Locals with sewing talent stepping up to help in pandemic

Delene Swing is part of a group of people from Evangelical United Methodist Church, in Huntington, who are putting their sewing talents to work making cloth masks for healthcare workers. Swing estimates she has made more than 200 masks on her sewing machine at home.
Delene Swing is part of a group of people from Evangelical United Methodist Church, in Huntington, who are putting their sewing talents to work making cloth masks for healthcare workers. Swing estimates she has made more than 200 masks on her sewing machine at home. Photo provided.

It’s been an invisible scene reminiscent of a past world war, when (mostly) women who stayed at home contributed to the war effort by any means they could. With the current onslaught of an unseen enemy – the COVID-19 virus – many people in Huntington County are stepping up to use their sewing expertise to support those battling the virus on the front lines by making facemasks.

This time around, however, the “civilians” supplying healthcare workers with the homemade masks are working from their residences, alone, in response to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s order to stay at home while the virus rages in the Hoosier state.

Recently, State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the state’s reserve supplies of personal protection equipment (PPE) has nearly run out, in the middle of what some have considered to be the peak in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Indiana. That news alone has been a call to action for several in the community to make the cotton fabric face coverings.

Delene Swing is a member of Evangelical United Methodist Church in Huntington, and says she’s part of a group of women in the church who have been sewing the masks since the outbreak in March.

“We’ve got several nurses – we’ve got some in our congregation as well as friends that are nurses,” she says. “They were telling us they were getting low on masks, so our pastor asked if a lot of us would go ahead and try to get some made for them.”

Swing’s church quilting group was among those who has answered the call, with Swing alone making well over 215 masks herself so far. Additional members making masks are Kathleen Scribner, Jane Woehler and Stephanie Jerabek.

“I also made some headbands that have buttons on them that they can put on their head like a headband, and go ahead and put the mask onto the buttons, so their ears aren’t sore,” Swing says, adding she’s been sewing some 50-plus years.

Many of the masks the group has made have found their way to Parkview hospitals in Huntington and Fort Wayne, made from the hospital’s kits that were provided to the sewers. Swing has personally taken many of the ones she’s made to Heritage Pointe of Huntington, which reported a big need for masks.

“I just want people to stay healthy, and not get sick,” she says. “Once we get over this, we can resume our normal lives.”

Many people sewing masks have had to become creative in their designs, especially when essential components such as elastic are nowhere to be found in stores or online. Gloria Holzinger “tweaked” a mask design to place elastic around the back of the head and take pressure off the wearer’s ears.

“That way they can be adjusted, and won’t hurt anybody’s ears,” she says.

Holzinger and her friend Karen Wehr started making masks. Then Holzinger’s daughter, Daisha Barnes, who works for the Hamilton County Public Safety Communications Department, put out an emergency call asking her mom to supply 80 of them for dispatchers and other public safety personnel.

“She (Wehr) was making them for the healthcare, at the hospital, and for family. I started making them for family,” Holzinger recalls. “Mine started out for family and friends, until Daisha called. … When I called Karen, she dropped everything and said, ‘I’m in. I’m going to help you.’”
Holzinger says their husbands were a big help in making the masks, accelerating the process by cutting out the cloth and pressing seams. Together, they produced 80 masks overnight to fill the need.

“They were just so appreciative of it, because nobody could get any,” she adds.

While most mask makers are using cotton to fabricate their masks, another Huntington resident, Sharon Bryan, has been making hers out of Norwex window cloths.

“I had suggested to Norwex that we make masks out of some of their fabric because being a consultant, I know that their fabric is antibacterial and will self-purify because it has a patented system in it,” she says. “To me, that was a much better fabric to use than just cotton. … These are masks that everybody is going to be able to use over and over again.”

Bryan has made 50 masks so far, and has been working on an order for Place of Grace. She says Norwex is also donating a million masks they have manufactured.

“There are a lot of us consultants who are making them because we know that there’s so much demand that even Norwex probably won’t be able to keep up with the demand, just like everybody else is not keeping up with it,” she adds.

Developing her own pattern from one she found online, Bryan has donated her finished masks to family, some healthcare personnel and also to other consultants who do not sew.

“I first decided I wanted to do this, when my niece messaged me, and she is a med-surg nurse at Lutheran Hospital,” she explains. “She said there aren’t enough ‘N-95s;’ can you make me something, Aunt Sharon?’ And so I worked with her and finally came up with a pattern she decided was definitely much more workable and close to the face.”

The Huntington County Health Department is seeking volunteers to sew masks at their homes or businesses. The Health Department is also accepting donations of cloth, elastic bands and ties needed to make the masks. Tami Hurlburt, the department’s environmental and foods specialist, said instructions and materials would be supplied, but some components – such as elastic – are either in short supply or out altogether.

For more details and to volunteer, call Hurlburt at 358-4833.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to study the spread and effects of the novel coronavirus across the United States, new evidence has led the center to recommend everyone wear a cloth face covering in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

The cloth face coverings are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. The CDC says those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders. That directive, and the shortage of hospital-grade PPE, makes constructing masks at home another weapon in the fight against the coronavirus disease.

Healthcare professionals say the best homemade masks are made of tightly woven, 100 percent cotton fabric. Things like denim, bed sheets and heavyweight shirts are examples of good options for material. Avoid knit fabrics (like jersey T-shirts) because they create holes when they stretch, which the virus could get through.

The CDC recommends using multiple layers for masks. Many have used filters – such as coffee filters or vacuum cleaner bag filters – as an inner layer to add additional protection.

The main thing to remember is that using any cloth mask when leaving the house is better than no mask at all. Simple cloth face coverings can slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.

Additional information on how to make and use cloth facemasks can be found on the CDC website at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html.