Fabric Masks Questions and Tips

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Fabric masks. After months of telling us not to wear them, suddenly we’re told we need to be wearing them right now. (Thanks for the warning guys!) Materials to make fabric masks are getting harder to find – thin elastic for instance is getting increasingly difficult to come by.

Fortunately quilters are notorious for having fabric stashes in almost the same way dragons hoard gold – always collecting just to sit on it but never really using it. And now our time has come to break into that stash for the greater good.

In between helping my kids with their new online learning (and helping them navigate their very large feelings about being separated from their teachers and friends) I have managed to finish up as many fabric masks as I could. I kept just a few for us and sent the rest off to family and friends who didn’t have any yet.

Rainbow of hand dyed fabric masks

Since there’s currently a gazillion new tutorials from people all over about how to make fabric masks I didn’t think it would make sense for me to write up yet another tutorial. I thought that instead it would be better to cover some other information about fabric masks that isn’t quite as easy to find.

Will fabric masks keep you from getting sick?

No mask can guarantee that you won’t get sick but they can decrease your chances of coming into contact with bacteria and viruses that could make you sick. Homemade fabric masks are not going to be as effective as medical grade surgical masks – in fact surgical masks were found in one study to be three times better than homemade masks, but both types of masks were found to significantly reduce exposure to yucky germs.

By the way guys, in case you’re new here, I do have a background in science so be prepared for me to cite my sources! I try to always use quality information.

The key is that the mask needs fit around your mouth and nose well to be of any benefit. Also it’s important to note that you shouldn’t be using the masks alone and assuming you’re good to go. Don’t throw on a mask and go to a big party – you still need to be keeping your distance from other people (remember, minimum of 6 feet whenever possible!) and only going out if you absolutely need to be out. Protection like this works best when there are several layers working together.

Basically fabric masks are kind of a better than nothing solution. Obviously we want the medical professionals to have access to the very limited supply of good stuff, so the rest of us can help out by using our homemade solutions.

Bottom line: fabric masks can help when used in conjunction with other techniques like social distancing.

What is the best fabric mask pattern?

I can’t explain any better than this video made by a doctor who also sews. It’s a long watch but she goes into great detail about the best mask pattern for forming a seal on your face and how she came to that conclusion.

Now she does state that even the best mask still needed tape to form a perfect seal, so nothing is going to be perfect on its own. This doesn’t mean that this is the only style of mask that can help – pretty much anything covering your face is going to help somewhat. The CDC even shows how to make a DIY no-sew mask you can use if you can’t sew.

Bottom line: here is the mask that passed her fit test (meaning it made the best seal on the face).

What is the best fabric for making masks?

Do you have a lot of good quality quilting cotton laying around? Then you just might have some of the best material for making cloth masks!

One study found that the best homemade masks were made from two layers of heavyweight quilter’s cotton with a tight weave (like batik fabric). A cotton outer layer and a flannel inner layer also worked well.

Don’t have any? A tea towel would work well though it’s a bit harder to breathe through. Pillowcases and T-shirt materials were found to be good as well due to better breathability and fit.

Just don’t be tempted to use vacuum filters to make your mask – you could end up breathing in harmful particles instead!

Bottom line: Use your highest quality quilting cotton with the tightest weave for best filtration results, but other materials will work well too.

What pattern did you use?

I thought about making the Olson Mask because it contours the face but I eventually decided on the pleated surgical style mask which I modified a bit.

I used white fabric for the inside of the mask and colored for the outside so that way you can tell which side goes towards your face. I wanted to stretch my fabric as far as it could go so I removed the binding from two edges by placing the rectangle pieces right sides together, sewing along the long edges, then turning them right side out.

Hand dyed fabric squares sewn along long edges

Instead of attaching the straps to the top and the bottom I attached them to the sides.

Finished hand dyed fabric face mask

Tips for mask making

  • A good way to use up lower quality fabrics that aren’t good enough for the actual mask is to use them in making bias tape for the ties.
  • Only pin in the seam allowances so you aren’t poking holes in the mask.
  • Wash all your fabrics on hot to preshrink.
  • When making pleats, make sure they are all folded the same direction.
Pleats on fabric mask
  • If you want to add a nose wire for better fit make sure you use a material that is either removable for washing or resistant to rusting. I’ve seen lots of tutorials calling for permanently sewing in craft pipe cleaners. I used to use craft pipe cleaners for cleaning out the inside of straws and they tend to get rusty pretty quick. I can’t imagine they’re going to hold up well in something that should be washed regularly.
  • Wash frequently! You should wash with warm soapy water after every wear.

Whew! That was a lot of mask information! Hopefully everyone is staying safe and healthy out there!

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