Who Was That Masked Woman?

Will this masked woman be seen again post-COVID-19? Or will she disappear into the sunset? [All photos & montage by the author.]

I’m far from the first to write about how much our lives have changed in a few very short, cataclysmic weeks, but it’s also true that each of us has a uniquely personal perspective on the current global situation caused by the novel coronavirus. One of my own epiphanies: Face Masks, the Making and Wearing of.

I’ve been sewing nearly my entire life, and for the most part, the majority of people I know have not really appreciated this skill. (“Why would you bother making that yourself?” is one of the most common/least favorite things I hear.) But suddenly, anyone with a sewing machine and some cotton fabric is a hot commodity. And there are now literally hundreds of people making and selling masks*, as well as donating them to health care workers and others who really need medical-grade masks, but for whom some protection is better than none. My own mother, who lives in Seattle, is in the middle of 18 weeks of chemotherapy treatments, so she’s been wearing masks since long before the lockdown in Washington State.

I suppose I could have been selling my masks too, but honestly, all I wanted was to make and give them as gifts — and I have stuck to that, despite multiple requests for, in some cases, dozens of masks, and I have two reasons for this decision: One, in order to respect social distancing by staying out of stores as much as possible, I determined from the start to only work with materials I already have on hand, which limits the quantity I can produce; two, I also hoped to contribute something, however small, to the comfort level of my family, friends, and colleagues. (Like many of us, I have basically no cash on hand with which to help others, but I am rich in fabric!)

But this is not really about me and my sewing projects. It’s more about how I started thinking about masks while I’ve been making them. We’re accustomed to seeing news footage of people in other countries routinely wearing masks, but here in the U.S., the rare times that I’ve seen someone wearing a face mask in public, I suppose I assumed that person was, like my mother, in the middle of chemotherapy treatments or similar situations where immunity has been compromised; it’s certainly not been a routine sight in this country.

And in the midst of a lot of speculation about what the “new normal” might look like, I’m wondering: could wearing face masks be more than a temporary necessity?

As we go back to our offices, schools, meetings, errands, and traveling (and we will! Courage!), wouldn’t it be a great idea to continue using our beautiful hand-made face masks when we’re not feeling well, but still have to be out and about? You know what I mean — the passenger a few seats away from you on the bus who’s coughing, the colleague sniffling and blowing his nose during a presentation, and can we just imagine a doctor’s waiting room filled with adults and kids suffering from a variety of who-knows-what?

Now imagine the people showing symptoms in these situations being thoughtful enough to wear a mask while around others. Seriously, wouldn’t we all think they were being extremely considerate of those they come in contact with in public? I know I feel that way right now. In fact, there have been times when I’ve felt downright horrified when I’ve seen a grocery shopper who was not wearing a mask! That’s another sign of how quickly my perspective has changed.

When I first started making masks a few weeks ago, I enlisted my daughter as fit model/brutal feedback giver as I experimented with several different mask styles and sizes; she rated each on comfort, fit, and ease of maintenance. This prototyping process resulted in her now owning a collection of 5 (so far), in a surprising range of colors. And she pointed out to me that she can pick which mask to wear based on how well it will go with her outfit. Now I’m thinking that this mask-as-accessory fringe benefit could turn out to be just the extra motivation we need to keep wearing face masks when it’s appropriate to do so.

Aside: I in no way intend to make light of the necessity for personal protection, so I’m hoping, dear readers, that you will not misunderstand and think I’m relegating such a serious thing as a face mask to the status of mere fashion accessory. However, I also think that it’s perfectly acceptable to make a virtue out of necessity: since we need to wear masks in public right now, why not also look as good as we can, and maybe even create some good cheer with bright colors and whimsical patterns, like the ones shown above? End of aside.

I think we can all agree that our immediate future is not going to look like whatever we considered normal in the recent past; we simply can’t go back. So can we at least think about the possibility that protecting ourselves and others by wearing face masks could be more than just a short-term blip on our cultural and social radar? Can we talk about the impact this could have just on the “normal” cold and flu seasons that happen every single year, and how people with compromised immune systems could feel a little safer in public?

Throughout this crisis, I’ve seen so many examples of just one person making a huge, positive difference, from a chalk sidewalk message encouraging our health care workers to groceries being delivered to a neighbor’s door. (I’ve found lovely little surprises outside my own door more than once!) Similarly, if just one sniffly child wears a mask to school, how many students and teachers, not to mention all their families, will stay healthier as a result?

So let’s give this some thought. I’m already planning to save scraps for new masks any time I make something out of cotton fabric; this will be another small contribution that I can make to local and global health, including my own. And if you’re lucky enough to know someone who sews, especially if they’ve already made a mask for you, that person is also making a big difference — please be sure to give them as much appreciation as you can muster. Save up a great big non-virtual hug for them too, to be delivered when we’re all able to hug again, masked or unmasked.

*If you need fabric masks, search “face masks” at Etsy.com. Your purchase will help a small business! (Note: This is my personal recommendation; I do not receive any compensation or commission or anything else. Full disclosure: I do sell some color-palette-related products on Etsy, but I do not sell face masks.)

Writes about the transformative power of color. Designs. Plays piano, speaks French, dances Argentine tango. Loves. https://www.colormusing.com

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