A face mask kit from JOANN. Photo: Anna Mindess

Charlotte Toothman spent the first week of sheltering in place reading, sewing and sharing Zoom story times with her grandchildren. Then she read on Facebook that hospital workers needed fabric masks — not to replace the protective N95 masks, but rather to wear on top of them.

Toothman, a leadership coach in Berkeley, realized she had fabric left over from other projects. She picked out cheery red and gold plaid and colorful pink and purple dotted scraps, started researching patterns on Facebook and began to sew.

Toothman gave her first batch of masks to a nurse at Kaiser Oakland who her daughter knew. She also got connected to an emergency room doctor at Kaiser Vallejo, who said she could use up to 200 masks pronto, and later added that when their promised N95s arrive, “the colorful over-masks will be a big morale booster.”

“I really appreciate the health care workers working around the clock and want to help them be protected,” said Toothman.

While fabric masks are not as effective as N95 masks at keeping the novel coronavirus at bay, they offer some protection. At some hospitals, the fabric masks are switched out after each patient contact, then washed with bleach and reused another day.

Claire Sherman, another Berkeley resident, wanted to “contribute something other than staying home,” so she also started sewing masks. Besides having sewing skills as an art quilter, Sherman said she has more fabric than she could ever use in a lifetime. She chose tightly woven 100% cotton from her stash and found several patterns online.

Sherman is a member of the East Bay Heritage Quilters, EBHQ, a group that often makes quilts for families in need. Now members switched focus to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

We have “over 25 people participating so far, mostly quilters and women who sew from EBHQ and Hello Stitch [a sewing and quilting studio in Berkeley],” said Carolyn Weil, EBHQ’s coordinator of community service. The quilters have given out 127 masks to five different organizations, including community health centers who redistribute the masks to those more vulnerable, including the homeless, elderly who may have been exposed to COVID-19, food workers and janitors, among others

One group that has gotten masks from EBHQ is LifeLong Medical Care. The medical organization has been distributing the face masks to people living in homeless encampments and on the streets, said Brenda Goldstein of LifeLong.

Patrice Strahan from Disability Justice Culture Club also gives out the donated masks to unhoused communities. Additionally, the masks have gone to volunteers who are helping seniors and disabled people with their shopping, light housecleaning and rides to medical appointments. “They all appreciate the masks because they help keep your spit to yourself and keep other people’s spit off you,” Strahan said.

Students from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health have been compiling a chart of California hospitals who want homemade masks, said Weil. Benjamin Gould, the emergency room manager at Healdsburg Hospital said he wants all the donated hand sewn masks he can get. “They will be used to extend the life of N95s because we don’t know when we will run out,” he said.

Marin General Hospital wants the masks to distribute to non-medical workers such as cleaning staff, kitchen workers, janitors and supply room staff.

The desire to make masks is so strong that JOANN, a large chain of sewing stores, has started to distribute free kits that can be used to make five adult- or child-sized masks. (Update, April 5: Please call your local JOANN store before going to the store to check whether they are still giving away free kits.)

“So many are spending their time and money to help in this tragic situation, and we want to step in to do our part to protect the amazing people who are helping the communities we serve,” Wade Miquelon, the president and CEO of JOANN, said in a press release.

Each free kit comes with directions, precut fabrics, a spool of thread and some sort of elastic. (The challenge right now is keeping enough elastic in stock.)

“We’ve had a heavy demand for our kits in the last few days, giving out about 40 a day,” said Larry Huffstutler, manager of JOANN Fabric in El Cerrito Plaza. He recommends calling ahead to make sure the store is stocked. Curbside pick-up from call-ahead orders is also possible.

Face masks made by Anna Mindess. Photo: Anna Mindess

As a “business that supplies products needed for people to work from home” his store received permission from Contra Costa County to remain open.

The store also allows customers who don’t have a sewing machine to come sew the masks at a machine in their classrooms. But so far no one has taken up that option, even though the store is following social-distancing guidelines, said Huffstutler.

Two Berkeley residents, Linda Franklin and Fred Dodsworth, have set up a Facebook page to connect makers and requesters. The couple got involved because both of their daughters-in-law are doctors.

“We read about this astonishing national failure of planning for this eventuality; saw the sky-rocketing patient numbers; heard from our family about the critical shortage of PPE and, because my wife is a quilter who has been teaching our granddaughters how to sew, I volunteered her labor … first for our doctor daughter [in-law] who lives locally, soon thereafter for some of the nurses who I know through my efforts as a member of the Mayor’s Taskforce to Save Alta Bates. We had no choice in this matter,” said Fred Dodsworth. “There was a need, we stepped in to fill that need.”

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.