Over the last few weeks, stepping out from my South London home, I have been greeted with a growing number of people wearing face masks of all kinds: surgical masks, cycling masks, as well as improvised bandanas or scarfs. There are those selling them too – in parks and shops advertising ‘face masks sold here’. Increasingly, home-made masks are appearing with their tell-tale signs: unique patterns, uneven finishes and makeshift materials. Mask making and wearing is one answer to the essential question debated over in the last few weeks: How do we protect ourselves and each other during a pandemic?
The UK government has introduced measures including social distancing and messaging around handwashing practices. But at the time of writing, the advice is – unless you are unwell, or with an unwell person – not to wear a face mask. There is mixed advice on the effectiveness of non-surgical face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but countries such as China, the Czech Republic, and Germany, have made masks mandatory in all or some public settings. Other countries, such as the US, have simply advised that masks are worn. The increase of face mask wearing has put severe pressure on supply chains, and in response to the resulting scarcity, people have turned to making their own.
Patterns for making your own masks have been published by reputable medical sources such as Johns Hopkins University and the US Center for Disease Control, as well as by thousands of crafters stepping up to the challenge by designing their own patterns. There have also been grass-roots calls to make and distribute home-made masks, typically through social media platforms. Thousands of volunteers have responded, supplying masks to individuals, care homes, and hospitals.
This collective action and turn-to-craft echoes the ‘make do and mend’ attitude adopted during the World Wars. Although war analogies – evoked often by politicians and the media – have been typical throughout this crisis, they are particularly apt in this instance, directly recalling the home-sewers and knitters making clothing for soldiers. The masks themselves, offering protection from an invisible threat, also have a war analogy in the gas masks carried by citizens anticipating a mustard gas attack, and the public information campaigns about their proper use.
The home-made nature of the masks, and the grass-roots groups making them, aligns them with ‘craftivism’, where crafted items serve as a signifier of political engagement. The Pussy Power hat in the V&A’s collection, used during protests following President Trump’s 2017 election, is a notable example, but it can encompass many craft practices to express dissent or effect positive change. Earlier this year we saw crafters from around the world rush to the aid of Australian wildlife in need of mittens and pouches (although, as it turned out, supply far outstripped demand). This example is telling of the willingness of people to put their skills – often used primarily as a hobby – to use in times of crisis.
The jury may still be out on the effectiveness of home-made face masks but the practice of making them does offer a sense of community engagement, and offer clues how to address issues in our increasingly challenged and fragile supply chains. With many of us now facing more free time than we might otherwise have, it’s an opportunity to dust off our sewing machines, or rummage for something that might be fashioned into a make-shift mask.
Here’s my own attempt at making one of the patterns, using the John’s Hopkins University pattern, and some (on brand) V&A fabric.
This article was originally written on 20 April 2020
- Coronavirus: Making face masks feels ‘like the war effort’, Hazel Shearing, BBC news, 22 April 2020
- A Sewing Army, Making Masks for America, David Enrich, Rachel Abrams and Steven Kurutz, The New York Times, 25 March 2020
- How to Wear a Cloth Face Covering, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, last reviewed 13 April 2020
Related objects from the collections
This hat was knitted by Jayna Zweiman, Los Angeles based co-founder of the Pussyhat Project. It was worn by one of the estimated 500,000 people who took part in the Women’s March on Washington on 21 January 2017, the day after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The Pussyhat Project initiators encouraged people to knit hats from a simple pattern disseminated online, and either wear it to the march or donate it to others marching. The project aimed to turn the Women’s March into a ‘sea of pink’, a striking visual statement of solidarity.
During the Second World War, fearing a recurrence of chemical gas attacks used in the First World War, the British government ordered that every man, woman and child should have their own personal gas mask, resulting in a massively complex manufacturing and logistical undertaking. This mask and bag, emphasise how the mask was meant to be incorporated into one’s everyday routine, and carried around while on-the-go.