BUCKFIELD — There may be a shortage of manufactured N95 respirator masks – the ones necessary for health providers to protect themselves from COVID-19 exposure – but there is no stopping domestic efforts to produce surgical masks to give those providers one more line of defense. From kitchens and crafts rooms to L.L. Bean and New Balance manufacturing sites, the race for surgical masks is on.

Karen Hand designed her own pattern and has been making surgical masks nonstop. Supplied photo

Karen Hand of Buckfield is one of those people. Her family from Maine to Washington state and places in between are on the front line of the healthcare providers’ fight against the pandemic. In the last two weeks she has spent hundreds of dollars and up to 14 hours each day sewing masks. Her dedication is remarkable; so, too, is the fact that she had never really sewn anything until about 10 weeks ago.

“It was in January that I decided to buy a sewing machine,” Hand said last Thursday. “My first granddaughter was born last fall and after five boys, I suddenly wanted to make cute outfits for her.

“My mother always sewed when I was growing up. I was just never interested. But I bought a machine in January. We converted our extra bedroom to a crafts/gym room and I got to work.”

One of Hand’s first big projects was an ambitious one – a Star Wars quilt that she gifted to her brother. Her husband Bob and stepson Emmett were jealous and put in orders for themselves. But they will have to wait, because COVID-19 beckoned and Hand is on a mission to make surgical masks.

“I made my own pattern for them,” Hand said. “I watched ‘do it yourself’ videos on YouTube and made some prototypes. I started with a tie-on mask but quickly realized elastic was better. I figured out the best size to make and drew out the pattern with tracing paper.”

Construction of the mask is key to its usefulness. Each one has two external cotton layers buffering interfacing fabric. She carefully irons pleats, pins the masks, adds the elastic strips and then sews them together.

Hand’s efforts have become a household family affair. Her husband and stepson have taken on cooking and chores while she stitches away on the machine. They have even gone shopping with her, picking out different types of fabric. A yard of fabric yields about 10 masks. In her first week she made over 100 masks and she hasn’t stopped. She just picked up 200 yards of new fabric to make sure she isn’t sidelined by a lull in materials.

Not your average surgical mask. Karen Hand’s husband helps pick out the fabric for her ‘hand’ sewn surgical masks. Supplied photo

The Center for Disease Control is clear that these are no substitute for N95 respirators. But respirators are in short supply and health officials acknowledge that some protection is better than none. Hand is distributing her own surgical masks as fast as she makes them, which is about four an hour.

“I’ve sent them all over the place,” she said. “We have family in Washington, North Carolina, Colorado and New Jersey. Locally, our friends are asking for them for personal, everyday use.”

One of Hand’s husband’s co-workers reached out to her with an especially touching request for some in kids’ sizes, for her two young grandsons with compromised immune systems. Hand adjusted her pattern sizes and made special masks for the two youngsters.

“This is how I can help,” Hand said. “My family, friends, they are on the front lines of this. Every day I watch people taking their chances by going to work. Everyone deserves whatever protection we can provide for them. I don’t intend to stop this until there is no longer a need.”

Hand will donate her surgical masks to anyone who requests them. She asks that people in need email her at [email protected].

EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said Monday that the state is not advising medical providers to use donated homemade masks and that people should be aware that homemade masks have not gone through the same safety tests as masks worn by first responders and medical providers


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