When New York City photographer Juliana Sohn found herself recovering from COVID-19 in the early days of the lockdown, she started to realize the importance of face coverings. “At that point, the messaging was that ordinary citizens should not be buying or wearing masks,” she says. But after her recovery, Sohn recognized the risk of not wearing one: “I realized that I had probably been infectious for several days prior to showing symptoms. I had been out shopping like crazy to stockpile food and supplies for what looked like an impending lockdown. I imagined the number of people I could have unintentionally infected.”
This topic soon became hotly debated, but “it would take the CDC two more weeks [until April 3rd] to change their messaging,” explains Sohn. Despite this delay, she decided to focus her creative energy into researching and sewing masks and face coverings using her fabric —documenting the process with a step-by-step tutorial on her Instagram page to spread the word and encourage others to make their own. This inadvertently turned the now out-of-work Sohn into a “mask activist” (or a “maskavist” as she’s been called by friends). “I want it to become the norm for everyone to wear a mask during this pandemic,” she says. “The more that people see other people wearing masks, the more that they will do it too.”
Now, CDC recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission” to help slow the spread of the virus. The change in terminology to “face covering” is a positive move because it encourages people to use any kind of fabric to cover up.
Culturally, masks have been common in parts of Asia (which was hard-hit by SARS and MERS) for years—and that may have helped slow the spread of COVID-19 in these regions. Dr. Neil Fishman, the chief medical officer of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times, “What we do know is that individuals can shed virus about 48 hours before they develop symptoms and masking can prevent transmission from those individuals.”
What is essentially a grassroots movement to normalize mask-wearing is emerging in this country, too. When Jenny Cooper, a former Crewcuts designer and owner of the zero-waste coffee shop, IXV Coffee, in Brooklyn, was forced to temporarily shutter her business because of the new coronavirus, she too dug into her stash of fabric and started sewing masks. At first, she gave them away to her neighbors; then, she started donating them to health workers and indigenous groups, and selling them online for $25 to offset her expenses and continue the effort.
Cooper now posts 35 masks at a time for sale on her website and will donate to any frontline personnel or organization in need who asks. “Masks represent a cultural shift from saying ‘I’m not wearing one because it doesn’t protect me,’ to wearing one because it protects other people,” she says. “It is the ultimate visible sign of caring for others and your community right now.”
Longtime fashion industry insiders Jeffery Costello and Robert Tagliapietra, the founders and creative directors of Costello Tagliapietra and JCRT, also got in on the mask-making movement right away. “We were sheltering at home like everybody else, and we knew we wanted to do something productive with this time,” says Tagliapietra. “Jeffrey immediately began making masks because that was what seemed to be in highest demand across the city and country. We shared sewing tutorials and the mask pattern via our website. We began posting the mask-making endeavors of our customers and followers as well as Jeffrey’s own mask-making project through social media.”
Costello ended up making more than 500 masks by himself, sending them to hospitals and other first responders. Last week, they were given the green light to reopen their factory and transferred the mask production there. JCRT and their manufacturing partner, Resonance, decided to sell all masks at cost.
“Rather than worry about making money right now, we believe it is more important to make these masks accessible to as many people as possible,” says Tagliapietra. “It looks like it [mask-wearing] will be a way of life for a while. One of the most powerful ways fashion can impact lives is through self-expression and confidence, so making these masks can hopefully make wearing them feel a bit more joyful.”
The Different Types of Masks
While N-95 respirators and surgical masks should still be reserved for healthcare workers, other medical professionals, and first responders, the CDC recommends that we should all be wearing some sort of face covering when we leave the house.
The N95 is the most effective mask, as it can block at least 95% of tiny particles.
Although medical masks are not as effective as N95s, when they are worn properly, they can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by blocking the spray of droplets from a cough or a sneeze.
With just a bandana or a cut-up T-shirt, anyone can make a simple face covering, which is much better than not wearing anything at all. The CDC provides a step-by-step guide to making one with just a bandana and two hair ties. You can also watch the U.S. Surgeon General’s video showing how to make an easy no-sew bandana mask.
Where to Buy Face Masks—While Paying it Forward
IXV Coffee donates half of every purchase to making either surgical or N95 mask covers for people and organizations that are “keeping our world going.”
JCRT sells at-cost masks as well as first responder kits for an additional $20, all of which is donated to the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.
Tucker is donating a portion of sales directly to NYC’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.
Makie is donating a portion of all mask sales to the GlobalGiving.
Rachel Craven is selling “buy one, give one” linen face masks with a donation-only option in case you just want to help out. They are providing masks to the Los Angeles nonprofit, A New Way of Entry.
Parachute Home has started making masks with a “buy a set, give a set” campaign.
KES is also donating one mask to a healthcare professional for every mask purchased.
Heather Taylor Home is using their scrap fabric to make masks. For every purchase of a Face Mask 10 Pack, they are donating 10 masks to those in need including medical workers, first responders, social workers, and the homeless population.
Claire La Faye, a bridal designer in Portland, Oregon, is selling masks and donating 20% of the proceeds to Feeding America.
Birdwell, the California surf line, is also doing a “buy one, give one” campaign.
Makers Around the World Are 3D Printing Face Shields to Combat COVID-19
How Design Brands Around the World Are Pivoting to Tackle the Coronavirus Pandemic