Of Masks and Mayhem: Coronavirus Diary Part 7

I have a lot of time on my hands right now. A LOT a lot. And I have learned in the past that the healthiest thing I can do if I’m stressed out is craft.

When the CDC changed its guidance and recommended that everyone wear a mask in public, I decided that I could make masks for me, Jeremy, and the boys, and then, a few more as a little side business. And since John has been wanting to buy steadily more expensive computer parts, he could help and make some money in the process.

Like all my ideas, this one started out simple enough.

Except for some slight speed bumps to my plan:

  1. My sewing machine was out of commission– it had lost its foot during my 2016 move, the bobbin and I had never been on good terms, and I recalled that the last time I used it, it hadn’t gone well at all.
  2. Elastic and non-woven interfacing (arguably the most important components of any mask) are currently the toilet paper and Clorox wipes of the crafting world. Maybe I could trade my oldest child on the black market for a yard of elastic, but probably not.

So, I tried to make do with what was available. I saw a YouTube tutorial that explained that non-woven shopping bags make a good substitute for interfacing, and I was able to find some in bulk on Ebay. I ordered some ribbon (also hard, but not impossible to come by) fabric, non-woven lining, and a cheap sewing machine online, and while I waited for everything to arrive, I got to work hand sewing a few test masks.

Attempt #1:

I am not a medical worker and had never worn a mask before. I am also spatially disinclined. So when I started cutting out the pattern, I cut it out and assembled the mask the way I thought it should go, based on my rudimentary understanding of masks. Then I realized that the mask was upside down. And since the fabric was made of little dogs everywhere, all my dogs were upside down. Hand sewing masks isn’t fun, but I managed to make a few. My 43-year-old hands do like hours and hours of hand stitching and I prayed to the sewing machine gods that my new sewing machine would arrive quickly.

Then, I tried out my new masks, and was not pleased with them at all. Mine kept creeping up over my eyes, the grosgrain ribbon straps were too short, they wouldn’t stay tied, and it was hot and generally a pain in the ass to wear. But masks aren’t supposed to be a fun, bold fashion statement, or else we would’ve all been wearing them before now. I chalked this up to more general unpleasantness surrounding our new normal.

I wanted elastic, but couldn’t find any to buy anywhere. And Joann Fabrics took the interfacing out of my cart.

Attempt #2

I was so proud of myself. This time, I cut out the fabric with the print right side up. I even put dog stickers on the pattern (because all the writing was the wrong way) to remind me to turn it before I started cutting. I decided to ditch the grosgrain ribbon in favor of t-shirt ribbon (I found a tutorial on YouTube and re-purposed a couple of t-shirts for this purpose). I discovered some floral wire in my craft supplies, and added wire to the nose area for a better fit. Still hand-sewing masks. The sewing machine had still not arrived. I I found bulk elastic on Ebay and ordered it immediately. Hallelujah! I started stalking the tracking number online. I mentioned on Facebook that I was making masks, and overnight I got 40 orders.

Since the second batch of masks were better, I felt confident that I’d be able to make some nice masks for sale. I handmade a few more, this time with the t-shirt ribbon and nose wire, and shipped a few out to relatives who needed masks. These stayed on better and the straps were more comfortable. Then, I washed my masks for the first time and the t-shirt strap frayed in the wash. God-damn it.

Attempt #3

The sewing machine arrived! YAY!

But it arrived with a sliced-in-two AC adapter. It literally looked hacked apart by a box cutter. How the hell was I supposed to sew anything now? And I had 40 masks to make! I couldn’t very well return it, and I didn’t have the time to wait for a spare part to arrive. It’s like the freaking Pony Express at the USPS right now–heavy on pony, not so much express (and rightfully so, stay safe postal workers!). That was just one more unexpected consequence of the Covid-19 shut down. Nothing happens lightning fast anymore.

But Jeremy to the rescue! He had a spare AC adapter that fit the machine, and even though it wasn’t exactly the right current and voltage rating, he assured me that it probably wouldn’t cause the new sewing machine to catch on fire.

Spoiler alert: it did not catch on fire.

It was a dream to use. So easy and user friendly. Nothing like the hunk of garbage covered in cobwebs in my craft armoire that I’d cursed at in passing for three and a half years.

I happily cut out fabric (right side up!) and grocery-store-reusable-bag lining, and prepped for the glorious moment that the elastic would arrive and I could get all these pre-cut masks finished. I was congratulating myself on my ingenuity and creativity in such a hard situation. I was a pioneer, alone in my Little-House-On-The-Prairie homestead, surviving on sheer grit and determination. Except I had YouTube tutorials! Because this was the 21st century! And they would help my figure out the best way to put in the nose wire.

And also help me figure out that I had been wearing my mask UPSIDE-FREAKING-DOWN the whole time, and the reason mine kept creeping up over my eyes was because IT WAS THE CHIN PART and the pattern had literally PARTS CUT OUT FOR THE EYES. And now, I legit had cut every single pattern UPSIDE DOWN and had WIRE IN THE FUCKING CHIN.

I clearly couldn’t sell that. I bought more fabric.

I sheepishly noted that the pattern was printed absolutely correctly and if I had just not been a colossal dumbass, I wouldn’t be in the fix I was currently in.

On the bright side, the new fabric arrived before the elastic did. So no harm, no foul.

I re-cut out the fabric (Right side up this time? Third time’s a charm? Is upside down really right side up in this crazy world? Do I even have a clue what I’m doing anymore?).

I added the elastic. I figured out how to add the nose metal (to the nose!).

Life was grand. Until the needle touched the metal and snapped completely in half.

So Brittany learned how to replace a sewing machine needle. Thank you to the handy trouble-shooting section of the owner’s manual.

We are learning new things! We are rocking quarantine! We are moving and grooving and homesteading and cooking and baking and sewing and mask making and churning butter and felling trees and plowing fields with our ox teams in our gingham sunbonnets…

And then a single top thread inched it’s way down to the bobbin, twisted the wrong way against the bobbin thread. They jerked and pulled against each other, there was a grinding noise, and just like that, my little Sewing Machine That Could became a very expensive bobbin winder.

I tried everything. I changed the needle. I changed the bobbin. I looked up YouTube tutorials, and read the manual. But the bobbin casing was no more. It had spun it’s last spin.

What the hell was I going to do now?

I’d brave Walmart! I’d buy a new machine! Except no I wouldn’t. There was not a sewing machine under $500 to be had anywhere in the Capital District. And maybe I had masks to make, but I’m also not working, and with my attention span, and my ability to stick to one type of craft project for long, I could almost guarantee that I didn’t have any use for a sewing machine that fancy, even if I could afford it.

*Insert some existential despair, internal wailing, external teeth-gnashing and hair pulling, and a colorful cornucopia of expletives as I descended into madness and a mostly-complete nervous breakdown*

What the ever-loving FUCK did I do to the universe and why did it have to hate me so??? All I wanted to do was make some masks, and stay alive, and help other people stay alive, and what the fuck was I going to do now???

I took a few hours to feel really sorry for myself, slept on it, and the next morning I started calling friends. Surely someone had a sewing machine tucked in their attic that they weren’t planning to use. I borrowed one–and my friend wasn’t sure it would even work. And found a backup in case it didn’t.

The borrowed sewing machine was probably my age, and like most middle-aged things, it wasn’t exactly a slim and stream-lined thing. It was a giant, honking chunk of metal and it wasn’t going to take any of my shit thank-you-very-much. As I tried to figure out it’s incomprehensible threading system (spatially disinclined, remember?) and figure out how to thread the bobbin, the whole bobbin casing fell out of the machine in pieces.

What in the fucking fresh hell now?

Back to YouTube and more re-assemble-your-40-year-old-sewing machine tutorials.

In the process, I learned how how to unscrew the pressure foot, adjust the tension by tightening the bobbin screw, and got to have a lovely phone call with my mom where she tried to teach her visual learning/ spatially disinclined/ mechanically-impaired daughter the finer points of sewing machine repair.

I got the top thread whipped into submission, but the bottom thread wasn’t cooperating at all. The tension was a wreck and no amount of tweaking fixed it. And then, because the sewing machine gods were apparently displeased with me, the whole bobbin casing would randomly fall out of the sewing machine mid-sew.

So that wasn’t going to work. On to sewing machine #4 (or borrowed sewing machine #2).

My friend said to come pick it up in the afternoon. So I decided to 1) borrow her machine temporarily and 2) order the parts I needed to get my original cobwebby machine working again. I got online, ordered a new pressure foot, more needles, machine oil, and everything else I’d learned I needed to keep a sewing machine running smoothly. Then I went to take a shower while I waited to learn my mask-making destiny.

As I showered, I went through the whole series of events in my mind–trying to set my thoughts in order and not completely lose perspective–because if I’m honest, I was teetering close to the brink of obsessive hysteria.

I started thinking about how I could fix this situation. I had one sewing machine with a broken foot/weird tension. One sewing machine with a broken bobbin casing. A borrowed sewing machine with bobbin issues of indeterminate, but probably mechanical origin, and a future sewing machine that maybe worked, but was a big question mark. And then, those angry sewing machine gods smiled upon me, and suggested, much like Glinda suggested to Dorothy, that I had had the solution to my problem all along.

I could take off the needle and the pressure foot on my second broken machine and put them on my broken first machine! I knew how to fix tension now! I could clean up and reassemble my bobbin case! It was cobwebby sewing machine’s time to shine!

I pulled her out of the craft armoire, and this time I didn’t sneer at her. I looked at her with hope. and love and appreciation. I took the needle, I took the pressure foot, and I lovingly replaced her parts, returning her to her previous glory! I tightened her tension, and thanked her for her perfectly matched cord, working lightbulb, and can do attitude.

And then, I finally made masks.