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With Extra Time And A Desire To Help, Louisville Designers Shift Focus From Costumes To Face Masks

Stacks of masks made by the Louisville Ballet costume team to be worn by TARC drivers.
Alex Ludwig
Stacks of masks made by the Louisville Ballet costume team to be worn by TARC drivers.

Louisville costumers are using would-be costume materials and fabric to make face masks.  

That includes freelance designer Donna Lawrence-Downs, who does costuming for arts groups like the Kentucky Opera and Kentucky Shakespeare.

“We have the ability, and why sit on your butt when you can be helping out,” Lawrence-Downs said.

Her go-to mask-making musical playlist rotates between Prince and Eminem.

“Anything that's got a hook or a beat or something that just keeps me not thinking about the purpose of the mask,” she said.

The music is a distraction from why there’s a need for these in the first place. It’s also a distraction from the torrent of news about the growing number of COVID-19 cases and the rising death toll

Lawrence-Downs thought the mask making itself would provide the distraction. But she said it hasn’t; that it’s been stressful.   

“It's just that it's a bigger responsibility than I anticipated,” Lawrence-Downs said.

She’s made nearly 100 masks so far.

Costumers, Seamstresses, Crafters, Fashion Designers Heed The Call

Across the country, people adept at sewing have been furiously constructing face masks as news continues to come out about how many health care facilities are falling short on critical supplies just as more American cities brace for a surge. 

You’ll find thousands of posts on Instagram when you search #handmademasks. JOANN fabric and craft stores even offered up mask-making materials and resources for free in March.

Fashion designer Brandon Maxwell, who’s built a name for himself designing gowns for celebrities, told WBUR he’s shifted his team’s efforts from couture to protective gowns and masks.   

Donna Lawrence-Downs said costume makers, like herself, are probably pulling from their own inventory. 

“Costume people are hoarders,” she said. “We hoard fabric like there's no tomorrow. I probably have 50 yards of cotton that is destined to be a quilt or a shirt for Shakespeare.”

She said she also set aside a bolt of 50 yards of muslin that had been destined to become “Marriage of Figaro” costumes for the opera. 

Sharron Hilbrecht, a re-enactor at Historic Locust Grove, has been repurposing “a stash of 100% cotton fabric in my basement” that might have become period clothing for a re-enactment.

She said she has about 100 handmade face masks under her belt now.

“I told my friend that I felt like I was rolling bandages or knitting socks during the First World War,” Hilbrecht said. “It's not much, but it makes me feel like I'm doing a teeny, tiny part to contribute to those who are giving all.”

Locust Grove re-enactor Sharron Hilbrecht shows how she makes face masks on YouTube.

Do-It-Yourself Masks

Donna Lawrence-Downs has been quite meticulous in her process.

She said she’s consulted medical professionals and done research online to learn best practices for making the masks. She’s learned that cotton is best. 

“The fabric has to be washed in hot water and shrunk first,” Lawrence-Downs said. “Then pressed, then cut out and then sewn.” 

She explains that the front of the mask is an 8 by 7.5 inch strip of cotton, the back is muslin, shaped to form a pocket for a filter. She folds in a pipe cleaner that goes across the bridge of the nose to help the mask fit snuggly, but not pinch. She makes three pleats in the fabric and stitches on ties made out of bias tape. Others use elastic to secure the mask to the face. 

Lawrence-Downs said she’s trying not to let the handmade masks pile up in her house. So she sends out batches frequently to whomever asks for them.

“Some people just want them to feel safe to go to the grocery store,” she said.

How Effective Are Handmade Masks?

Questions have been raised about DIY masks, especially in regards to using them in medical facilities. 

Local hospitals are accepting them. 

Norton Healthcare spokesperson Lynne Choate said they plan to give the handmade masks to visitors and patients. They’ll also share them with staff for at-home use only, asking them not to use these masks while working. 

Carolyn F. Callahan, public relations coordinator for University of Louisville Health, said they are taking these masks as “a precautionary back-up measure,” but aren’t sure how they’ll use them yet. 

University of Kentucky Healthcare in Lexington is taking handmade masks and gowns. The university links to a gown pattern on its website. Volunteer services manager Katie Hantle said they’re looking at using the cloth masks over N95 masks to prolong the life of those critical medical supplies. 

“I'm really thankful to the community that's going to come out for us with these masks,” Hantle said.

Should Everyone Wear Masks?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued recommendations on face coverings last week, urging all U.S. citizens to wear "cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."

That comes after the CDC sent a memo to the White House highlighting new information about the virus, indicating that a large portion of those infected, about a quarter, will be asymptomatic. 

“And that's important because now you have individuals that may not have any symptoms that can contribute to transmission and we have learned that, in fact, they do contribute transmission,” CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield told Atlanta NPR member station WABE. “And...those of us that get symptomatic, it appears that we're shedding significant virus, probably up to 48 hours before we show symptoms.”

Face masks are believed to help contain droplets and aerosolized particles on people unknowingly infected.

Countries in Asia and Europe, like Austria and the Czech Republic, have required what’s known as universal mask wearing, according to a report from NPR

Louisville Ballet staff dropped off more than 100 masks for TARC drivers recently.

The ballet’s wardrobe manager and costume designer, Alex Ludwig, and her team plan to make 700 masks.

“I ride TARC everyday and I know my bus driver on a first name basis,” Ludwig said. “It's such an overlooked essential service. They’re so important. I mean, there's nurses that ride the bus.”

Laura Douglas, acting co-executive director of TARC, said that they’ve been getting the word out to their drivers about the masks. 

“Nationwide, we know that the masks that meet the strict health requirements are in demand among health professionals and others,” Douglas said. “The masks, of course, that we've received from the ballet do not meet those strict health standards, but they still provide the drivers with a measure of peace of mind and support.”

On Saturday, TARC announced that one of its drivers had tested positive for COVID-19. The public transit service, again, stressed its message for people to use TARC only for essential purposes.

Other costumers said they’re making the masks for law enforcement, social workers, elderly neighbors, even kid-sized ones delivered to pediatrics offices. They feel this is the best way they can contribute to help us all get through the crisis.

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