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  • Writer's pictureTina Witherspoon

A year of Mask Making

On March 12, 2020, I had my last in person pre-pandemic photo shoot with my friend Mark. I rented a studio on Capitol Hill and set up lights to get some dramatic portraits for his portfolio. We talked about the virus, the news of a probable shut down, how his gigs as a bass player had started to get canceled and that the musicians he generally plays with are older, and therefore part of the more vulnerable population. Despite the impending doom we were feeling, we got some great shots of him that day. Only a couple of months into my freelance photography career, I felt good. Surely this will pass and I could use the extra time at home to revise my website.

Listening to NPR the next day, it became clear there would be a stay home order, but for how long no one could say. I remember Governor Inslee saying "Please stay home, but if you have to go out, wear a mask." It was a few weeks before he would impose a mask mandate, but he had already been listening to the experts, who suggested that a mask could protect you and others from this airborne virus. He also clarified that N95's were in short supply and would be needed for front line medical workers, so we should try to obtain a disposable mask or perhaps a simple, home made cloth mask. I started making them.

My sewing room is full of fabric that I either never got around to using or bought too much of, so I definitely had all the supplies: cotton woven fabric, interfacing, soft stretch elastic, thread, etc. I started with the pleated kind creating some with ties, some with elastic, varying the sizes and thicknesses. It made me feel useful during a time when, as an artist, I had no practical skills to offer the world. I sent them off to family, friends, friends-of-friends who were medical professionals, anyone who asked, until I couldn't keep up and realized this could go on indefinitely. I pivoted my Etsy shop from bohemian women's clothing to all masks, all day in order to provide a resource to others. Soon thereafter I got connected with a local community group that was organizing a larger effort, securing all the materials through donations with the goal of providing 2 free masks to everyone on Vashon Island (where I live). That's about 25k masks, and 10 months later, we're about half way! This group is dedicated and resourceful — we've been improving our design and materials over the past 6 months or so, setting up regular hours for dropping off finished masks and picking up "pre cut kits" to be sewn. It's the biggest volunteer effort I've ever been a part of, and it kept me sane throughout 2020. Little did I know I'd still be making masks as the year came to a close.

At some point in June I got the bug to make some fashionable masks as I'd seen many fashion designers doing online. It felt so vain and weird to be thinking of masks as fashion, but I gave myself permission to experiment — only if you keep up with the community commitment — if only to rejuvenate my lost sense of creativity. These delicate, flattering, fitted masks with varying fabrics and long dramatic ties became an obsession, and a very welcome one! With the uncertainty surrounding the end of the pandemic and weekly anxiety-inducing trips outside the house, my creativity had left me and I was a hollow shell. Fashion masks brought me back.

I've kept a database of all those to whom I sent masks and as of this month, my total is around 1,600. The process is so meditative at this point I can listen to a podcast or the radio and complete a batch of 10 not even paying attention to the steps involved. I had originally planned that in 2020 I would "sew down the stash" of fabrics I've collected over the years but this was not what I had in mind. Stay safe out there.

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