Well hello! How are you doing? Hope you are OK.
It’s been a crazy year innit. Thankfully I don’t know anyone personally who have been seriously ill with Covid-2019. But one of my brother’s friends in NYC has already died from it 😢 He was only in his early 40s & no obvious pre-existing conditions. Hope you & your loved ones haven’t been ill.
Being a better safe than sorry gal, I’m firmly in the mask wearing camp, even though hubby refuses to wear one if we’re outdoors (vs indoors where he will wear one). Fresh air is the antidote he says. Chatty people who don’t know how to social distance is our Achilles Heel I retort. Think about all the unintentional spit from talking… eww! So if I get sick you know who to blame! LOL
Now let’s be honest, masks are a PITA to wear, especially for us Westerners used to our hyper-individualism & creature comforts. They’re hot & sweaty to wear. They stick to your nose & mouth when you breath in & fog up your glasses. Worst of all they make you realise how stinky your breath is 😂 So hats off to the East Asians who wear these even in hot and humid climate & while exercising (I’m looking at you Korean dancers)!
But I’ve spent the best part of last few months volunteering to sew PPE for our poor health care workers because the UK gov didn’t have the foresight to plan for pandemics. And it was hard work. We just couldn’t produce enough. So I really encourage everyone to pitch in, do their bit, live with the discomfort until we find ways to effectively treat / prevent Covid infection. I have relatives in Taiwan & they didn’t even have lockdowns thanks to group effort & public cooperation. Everyone doing a little bit & we might be able to safely get the economy going again sooner.
For those of you ready to get creative with mask making & wearing, here’s what I’ve learnt so far from obsessively following Covid news from Western & Asian sources since beginning of the year & making 18 muslins + 1 wearable muslin (that was NG!)…
Fabrics & supplies
Let’s start with the material. So why fabric mask when surgical & N95 masks are now more widely available? Well, having seen news clip of these disposable masks washing up on beaches, I feel a reusable washable cloth mask would give me more karma points. Save the disposable medical-grade masks for medical, care, other essential workers who are exposed to much more viral particles, or the vulnerable population going into high risk environments (public spaces, planes, etc). For us lay people in relatively good health who can limit our exposure a bit more with social distancing & avoiding public indoor spaces as much as possible, cloth masks are good enough.
Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to choose the more protective fabrics available. But for me it has to be a good balance between protection and comfort. If it’s super uncomfortable, then I’m much less likely to keep it on.
So based on what I’ve read so far, it seems like high thread count & non-woven fabrics are good for mechanically filtering out the larger droplets (from coughs, sneezes, & probably speaking / singing / shouting) that the coronavirus travel in. But the virus itself is quite small (0.12 microns) and can travel in aerosols (i.e. really small droplets) in some circumstances, so actually the main techniques the medical grade masks are using to filter out these small virus particle is through “electrostatic absorption” & other non-straightforward principles of physics, rather than simply as a sieve as we lay people believe. However, static supposedly decreases when the staticky material is wet, and our breath do contain water vapour. So masks do become less efficient when worn for long periods at a time. Maybe that’s why the staticky layer of good surgical masks is sandwiched between an outer layer that is water repellent (keep environmental water out) & an innermost layer that is absorbent (absorb your exhaled water vapor) to keep the staticky layer as dry as possible for as long as possible?
On the other hand, we all know how synthetic fibre are a bit sweaty to wear. So for lower risk groups like me, I thought keeping synthetics to a minimum with outer & inner layer of cotton and a staticky synthetic middle layer would be a good compromise. This is the time to use up those dreadful staticky poly linings! LOL.
Interestingly, not all polyester fabrics in my stash are as staticky as I thought. Here’s a cool video a Dr shared on YouTube demonstrating how to test the statickiness of your material – quite fun science experiment to try with your kids (or the kid in you)!
Also interestingly, there’s a material science research paper that claims a good fitting fabric mask with the right layers can filter out as much as a good fitting N95 mask, and better than a poorly fitted N95 mask. If like me you’re too lazy to read the original research paper in full, this YouTube video summarises the key points – though I ended up a different final choice of material & mask pattern.
BTW even at an average 0.12 microns (or range of 0.06 microns to .14 microns), the coronavirus is still way bigger than oxygen (0.0005 microns) & carbon dioxide (0.00065 microns). So claims that masks will stop you getting enough tiny oxygen, will trap tiny carbon dioxide, & but still won’t be able to filter out the bigger virus particles makes absolutely no sense. But after my 19 mask muslins I have a theory why masks can feel difficult to breath in – I think it’s because of the design of the mask & the drape of the material.
I initially thought that thin & soft fabrics would be most comfortable to wear. But I found they easily get sucked into my mouth when I talk & stick to my nose when I inhale. I think it is this clinginess that made breathing more difficult. So for my final mask, I went with crisp & stiff fabrics as much as possible, especially for the innermost layer. The most staticky fabric I found in my Stash was unfortunately quite drapy, but as long as the innermost material is stiff it helps keep the material away from my nostrils & mouth. And the pattern I ended up using also has pleats which allows you to stick a piece of paper to prop up the crucial nostril-mouth area if you can’t find suitably crisp fabric for the inner layer.
One final thought on fabric selection – I’d go with lighter colours in a hot climate. It gets sweaty in there as it is, we don’t need no heat absorbing dark coloured fabrics to make it worse! The sewing instruction below is demonstrated with a black outer fabric however because that’s what hubby insisted – nothing girly for him. Then again he’d only wear masks indoor away from the sun, so probably not as bad comfort-wise. Me I’m sticking to white as much as possible! Here’s what I ended up using for my own masks:
- outer layer – white 800 thread count cotton percale pillowcase, interfaced with thinnest non-woven fusible interfacing in my Stash
- middle layer – peach staticky thin polyester lining fabric
- inner layer – white stiff but thin cotton sewn-in interfacing
- ear or head loops – 1/8″ elastic. In the end I chose to have it go around the back of my head even though it messes up my hair & is less convenient. I found ear loops always hurt the back of my ears after a while.
- nose clip – 4″ length of thin wire. I recycled most of mine from old surgical masks, but at a pinch I think supermarket twist-ties would do as well.
As pointed out in the material science article, good fit is critical if your own protection is the main reason you want to wear a mask. Ask any healthcare professional treating Covid patients & you’ll learn that their N95 all have to be fit tested. Any gap at the edges allow the virus to get through. So those pleated surgical masks are limited in their effectiveness due to their one-size fits all nature. Ditto with N95 we lay people buy online. By making your own custom-fit mask, you can improve the protection by improving the fit.
When it comes to pattern, my criteria is the same as for fabric selection – a balance of protection & comfort. So the 19 mask muslins I made falls into 4 basic types with variations.
I actually started with the free multi-size Dhurata Davies fitted mask pattern with chin darts that Peter of Male Pattern Boldness sewing blog uses, because have you seen how dapper he looks in his matching shirts and fitted masks? 😍 But unfortunately both me & hubby found them too restrictive. They look smashing & are comfortable if we don’t talk. But as soon as we try to open our mouth, we either can’t open too widely or the mask slip off our noses. I tried increasing the nose-chin length & pleated the extra length at the sides. This became my first wearable muslin. After wearing it for a longer period of time I decided this one wasn’t for me because it wasn’t comfortable enough. Maybe it’s the combination of the softer fabric I used, the filter pocket I added, and the close-fitting pattern, but the mask feels hot & clammy, the fabric keeps sticking to my nostrils & mouth.
I also tried the curved centre-front seam masks, like the Olson mask pattern popular in the US, but the Olson was way too big for me (it’s a single size pattern) and has the same problem as the Dhurata Davies mask. Ditto with the Taiwanese side darted masks that claims to be less restrictive feeling – none of them stay off my nostrils & mouth well enough. I tried variations with different curve seam & dart size, I tried adding extra wires to prop up the middle. All way too complicated & still unsuccessful.
The last type I tried is the so-called “3D masks” patterns. There are numerous variations. Most have a centre edge top-stitched rectangle with pleated nose & chin panels:
When I first tried it on I thought it was too small as it doesn’t envelope the lower half of my face. But on analysing it further, this actually makes the mask more comfortable to wear! It keeps the mask mostly off my skin except at the edges. It protrudes like the domed N95 masks. And come to think of it, many medical N95 masks have a funny duck-bill shape that made no sense to me when I first saw them, but now makes total sense as it keeps the mask material off the face, especially nostrils & mouth. Health workers have to wear these for long periods of time, so I guess comfort is quite important too.
This “3D mask” type is a good compromise. It doesn’t look as stupid as the duck bill N95, but it still domes nicely to keep the fabric off my skin.
There are variations with no pleats. I found these to be less successful at keeping the fabric off my skin even though commercial N95 is similarly unpleated. I think the problem is that fabrics aren’t as stiff as the bonded non-woven material used in commercial N95. You can experiment with fusible interfacing to stiffen your inner layer if you want to try the version without pleats. But I’m happy to stick with the pleats – they seem to help keep the crucial area off my skin & are easier to sew.
Some variations also try to incorporate a pocket for removable filters. But because of the pleats, it’s impossible to insert a filter that covers the entire mask area. So I highly doubt the filtering would be effective. Or if it’s a pocket that allows filter to be as big as the mask, then that loose hanging pocket is more likely to stick to your face & feel uncomfortable. Based on the material science research cited above, I think doubling up on the staticky middle layer probably would be a better solution than adding a pocket for removable filters if you want to up your protection level.
Given how hot it gets wearing a mask, and also the increase difficulty when sewing through many layers of fabrics, I tweaked the pattern the reduce bulk. I also scaled my variations to different sizes to fit me and my hubby.
Here’s my variation of the 3D mask pattern in case want to try it yourself. I’ve scaled the pattern to 6 sizes from nose-chin lengths of 2⅜” / 6cm to 4¼” / 11cm.
- OverflowingStash.com 3D Mask patterns & instructions – A4 size PDF
- OverflowingStash.com 3D Mask patterns & instructions – Letter size PDF
Click on thumbnail below to see larger image. More details in the downloadable patterns & instructions PDFs.
Or reminders more like! I’ve seen in shops people wearing their masks with their nose and even mouth exposed. I really don’t know whether they’re just ignorant of why we’re wearing masks or whether it’s an act of defiance against public health policies. Anyway, just a few reminders on wearing mask properly:
- Make sure your nose AND mouth are covered. That’s what the mask is meant to protect – coronavirus entering or escaping from your nose and mouth. If you’re infected the mask will probably absorb / trap a lot of the virus you expel, so don’t worry too much about breathing in your own virus.
- For maximum protection for yourself, minimise gaps at the edges of the mask. While fabric masks are generally not as effective as the uncomfortable N95 masks, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from N95 mask protocols to improve our fabric masks. If you’re bearded, you may want to shave off the bits at the edge of the mask – don’t do what my hubby does. There’s plenty of open door through your facial hair 😂
- If you wear glasses or sunglasses, make sure the top edge is close to your cheek & nose, and the mask is under your glasses. It’s the water vapour from your breath escaping through the top edge that’s fogging up the glasses.
- Wash your hand before putting on your clean mask.
- Avoid touching the fabric portion of your mask after you’ve worn it – take it on & off via the elastic / tie. If you do touch the fabric, wash your hand before touching your face.
- Wash your mask every day of wear with soap or detergent, which like with handwashing, dissolves the coating that’s keeping the virus in tact.
- Remove the nose wire before you wash the mask if your wire is not waterproof.
Stay safe! I’ll be praying for your good health. Let’s beat this pandemic together❣️ And let loose your creativity on them masks 😉