We are in a special time in history right now during a global pandemic, where everyday people are asked – begged – to make masks for first line responders, health care workers, grocery store staff, and everyone else they know. While I (Angela) personally do not have the skills to make masks myself – my self sufficiency skills lay elsewhere in the gardening and cooking realm – I do know someone who is especially skilled in sewing and has found a way to make a difference in reducing the spread of COVID-19.
She has produced hundreds of masks at this time, for maintenance workers, military members overseas, and my family and friends. She offered to write up a how-to guide for anyone who wants to sew masks themselves, and it seemed only natural to share it here on Ecofrugals, especially since many of these masks were made with everyday items like bedsheets and basic elastic.
If you don’t have the funds to help right now in a big way but do have the sewing skills, making masks can be a wonderful way to do something important in a time where everything feels so uncertain and there’s an undercurrent of helplessness. Making masks is a tangible, concrete task that can make a real difference in people’s lives. If this is something you’ve been wanting to do, or wanting to do better and faster, this guide is for you.
How to Make Homemade Face Masks Out of Everyday Supplies
I’ve been making a number of these masks and the design has gotten simpler and quicker as I go along. This design also uses less materials which makes it easier with limited supplies. I also quilt and worked in sweat shops in college, and this technique uses some of what I learned there.
The mask I make is an outer layer of 100% cotton permanent press sheet lined with another cotton layer. As a substitute a good quality 100% cotton pillow ticking (that bed pillows are made from), or in a pinch the best quality quilting cotton you can find are better than nothing. The mask either has cotton twill tape ties or elastic ear loops to hold it on. The ear loops are nice and quick but contain latex, so if this is for someone with a latex sensitivity use the twill tape.
To allow the mask to fit snugly over the nose, I sew a piece of metal wire inside the mask centered under the top edge. The ends of the wire should be looped back to prevent it from poking out of the fabric, and it should be stitched in place so it doesn’t move around. If its rust resistant that’s a plus.
COVID-19 Mask Making Supplies
Two layers of fabric:
Filter layer: 100% cotton sheeting, whether from pillow cases or bed sheets is a great source. The weave tends to be tighter and offer more protection. This is the layer that filters. It can be on the inside or the outside. Sheets come in different thread counts and fiber though. I recommend 600 thread count for the outer layer. If you’re going to make a lot of masks, king size bed sheet sets are the most economical. I tried a cheap 300 thread count sheet once and it frayed like a mad thing. I wasted so much time trimming off frayed threads.
Other layer: The other layer can be anything that is easy on the skin or eye, preferably 100% cotton, not water proof or water repellent and breathable.
Pretreat fabric: I always wash the fabric to shrink it and get rid of fabric sizings before I cut the masks. I also use fragrance free and dye free laundry detergent. People are going to be breathing through these things and unnecessary chemicals can really irritate the lungs and throat.
Wire: 4-5 inches fairly bendable wire. Unbent #1 paper clips (about 1 1/3” long bent) work well and are readily available. My son made my last batch out of concrete form wire, but they rust pretty easily and shed black smudges. 16 gauge solid copper wire doesn’t rust but is expensive. The ends of the wires can be easily twisted into a loop by holding them with pinch nose pliers and twisting. Make sure both loops lay flat to the table when you lay the wire down. Make the loops about ¼” across.
Optional Tape: I did cover the form wire with pieces of tape cut 5” long by 1” wide. I lay the prepared wire right in the middle of the tape and folded the tape over it from both long sides until it was completely covered. I’m hoping this helps keep the wire in place but it may be a waste of time. I found when I tried to sew through the tape that the tape glue gummed up my needle and thread so don’t go there.
Elastic ear loops: 6-7 inch long pieces of 1/8 inch elastic works well. I buy mine online on spools of 35-55 yards a piece. This is the least expensive way to go. Its way less work than twill tape too.
Twill tape ties: The ties should extend at least 15” beyond the corners of the mask. Sew one on each corner. If you use the tape to finish the edge of the mask too that comes out around 2 yards of tape per mask. I used 3/4” wide tape the first time because its what I had. That was a bit wide, but it covered the nose wire. Just for ties 1/2” width tape is better, but won’t give you much room for the nose wire.
Twill tape also frays easily so either turn the end under and hem them (slow) or lay them out on waxed paper and treat the loose end with super glue. I used a tooth pick to hold the tape down while I treated it so I didn’t get glue on my fingers. The real downside to twill tape ties is that they tangle in the laundry unless you safety pin them together.
Thread: This is the sleeper expense. Thread costs can really add up. Try getting sewing thread on cones instead of spools. Its way cheaper. I cotton, cotton polyester, or polyester alone is best. On the other hand if you have a bunch of partly used spools with no where to go, why not use them up? To save money on thread see the section on Time Saving Tips below.
Preparing the fabric: wash and dry (see notes above), and if you are using a sheet cut off all hems. Yes, blow them off. I give you permission. Salvage them later if you like.
Cutting and sewing: Cut the fabric into 9” by 6 1/2” rectangles. See Tips for Saving time below.
Sewing: Lay one outside and one lining piece face to face and sew a 1/4” seam all the way around except for a 4” wide opening centered on the top edge.
Clip miter the corners.
Turn the pieces right side out.
I use a pin to make sure the corners are pulled well out, and run my finger up the inside of each seam to make sure it isn’t tucked in.
Optional Step: It may make it easier for you if you iron the squares so the edges are neat and the seam allowance for the top opening are tucked in evenly.
The Wire: Prepare the wire as above. Leaving the top edge of the mask open sew a pocket for the wire 5” wide and 3/4” down from the top of the mask below the opening.
Slip the wire into the pocket.
Stitch the top of the mask shut.
The wire tends to be a bit bulky so using your zipper foot may be easier, or a free motion foot if you have one and can drop your dog feet. Do not hit the wire with your needle. It’ll break.
The pleats: There are 3 1/2” deep pleats side by side in the middle of each side. When I started I marked the pleats with little dots and pinned them. After a bit I decided who was I kidding? I just finger pleated them into place. I use the tip of a seam ripper to hold the pleat in place until the needle stitches it so I don’t sew over my finger …again.
Please make sure the pleats pleat towards the bottom of the mask so anyone working in a dusty environment doesn’t collect pockets of junk. Sew up each edge of the mask about 1/8” from the edge to hold the pleats in place.
Preparing the twill tape: If you are using twill tape hemming the loose end is really slow. I laid the cut pieces out on a piece of wax paper and treated one end of each with a super glue to keep it from fraying. I held the piece still with a tooth pick so I would not get glue on my finger. Be sure to leave it long enough to dry. Drying time can be sped up with a fan, but lay something heavy over the unglued portion of the tapes so they don’t move.
Sewing on the ties or elastic: Place the elastic or twill tape on the corner of the mask on the lining side and stretching in towards the center of the mask. Sew it down 1/4” from the edge of the mask backstitching once.
Lift the pressure foot and flip the elastic or tape over so it stretches off the edge of the mask and is doubled over. Sew it down again sewing and back stitching at least three times.
Tips for saving time when sewing cloth masks:
Ever since Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations manufactures have known that doing the same task repeatedly is faster and more accurate than doing a set of tasks one at a time.
Batching: Basically this means working in batches and doing the same step to every item in the batch before moving on to the next step. Muscle memory kicks in fast and you get really fast at doing stuff. If you do 10 pieces in a weekend now, try batches of 15 or 20.
For instance to prepare the wires, cut as many as you need all at once. Then curl the ends of all of them. Then cover each of them with tape if desired. Don’t cut one and curl it then cover it, then cut another. Use muscle memory to speed things up by doing the same thing repeatedly until that step is all done.
Cutting the fabric: Use rotary cutting equipment, ruler and mat, if you possibly can. Sheets stretch a lot so don’t assume they are square. Measure the uncut sheet and figure out which way to cut the strips to give you the least waste. Cut the sheet into 6 1/2” strips first then pile up the strips and cut off 9” rectangles. With a good sharp cutter you can usually cut through 6-8 layers at once. Remember, this isn’t quilting, and the fine accuracy isn’t as important. Cut up all your material at once.
Working with spools of tape or elastic: Spools or rolls of material can be really annoying to measure pieces off of. The material tend to slip off one end and twist. Its much better to slip something through the spool that will support it and then unroll the spool rather than letting the material slide off the end. If the spool is too wide to easily thread a cord through it tape the cord to something long a thin like a bamboo skewer and poke it through with that.
After you have the cord through it tie it to something sturdy and hang it. The spool will unroll as you pull on the end of the material.
Cutting twill tape or elastic: Long thin material can be wound around a stiff cardboard or foam core material cut to the proper dimension. For 15” twill ties I cut a piece of foam core to 15” by 5”. I would then wrap the tape around the board about ten times and then cut the wrapping apart along the top edge of the board. This gave me ten pieces 30” long. Then I’d hold the ends together and cut the pieces apart at the middle to get 20 15” long pieces.
Cutting wires to length: Stiff material like wire cannot be wound around a board. Measuring and marking each piece is tedious and slow. I like to put pieces of masking tape on the edge of my work table and mark them for the desired length. Then I lay the wire next to them and snip it off. I only have to actually measure once and I have good visibility of what I’m doing. I also tend to avoid measurement errors.
Chaining: Do each seam step as a chain. Sew the seam on the first mask. Lift your pressure foot just enough to pull the piece out from under it but no further. Do not cut the thread.
Slip the next piece in and sew the same seam on the second piece.
This is called chaining and is used a lot in quilting. You end up with a chain of stitched pieces connected by very short threads. It saves a ton of thread and is way faster. Repeat until you have finished the batch. If the chain bunches up too much behind the machine you can clip the chain apart a piece of two back and set it aside. When the chain is done clip the pieces apart.
And as always, keeping your workspace neat and tidy works wonders! Happy sewing!
-The Masked Lady
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