Residents organize homemade mask-making efforts

Residents organize homemade mask-making efforts
Mia Lunati, a junior at T.C. Williams High School, making masks at home. (Courtesy Photo)

By Luke Anderson |

Alexandria residents are dusting off their sewing machines to create homemade face masks, the must-have fashion – and safety – trend this spring.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended that people wear cloth face coverings in public spaces and other areas where social distancing may be difficult. As a result, many people have begun to wear cloth masks made of multiple layers of fabric that cover the nose and mouth secured with ties or ear loops. Several networks of people in and around Alexandria are using their sewing skills to make masks for the community.

Homemade masks by Susanne Adams. (Courtesy Photo)

For weeks, Charlotte Corcoran of the Beverley Hills neighborhood has been collecting homemade masks from volunteers to give to Goodwin House Alexandria, a senior living facility on the West End. Corcoran began her mission after her former neighbor and current Goodwin House resident Sheila Hoban asked for help getting masks for the organization’s residents and staff.

On April 10, Corcoran posted on Nextdoor, a community networking app, asking for mask donations. The response to the post has been overwhelming.

“The response has been proof of how many concerned citizens are eager to do their part to respond to the needs of others,” Corcoran wrote in an email. “To date, over 200 masks have been collected from the Beverley Hills and Del Ray neighborhoods, but with the widely-cast net of Nextdoor, masks are coming in from Springfield and Lincolnia, as well. And more are being made as I type. It does the heart good.”

Although no resident of Goodwin House has tested positive for coronavirus, four staff members have tested positive and are isolating at home. The organization has taken precautions to prevent spread of the virus among its residents.

Health experts warn those wearing a mask against having a false sense of security; social distancing and frequent hand washing should still be practiced. Simple cloth masks are not designed to protect the wearer from contracting the virus but rather to protect others, should the wearer have COVID-19 but be asymptomatic.

Goodwin House has approximately 500 residents and welcomes the mask donations.

“This is truly a story of the bonds of neighborhood friendship as Sheila and Charlotte knew each other first as neighbors in Alexandria’s Beverley Hills neighborhood, and Sheila reached out to Charlotte to enlist support in making masks,” Goodwin House Executive Director Barbara D’Agostino said. “The rest is history and now, literally hundreds of masks later, Charlotte and her mask angels continue to keep us stocked with cloth masks.”

One of these “mask angels” is T.C. Williams High School junior Mia Lunati. Her mother, Barbara Lunati, taught her how to sew several years ago. Mia Lunati constructed 31 masks out of reusable shopping bags after watching a YouTube tutorial video. She gave some to neighbors with health issues and donated the rest to Goodwin House. She would have made more had she not run out of elastic for the ear straps, her mother said.

LTA costumer Kit Sibley has used supplies from the theater to make masks for her family
and others in the community. (Photo/Kit Sibley)

With the demand for sewing supplies increasing and several local fabric stores temporarily closed due to the pandemic, mask-making supplies have been difficult to obtain.

Since being quarantined, Melanie Arnold and her mother, Marilyn Tinsley, both of Springfield, have put their sewing machine into overdrive. Of the more than 300 masks they have made, a portion went to Corcoran for Goodwin House. At one point while Tinsley was putting masks together, the machine began to smoke and broke down completely, Arnold said. After waiting three hours to get inside a Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store, they were able to get the last sewing machine on the shelf and continue their production.

In the Monticello Park neighborhood, Phoebe Jones has also been busy. She initially made a few masks for her family, friends and neighbors in need but soon had dozens of requests to make more. By the end of the first day, Jones had more than 145 mask requests, she said. She’s now made more than 320 masks.

“I was overwhelmed by the response,” Jones said. “It was then that I realized how much of a need there really was. I had messages from pregnant women, from [seniors], from people who were scared to go to work, from many that had ordered online but wouldn’t receive their masks until June. I decided to just keep making and donating as many as I could.”

Businesses are also finding ways to contribute.

At The Dog Store in Del Ray, Annabell Bivens began making masks for her coworkers. When customers saw them wearing the masks, they asked if they were available to buy. Bivens and another coworker got to work sewing masks, including some with “fun” patterns that would be less “scary” to children, and began selling them for $12.99.

The Dog Store owner Paul Haire also owns Your Dog’s Best Friends, a daycare on Richmond Highway that has experienced some slowdown due to the virus. Haire is allowing the dog daycare workers to fill their spare time by cutting fabric and elastic to speed up Bivens’ mask production.

AHA Volunteer Gretchen Klimoski shows off the masks she has made. (Courtesy Photo)

Last month, the Little Theatre of Alexandria cancelled the remaining performances of “Moonlight and Magnolias” and all other productions through June 2020. With the curtains closed, LTA Governor for Artistic Support Susan Boyd offered the theater’s fabric and sewing supplies to any LTA members wanting to make masks.

Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting, frequent costumers at the theater, accepted the offer and began making masks. They have made about 75 masks each, for their families, friends and neighbors. Sibley gave some to her neighbor, a nurse at Washington Hospital Center in the District, for her and her staff. They also assisted some neighborhood students with a community service project leading to hundreds of additional requests on Nextdoor.

“We wanted to do what we could at the theater at this time,” Boyd said. “We can’t put on a show, we can’t congregate to rehearse a show or stage a show or do anything really. So we’re trying to give back to the community as best we can under the circumstances.”

At Home in Alexandria, a nonprofit wellness organization for seniors 55 and older, is now able to offer their members free masks thanks to the donations of a handful of AHA volunteers. Each volunteer decided to make masks for the cause on their own without any direction, AHA Executive Director Cele Garrett said. The organization has 230 members and has accepted 60 masks from their volunteers.

“I never asked the first volunteer to do it,” Garrett said. “They just offered it up because they’re worried. They know our members, they work with them all the time and they’re worried about them. A lot of them are members themselves.”

Although masks may be associated with the fear the coronavirus has instilled in the world, bright and uplifting patterns might be a reminder of the friendly faces behind the masks, a reminder of hope.

“It’s the latest little fashion statement,” Garrett said. “I’ve got some with pink and white polka dots, I got some with a flip flop motif … I mean, if you’re going to [wear] them, may as well make them cute, you know. I won’t be wearing lipstick for some time, so this is it.”

(Read more: Alexandria senior living facilities report COVID-19 outbreaks)