Pitzer art professors sew for a cause during COVID-19 surge

A four-picture collage of colorful cloth masks.
Pitzer College art professor Rebekah Myers sews cloth facial masks to combat mask shortages. (Courtesy: Rebekah Myers)

With Americans quarantined at home, living within the pause of their daily lives, many find themselves uneasy with loads of questions: When will things get back to normal? How long will it take to find a vaccine? What can I do to help?

Pitzer College art professors Rebekah Myers and Tim Berg have gotten creative to tackle this last question — sewing homemade cloth health masks to address the widespread mask deficit in Los Angeles hospitals. 

Even before creating the masks, however, they donated N95 masks from the Pitzer ceramic and sculpture area supplies. 

Originally we learned about the shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers around the same time that the Claremont Colleges were beginning to close and transition to online learning,” Myers said via email. “It was a natural thought progression of: We have those supplies and someone else needs them for an important purpose so let’s donate them.”

Myers had a collection of workable masks for hospitalized patients because similar masks are used by artists. 

“Sculptors and ceramic artists use N95 masks as well as more specialized respirator masks,” she said. “These disposable N95 masks that we and our students use in the studio are the same kind that healthcare workers use to protect themselves and patients.”

Even though Myers and Berg owned a supply of masks, they found it initially difficult to connect with local hospital workers to facilitate the exchange. After scouting Instagram campaigns, they found an account through which they could donate supplies to QueensCare Health Centers in LA. But this step was just the beginning. 

“Once we donated all the PPE supplies we had, I wanted to continue helping in some way,” Myers said. “At this time not only were hospitals asking for N95 masks and gloves but they were asking for everyday people to sew and donate cloth masks in the event that their PPE was completely exhausted.”

The fulfillment and satisfaction she derived from the project overrode the initial confusion she felt in the face of the pandemic.

“Sewing masks is my way of helping others but it is also a way of dealing with the uncertainty of our predicament,” she said. “Uncertainty is unmooring. Digging into a project such as making masks anchors you to something bigger outside of yourself and your own concerns, it gives you purpose and a goal.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Soon after donating PPE with Berg, Myers’ sister inspired her to begin sewing masks for hospitals. 

“I am by no means an accomplished sewer,” Myers said. “But what I lack in sewing skills I feel I can make up for with my years as a practicing artist, maker and dedicated problem solver.” 

Myers and Berg attempt to create masks that are accessible, user-friendly and comfortable. 

After mastering how to sew them, they asked themselves further questions to improve the design, including: “Can you comfortably breathe through it while using a densely woven cotton fabric? Will the user be able to replace elastic straps or ties easily and with an easily accessible off-the-shelf item if they fail over time? Will it fit a variety of face shapes? Will it fit if you have facial hair?”

The innovative nature of the mask project remains particularly enjoyable for Myers, and along the way, she often shares her findings with fellow mask creators. 

“My sister and I have tried many different designs that we found online and shared our results about what works, fits and what doesn’t work,” Myers said. “I have taken these publicly posted mask designs promoted by hospitals and made slight changes to increase durability and so they work well with the supplies I have on hand.”

Yellow and and white fabric on a table, ready to be made into masks.
The two mask designs allow for adjustable metal wiring and a replaceable filter. (Courtesy: Rebekah Myers)

At the moment, Myers is making two designs, both made of cotton fabric with a bendable nose piece and pocket if the user chooses to insert a personal filter. She works closely with people from a Facebook group called Stitched Together, which is geared toward organizing and distributing masks.

“I learned about them by reading an article in the local Claremont Courier. Becky Fikel Morgan, a local businesswoman who owns Heirloom in the village, started to make, collect and distribute sewn masks in the local area,” Myers said. “Their group is organized to enable hospitals, nursing homes, etc. to request masks. Sewers sign up, fulfill a certain number and then mail them away.”

Myers has sent and made 40 masks to send to medical facilities and 25 for friends, family and friends of family who work in retail and are facing significant exposure.

“I have about 50 more masks in progress. I have ordered more fabric and while I am awaiting its arrival I have started using densely woven cotton sheets,” Myers said.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has brought her a wave of mixed emotions. 

I feel grateful and proud to be a part of a grassroots effort with so many smart, caring and capable people volunteering their time and skills,” she said. “On the other hand, I feel angry and sad that we are in a situation where hospitals are so unsure of their PPE supply chain that they are asking the public to sew masks that are not a safe substitute for N95 or surgical masks,” Myers said.

But Myers’ access to resources is what fuels her motivation to continue the project. 

It is important to note the role that privilege plays here … I do have the financial security, time, space and supplies at home to be able to make masks,” Myers said. “With that privilege there is a duty to help others, especially now. Many people are experiencing very different, difficult and dire situations. This pandemic has really driven me to use my time and supplies to help others.”

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