Masking My Incompetence

Masking My Incompetence

I think the Covid-19 experience started for me about 6 weeks ago, when planning for the disease’s impact on his health care org started taking over my husband’s life. I am mostly retired these days, with a work project on hold. This enables me to offer a pretty robust support response when Jim’s life gets crazy, for which I am grateful. We’ve done that thing in which we both are facing major professional challenges at the same time (often while there were the prodigious demands of raising kids at home) and it is no fun. When flexibility disappears in one partner’s life, it’s really pretty great for life together if there is extra flexibility available in the other’s.

There is, however, something of an ego hit to being “reduced” to support staff on the home front. Few hero points are offered for doing things like making dinner, which is something most of us do during normal times, too. And of course, there really has been a reduction. Ordinarily, I do various volunteer things which help me feel, through all 5 senses, in full human bandwidth, that I am making a difference in the world. I do have some volunteer projects online and they actually ARE busier than ever, but even I, a devoted geek, suspect that more screen time is not the healthiest response to the “freaky holiday” (Simon and Garfunkel’s Save the Life of My Child keeps going through my head these days) that is Stay-at-home for those of us who are not deemed “essential” in the grand scheme of things.

Because Jim works at home some of the time, I spend more time than is healthy listening to conference calls in which people seem to be missing the point, or people are grandstanding, or people are panicking. They are just being people, trying to figure a good way through frightening territory. I hear my husband tell a young doc, who is trying to calm his staff, “We are following CDC guidelines, not changing tactics to please frightened people who don’t know what they are talking about.” I decide that CDC guidelines, imperfect as they are, will be a reasonable guide on which to base my my own behavior, and, in the weeks before they issue the suggestion for citizens to wear face coverings, thank my sister, the award-winning quilter, for her offer to make some for us, but demur. I’m not going to contribute to public panic by taking unnecessary precautions.

A little later, the CDC updates its guidelines, which now include a recommendation that citizens use face coverings when doing things in public which make staying 6 feet away from one another impractical.


And so begins my saga:

I go upstairs to eye my fabric stash.

I am not now, and have never been, a skilled seamstress. But, because I had my children first, my mother made the gift to me of the sturdy Singer Scholastic Model 717 which she bought for Tina-the-future-quilter in the late 1970’s, after Tina’s needs had outgrown the lovely little Singer that mom had received in the late 40’s or early 50’s and on which she and each of us 4 daughters learned to sew. Once in my clutches, the 717 turned out a bunch of delightful, if truly poorly made, Halloween costumes for my kids over the years. Knight’s capes. A skirt for Dot-the-Animaniac and robes for her Daddy to be Death (always nice for the family doc to be squiring his kids around as Death!) A beautiful girls’ size 8 red velvety costume for “A Chinese Princess but Not Mulan.” The stash had lots of fun shiny decorative fabric, felt from the primary color clouds I made for wall decorations for the nursery, some vinyl I used to recover the diaper changing pad. Oh! And some very fashionable, sturdy cotton (with teflon!) that I used to re-upholster some dining room chairs in the late 80’s. That could work!

I set myself to watching mask-creation videos. There are jillions of them. I determined that I lack the skills for the more complicated designs, but seriously, rectangles? Even I can make rectangles! And hey, those cheapie tote bags are made of the “non-woven” material recommended for interfacing? I have a bunch of those!

I learn that elastic, of which I have none, is apparently out of stock everywhere, because real seamstresses have grabbed it. I figure that is fine, as I know my way of learning, and there are bound to be some unsuccessful attempts and I am not the person who should using up scarce resources. Fortunately, there is not high need anywhere else on the planet for late 80’s teflon-enhanced cotton upholstery fabric, and I must have seriously overbought back then, because I have yards of the stuff. What could I have been thinking? Was I planning to make outfits for the kids to match the chairs? Oh well, I can make matching ties!

I settle on this pattern and instructions offered by JoAnn Fabrics, which I realize I’ll have to tweak because it uses elastic, but otherwise looks simple enough for me.

I take the plastic off the machine, which I treated to a spa treatment makeover 2 years ago and then didn’t touch again.

I make the ties.

I make the mask, inside out as sewing things are always made, I recall, sending up thanks for a mind which actually is usually pretty good at doing spatial manipulations in my imagination.

I attach the ties.

I turn the mask right-side-out, realizing to my horror that the ties are now tucked into the mask. And also, that even if they had been outside, where they belong, they are too short. Oh, yeah, Val. Awesome visual-spatial planning there! Where is that MacArthur genius grant?

I think perhaps this initial effort, while serving to reacquaint me with the machine, might have earned me an F- from my middle school home ec teacher. Fortunately, she is not a witness to this travesty!

Jim takes one look, bursts out laughing, and takes a pic for our kids, which he sends with the observation, “We’re all gonna die!”

Model 1

Then he takes a closer look and says, “I think I’d like it better if it had shoelaces for ties.” We don’t have replacement shoelaces sitting around, so he pulls some grungy ones from his sneakers. Eeeew! But hey, we are still in prototyping phase, so I make model 2, this time creating a channel for the ties to run INSIDE the inside-out mask. This actually works pretty well, except for the grunge factor.

Model 2

That night on the conference call I swore I’d stop listening to, it is announced that as of 2 days from the call, all staff not directly providing patient care will need to begin covering their faces, preferably with self-provided cloth coverings so as not to deplete the still-short-in-supply personal protective equipment (PPE)

Oh God. Pressure! What was sort of a lark and unlikely to be seen except at the grocery store and the Farm and Fleet is now something he will be wearing to work! Around people who know the person behind the mask!

One thing is clear. Grungy old shoelaces are NOT going to work. So I go to the dollar store where I find nice clean white sneaker shoelaces, and next to them, some very fancy curly spiral ones. The interwebs tell me that these are a “nostalgia” item. This is absolutely a trend I completely missed.

It occurs to me that these might have useful properties. And I love new technology. So I get some of these along with the some normal stretchy athletic ones.

I bring them home and get to work. OF COURSE I sew the channel for the laces too tight and buy myself an extra 30 minutes of carefully working the lace to the opening it is to come out of. I proudly present my beloved with model 3. Unfortunately, the extra width required by the channel for the coil makes the usable area of the mask too small. He thinks the spiral laces are great! He accepts my creation graciously and asks whether I might make a bigger model?

I breathe a silent prayer of gratitude as I check email. My sister, noticing how guidelines have changed, is writing to let me know that she has taken it upon herself to make masks for me, my beloved, and for each of my kids. They are in the mail and should arrive in a few days. I thank her, tell her she is the best (because she is!)

I also work up a model 4, for myself, with straight shoelaces and the pleats shown in another pattern found online, which requires fewer pleats. Even with this nod to materials, my upholstery fabric is NOT happy about pleating, and my machine isn’t really happy trying to sew those pleats, either. Drama ensues as the thread breaks. I cannot possibly see to thread the needle with my fancy contact lenses in. I turn to my 32-year-old son (who is choosing to spend some of his working-at-home time here.) He is playing a video game nearby. I ask for his help. He has to take his glasses off, but he gets me back in business again. I resume. The thread breaks again. I cannot possibly interrupt him a second time. I remove my contacts. Turns out my glasses don’t work for this either. I need to use my naked eye, which it turns out, can actually focus on this tiny task. Yay!

Top – Model 4, Bottom – Model 3

The result is serviceable, if not great. It covers nose and mouth, without too much gapping at the sides. I wear it to the recycling bin (where nobody ever is) and to the grocery, where I am able to ask two fellow masked shoppers in the detergent aisle “Are we glamorous yet?”

I set myself to the task of completing model 5 ( the requested bigger version of 3) and am faced with a new crisis: The bobbin thread has come to an end! This should not actually be a crisis, as I actually do know how to wind the bobbin. But the bobbin spindle refuses to turn. I check the interwebs to make sure I’m not doing it wrong. There are videos. There is even the manual for the sewing machine. No, I’m not doing it wrong. Somehow, my nicely re-furbed machine has lost this capacity. I remember that winding things is something hands can do, even if not as nicely and evenly as the machine. I recall that the middle school home ec teacher is not checking the evenness or straightness of my stitches. I wind the bobbin myself. And finish model 5.

Meanwhile, my sister’s package arrives. Beautifully sewn face coverings with perfectly created ties are appreciated even more than they might have been otherwise. Her fabric is a light cotton weave, with a patriotic theme. The masks fit perfectly. We are saved!

I will win no awards for these efforts. But I feel a whole lot better for having tried. It was good to re-myelinate old synapses, to try to innovate a little with a limited set of supplies, and to make something physical, as opposed to just moving electrons around. I provided more than a few laughs to my family, and hope my many friends who know their way around a sewing machine will get a chuckle from this tale.

It has been said that anything worth doing, is worth doing badly. If you are needing a lift in these trying days, I thoroughly recommend trying to do some craft or cooking project which falls outside your normal zone of competence. If nothing else, it is likely to generate some much-needed laughter. Happy creating, everyone!

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