the Athena Group

Athena Bulletin

To Be of Use: Mask Making for the Pandemic


An image of the poem "To be of Use" by Marge Piercy

Many of us reap our daily sustenance from “being of use.” In Marge Piercy’s words, we harness ourselves to move things forward. We want work that is real.

While so many people in front line essential organizations are working harder than ever, some of us are disconnected from our work in this moment. If disconnected, it can be difficult to stay centered. We need work that matters.

Work that matter is particularly important now as this public health crisis is throwing light on the woeful inadequacies of our mainstream systems. Perhaps system changes will be finally possible, once we are through these hard times.

Elaine Scarry, in her book Thinking in an Emergency, draws our attention to the possibilities for people to work together locally, in mutual aid movements/societies, to address emergencies. She writes about everyday citizens wresting “emergency politics” from power holders and the thinking and actions citizens can do, together, to create citizen-based mutual aid societies to protect ourselves and our democracies. She speaks to the power of people to perform acts of rescue, together, in emergencies.

A few weeks before the CDC changed its recommendation about the general public wearing masks, there was a heart breaking shortage of masks across the spectrum. As a result, mutual aid societies/movements across the US organized around making cloth masks for front line essential workers.

A poster with a group of people wearing masks. The poster encourages to "Join Us" in a distribution event

In the Olympia area, Faith Addicott (a subcontractor with The Athena Group) harnessed herself to move things forward and put her excellent project management skills to use, building the local mask making movement, South Salish Mighty Masks. Using a Facebook page and her social movement organization prowess, she created a local, grassroots movement that, at this writing, is over 548 members strong. Members are participating in mask making in myriad ways (donating, cutting, sewing, delivering, organizing, etc.). They have produced over 3000 masks for front line essential workers, members of the Navajo Nation, neighbors, and loved ones. With the new CDC guidelines, their (our) work has just begun.

It is this kind of mutual aid Scarry is referencing, and the kind of work of which Piercy describes in her compelling poem. We honor Faith and all the people coming together to do this kind of work in this unprecedented, scary, and systems busting moment.

Would you like to make your own masks or make masks for others?

Following are mask-making directions, cobbled from several patterns. This mask is pleated with a nose wire sewn into the top. Nose wires are essential for a good fit. Ties are best for comfort and to keep the mask appropriately snug, but you can use any number of ways to hook the mask on your ears (cut up tights or nylons are super comfortable – just cut strips from the legs). Also, elastic from old undies can be repurposed. And, in the end, you can make a simple mask from common household items like paper towels, a t-shirt, and a bandana or handkerchief: DIY face masks. Gratitude to all the makers who designed the websites and tutorials accessed.

Pleated Cloth Face Mask Directions

  • Wash fabric and elastic in hot water and dry before making; Wash mask in hot water and dry before using.
  • Masks should be used only once before laundering.
  • Make your masks with two different patterns of cloth so the outside and inside are easily identified. Using white for inside is a good strategy.
  • Tightly woven cotton material – quilting material works great.
  • Here’s a great picture tutorial.

1. For the face of the mask:

  • Cut two 9.5” x 7.5” pieces of fabric (7.5” x 5” for a child’s mask):
  • One patterned (outside).
  • One white or similar solid (inside).

2. Put the two “squares” together, right sides (outside) facing each other:

  • Sew bottom seam.
  • Sew first top seam about ¼ inch from edge of fabric.
  • Sew another top seam about ¼ (or so) inches below first seam (make sure to space the seams accordingly to allow for the nose wire material you use to slide between the two seams).
A spool of green wire

3.  Make the nose wire piece:

  • Thread a thin wire between the two top seams (twist tie, floral wire, gardening wire, pipe cleaners, etc.).
  • Center the wire.
  • “Trap” the wire by sewing down from the top to the second seam to create a channel and keep the wire from moving.
A hand holding out a blue face mask with a white floral pattern

4. Turn right side out and press seams.

5. Time to fold the three pleats!

  • Start at top and pinch the fabric down about an inch and form the first pleat – pin.
  • Pinch another pleat below that – pin.
  • Pinch your final pleat below that – pin.
  • Or use this pleating “jig”.
  • Press.
  • Sew sides closed.
A blue face mask with a floral pattern

6. If using prefabricated materials to keep the mask in place (hair ties, elastic, nylon loops, etc.):

  • Cut two rectangles 1½” x 3 ½” or 4” of the same patterned material used to create the face of the mask (or be fancy and use coordinating fabric).
  • Carefully place and/or pin the prefabricated material (ear loops) onto the sides – sew.
  • Fold the patterned material rectangles and fit them over the sides, turning the raw edges in, forming a casing (might need to trim a bit)
  • - sew using directions in the picture tutorial.
A black face mask laid out on a pattern drafting board

7. If making ties (ties are better because you can adjust tightness and they don’t hurt the ears like elastic and hair ties can do – much more labor intensive, though):

  • Cut two 1½” x 34” strips (white or patterned material, doesn’t matter). T-shirts also make great ties.
  • Fold each side of tie in to meet in the middle. Press. You are, effectively, making binding tape. You can skip this step with t-shirt ties, if you’d like.
  • Fold and pin the tie to the mask along the short sides – center tie in the middle, folding the ties in half to form a casing.
  • With folded edges of the ties meeting, sew the ties together and to the mask. You can increase your accuracy sewing the ties onto the mask by first sewing the front and backs to the mask, before you sew entire tie closed. If you are using T-shirt ties, you only need to sew to mask (no need to sew tie together as it will not fray).

 8. Finished! Launder before wearing.


Cheryl Simrell King, Ph.D. is a retired Member of the Faculty in the Master of Public Administration Program at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She writes, researches, and practices in the areas of citizen engagement, community-building, sustainability, workplace design, and design thinking. In her 30+ years as a researcher she worked as a policy and market researcher for a utility, a researcher at a university-based consultancy, and engaged in applied research with various public and nonprofit organizations throughout her full-time academic career.