if my twist tie is fairly sticky, I like to kind of pin it in place so I know where to sew the seams to keep it in place. It’s hard to see in this picture, but there’s a line of pins between the two red lines. The twist tie is where the leftmost red line is, and I’m going to sew above and below it.

The next step is to stitch all around the edges of your mask (and, in this case, underneath the nose piece as well). This will look particularly professional if you run out of dark-colored thread little ways in and end up with silver thread on a purple background. Again, though, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

You’ll see I’ve sewn the gap at the bottom together—it occurs to me that if you wanted to design a mask that could hold a filter of some kind, you could leave that part mostly unstitched and just hem the edges to keep them from looking totally bedraggled.

Mask with topstitching around the edges and underneath the nose piece.

Next up, you’re going to make three horizontal folds in your mask and pin them in place. I find it helpful to iron them into place, too. Then you’re going to sew two seams down where the red marks are to hold the folds in place and help hold the ties in place.

Mask with three pleats folded and pinned.
Pinning and sewing the seams on your mask. Pin it into three folds. In theory they should be even; in reality that never seems to work for me.

Your Finished Mask!

I wash my masks in hot water along with all my towels and linens. In the Before Times, I usually used cold water for just about everything, but I’ve starting using hot water and more intense cycles for the things most likely (in my house, at least) to catch germs. That may fall more under the “makes me feel better” than under the “actual science,” but sometimes the former, if not dangerous or toxic, has its advantages.