Keep Calm and Make Masks: A Volunteer Brigade Is Sewing the Face Coverings Needed to Protect Portland’s Doctors and Patients

The people stepping in with fabric are engaged in a collective project, something larger than themselves.

Dr. Michele Hetrick pivoted from making bags for cornhole to sewing masks for hospital workers. (Christine Dong)

Two weeks ago, Jane Staugas made bow ties. Matias Brecher manufactured wooden cellphone covers. Michele Hetrick sewed the bags tossed in backyard games of cornhole.

Now they all make the same thing: masks.

They have joined a brigade of Portland seamstresses, crafters and hobbyists who in recent days have taken to their sewing machines and routers to assemble the protective gear needed to battle COVID-19.

In factories, shops and living rooms across Multnomah County, they have volunteered in an ad hoc production drive that feels a little like the 1940s war effort. Most of them say they were spurred to action by news reports last month that Oregon doctors and nurses were nearly out of the personal protective equipment they needed to shield themselves from the virus as they treated the state's sickest patients.

"This makes me feel less helpless," says Staugas, 66, a Reed neighborhood seamstress who pivoted from her bow-tie shop on Etsy to sewing masks for friends, family and anyone who calls. "I think every seamstress in the U.S. has purchased elastic. There's a lot of MacGyvering going on."

Michele Hetrick teamed up with Carrie Garvey, manager of Montavilla Sewing Company’s Gresham store, to distribute fabric masks to Portland-area hospital workers.(Christine Dong)

The COVID-19 outbreak is a cloud with few silver linings. It is a tale of governmental incompetence, heartbreaking bereavement and economic calamity the likes of which many Oregonians have never experienced. Even our great civic effort—staying home to stop the spread of disease—is a solitary activity.

Mask making is an exception.

The people stepping in with fabric are engaged in a collective project, something larger than themselves. As WW combed through press clippings and checked social media posts to find people chipping in, we discovered the campaign was spontaneous and not coordinated—sometimes sewers were sewing masks just blocks from each other without knowing their neighbors were helping, too. (An unusually high number of crafters are concentrated—apparently by coincidence—in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Montavilla, along 82nd Avenue.)

The effort couldn't be more timely. Last week, federal health officials recommended that all Americans don face coverings, because many of the people carrying the coronavirus don't display any symptoms. That's creating an even more frantic market for fabric masks. (We offer a pattern for sewing one yourself on page 14.)

Portlanders appear ready to meet that demand. WW could interview only a fraction of the people we found making masks in or near this city. In the following pages, we'll introduce you to six.

WE CAN DO IT: Michele Hetrick (right) teamed up with Carrie Garvey, manager of Montavilla Sewing Company’s Gresham store, to distribute fabric masks to Portland-area hospital workers.(Christine Dong)

Calibration Cornhole Co.

On March 31, Dr. Michele Hetrick didn't know how to sew a mask. Now she doesn't know how to stop.

Hetrick wakes each morning at 5:30. She sews fabric masks until 1:30 am the following night. Four hours sleep, then back to her Pfaff sewing machine. There's a day job as a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasant Valley Elementary in between—distance learning, of course.

"The secret is that I don't do anything small," she says. "The problem is that the orders just keep coming in."

In October, Hetrick, 46, founded Calibration Cornhole Co., a Gresham shop making wooden cornhole sets. You know cornhole: It's the game beloved at birthday parties and barbecues, where players toss fabric bags filled with resin pellets onto a wooden board with a hole cut in the top.

Turns out cornhole bags and masks are similar. "It's just sewing squares," Hetrick says.

One week ago, she reached out to the Gresham location of the sewing-machine chain Montavilla Sewing Company. She offered to coordinate a mask-making drive, and asked the company to serve as a depository for the face coverings and ferry them to local hospitals. The first 100-mask batch was delivered to Providence Portland Medical Center on April 1.

Carrie Garvey, manager of Montavilla Sewing Company’s Gresham store, distribute fabric masks to Portland-area hospital workers.(Christine Dong)

As of April 7, Hetrick and seven other seamstresses have finished 770 masks. They have standing orders for another 516. (They're making scrub caps for nurses, too.) Her proficiency at sewing masks has increased: "The first one took me an hour and a half, and now I'm down to 2 minutes and 30 seconds."

What's the lesson here? Hetrick sees it as a story of collective decency—and discerning a larger pattern. "It reminded me that the things I tell my kids, those really are my values," she says. "We are better as a community than we are as individuals. This is a problem that's bigger than you." AARON MESH.

MASS PRODUCTION: Carolyn Hart-Stafford is a member of Crafters Against COVID-19 PDX, which has donated approximately 8,000 homemade masks since March 18. (Christine Dong)

Crafters Against COVID-19 PDX

On March 17, Anne Jin, 47, was a stay-at-home mom in Portland's Laurelhurst neighborhood, increasingly concerned about the growing public health crisis but, like most Oregonians, at a loss for what to do.

On March 18, Gov. Kate Brown announced Oregon had just two weeks' supply of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

That's when Jin's husband, an infectious disease doctor at a Portland-area hospital, suggested she rise to the occasion.

"You have a sewing machine," Jin recalls her husband telling her. "You should sew masks."

That same day, she made a Facebook group, called Crafters Against COVID-19 PDX. The group swelled to 8,000 members—people from across the state eager to help mitigate the historical PPE shortages. "I had never made a Facebook group before," says Jin. "I'm just a novice sewer myself."

The Facebook group now shares how-to instructions for making a DIY mask, posts from crafters helping each other out, crowdsourcing mask materials, and words of encouragement like "Keep calm and sew masks." Some of the group's members need these words more than others—they've posted comments seeking suggestions to improve their masks.

Despite the challenges of at-home mask making, the members have made and donated approximately 8,000 homemade masks to Multnomah County's donation center. The county then sends the donated homemade masks to hospitals in need, where they are given to patients—not health care workers, since cloth masks aren't medical grade.

While Jin has orchestrated an entire team of mask-makers, she herself hasn't sewn one just yet. "I've made zero," Jin says, laughing. "I've been so overwhelmed with taking care of other people. It went from zero to 60, and suddenly my kids needed to be homeschooled. It's actually kind of embarrassing. [But] I'm the glue between the makers and the doctors who want to give them to patients."

Jin says the Facebook group is a welcome respite for many Portlanders who are unemployed or feeling listless. She says the group comprises a wide variety of members: some who already sew as a hobby and others who are just plain bored during the pandemic.

"It's giving people something to do with their hands," Jin says. "It's hard for people who had to stop working, so this is something else to focus their energy on." TESS RISKI.

PLASTIC FANTASTIC: Matias Brecher’s company, Toast, has switched from making custom iPhone covers to face shields made of a thin, durable type of plastic. (Christine Dong)


Matias Brecher typically doesn't mess with plastic.

His company, Toast, has operated for the past eight years on principles of sustainability, making custom laptop and smartphone covers using responsibly sourced wood and leather. But when he decided to help coronavirus first responders by pivoting to medical face shields, Brecher had to put some of his environmental concerns on the back burner.

Without the means to make N95-style masks, Brecher and his nine-member team at Toast's offices in Montavilla have put his laser cutters to use designing shields out of durable thermoplastic polyester, which can be sanitized and reused.

The shields are sold through a private portal on the company's website, to ensure they go directly to frontline workers. Toast's small staff now manufactures 250 per day, but the hope is to get up to 500 if demand increases—and if material remains available.

"Things are getting really scarce with material now," Brecher says of the thermoplastic polyester, which comes from a local wholesaler, Laird Plastics. (Toast currently has enough to make 5,000 shields.) "Six to 8 weeks from now, if there's a real run, that might be a limiting factor for us." MATTHEW SINGER.

SLICE OF LIFE: In his West Linn home, Eric Cha is using a computer numeric controlled router to cut through plastic to make the frames for reusable face shields.

Clever Little Maker

Stephanie Cha considers the 2,000 headbands a miracle.

On March 18, her husband, Eric, began manufacturing the frames for reusable plastic face shields, using a computer numeric controlled router to slice through polyethylene. A Wilsonville company, 3-D Systems, contributed the polycarbonate for the transparent visors. Eric and Stephanie Cha spent nights at their kitchen table in West Linn, assembling the shields with the help of their two teenage children.

Then the elastic ran out. The Chas needed elastic bands for the straps that secured the shields to doctors' heads. "I personally cleared out Jo-Ann [Fabrics]," Eric Cha says.

But a distribution manager from Goody's donated 2,000 headbands. They weren't anything special—cheap workout headbands in pastel colors. "They're basically elastic bands," says Stephanie Cha, 49, who works as a doctor. "They do the job."

The donation was one of dozens of generous acts that have turned Clever Little Maker—the Facebook hobby page of Eric Cha, 50, an engineer and computer programmer—into a cottage industry spreading across the Portland suburbs and sending orders to hospitals across the country. "We'll keep going until we run out of plastic," says Eric Cha. "We will probably run out after we make 1,700 face shields total."

Dozens of households have joined the Chas in assembling the face shields. In photographs, the volunteers grin from kitchen counters and sit cross-legged on living-room carpets. They look like they're opening presents on Christmas morning—but instead, they're making the gifts.

"I think most of us are used to being taken care of, by the government or the system or your employer," Eric Cha says. "A lot of that didn't come through." Instead, he says, the COVID-19 crisis was met by neighbors. "But I feel like our neighbors are from all over the country." AARON MESH.

FABRIC OF OUR LIVES: Portland Garment Factory owner Britt Howard is producing 6,000 “frontline barrier masks” per week at her Montavilla textile factory. (Christine Dong)

Portland Garment Factory

Britt Howard was in Cuba on a business retreat when things really started to fall apart back home.

When she returned to Oregon on March 13, after nine days in Havana with limited internet access, the state was in the process of shutting down completely.
She didn't dawdle. Within days, Howard turned the Portland Garment Factory, the Montavilla textile company she's owned since 2008, toward face-mask production.

"I thought maybe we can make 1,000 masks per day, on top of other stuff we're working on," she says, "just to help." Normally, the factory manufactures shirts, tote bags and other apparel for contractors as big as Nike on down to small Portland fashion brands.

Her first batch sold out within an hour, and the second and third went nearly as fast. Now, her 14-member staff is cranking out 6,000 "frontline barrier masks" per week, supplying Legacy Hospital and Planned Parenthood.

The masks, made from "non-woven, medical-grade material," are as straightforward in design as possible: all white, to provide the wearers with a "sense of calm," Howard says. But she adds that when she starts making them for the public, they have "a bit more flair." MATTHEW SINGER.

EYE TEST: U.S. Outdoor owner Ed Ariniello is helping collect ski goggles for Goggles for Docs, an organization that repurposes the eyewear for use by medical professionals at hospitals across the country.the eyewear for use by medical professionals at hospitals across the country. (Christine Dong)

U.S. Outdoor Store

Skiers need doctors, rarely the other way around. Right now, though, the medical profession can use whatever assistance it can get.

Ed Ariniello's contribution? Goggles, and lots of 'em.

Ariniello recently registered his sporting goods store, U.S. Outdoor on Southwest Broadway, as a drop-off point for Goggles for Docs, a national effort to collect new and used ski goggles for hospitals in desperate need of protective eyewear.

"We all need something to do," he says, "something we can contribute."

NEXT ADVENTURE: U.S. Outdoor owner Ed Ariniello is helping collect ski goggles for Goggles for Docs, an organization that repurposes the eyewear for use by medical professionals at hospitals across the country.the eyewear for use by medical professionals at hospitals across the country. (Christine Dong)

The image of doctors looking as if they just came straight from shredding Hood might seem slightly ridiculous, but the idea came from a physician in New York, whose aunt coaches downhill racers. Hospitals from across the country make requests through the Goggles for Docs website, and donors fill out a spreadsheet, committing to supply a certain number.

So far, the group has donated nearly 13,000 goggles total. Ariniello sends shipments across the country every Friday.

As for his own business, sales have been slow but not stagnant. Adventuring is on hold, but customers still order skis, backpacks and other equipment, preparing for the day when it's safe to go outside again.

"The cool thing about the outdoors," Ariniello says, "is we're all dreaming about getting there." MATTHEW SINGER.

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