Several commissioned quilts in Deborah Harvey’s studio lie unfinished, as their would-be seamstress remains preoccupied for the time being. In ordinary times, Harvey could be seen using her computer-assisted long arm quilting machine to stitch intricate patterns into quilts fit for any lodge. But these are not ordinary times, and Harvey is not doing her ordinary work.
Instead, she and two other associates are joining a national tide of women and men, equipped with sewing skills, who are using their skills to meet an increasing shortage of industry standard N95 safety masks in medical facilities and elsewhere in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Harvey’s group of quilting partners, which includes her neighbor on the outskirts of Belle Plaine, Patricia Baumann, as well as Roz Buhman, who resides in Belle Plaine proper, began making medical masks last week and have already donated 130 masks to various facilities.
With 100 more set for Waconia’s Ridgeview Medical Center, the group doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. What’s most striking for Harvey when liaisons accept her cohort’s donations is the level of enthusiasm expressed at the time of dropoffs.
In a study published by the National Institute of Health in 2013 measuring the effectiveness of homemade masks against a prospective influenza pandemic, the NIH determined that homemade masks are minimally effective at protecting their wearers and should only be used when all other safety mask options have been exhausted. Still, the study concluded that homemade cotton masks would be better than no protection whatsoever.
“Our findings suggest that a homemade mask should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals…” the conclusion of the study stated.
Both Harvey and those in medical settings are aware of the reduced effectiveness of hand-sewn masks, which are often layered with filter-like material or paired with other surgical masks, but nonetheless, those to whom Harvey has presented the masks have accepted them with open arms, indicating that for many they are, in fact, the last resort.
“It breaks my heart that what I’m doing here is being so eagerly received because I know what I produce here isn’t near the level of protection, material-wise, that [medical professionals on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic] should have,” Harvey said. “In that particular aspect, I’m feeling very gratified that they need it but very sad that it’s necessary. It’s a very mixed emotion.”
Harvey stated that some have drawn comparisons between her group and others around the country to Rosie the Riveter, a World War II icon symbolizing women's wartime efforts. But instead of working in factories and in shipyards, Harvey’s group and others are sewing and and delivering medical masks.
Quilters like Harvey, who owns and operates Grand Oaks Quilting, have a history of mobilizing for grand causes. During World War I, quilters could be seen fashioning socks and blankets for soldiers on the frontlines. During World War II, quilters were known to raffle their works to raise funds for the American Red Cross. Harvey said that quilters like her, who have re-outfitted their operations to make masks, bear a striking resemblance to those who shifted gears for relief efforts in the past—only this time the enemy is hidden.
“We’re at war,” Harvey said. “We’re trying to help fight a war.”
The masks themselves hardly scream the phrase, ‘We’re at war.’ A pile of masks on Harvey’s workshop desk wrought in reds, blues, greens, or any combination of the three represented a cross-section of the reserves Harvey’s group of seasoned quilters have accrued over the years. The only limitation in material per the CDC is that the masks need to be made from 100% cotton in order to be most effective. The group has also benefited from a fabric donation, but after decades of quilting, Harvey doesn’t suspect she’ll be lacking cotton anytime soon.
The masks’ handmade origins would no doubt be unmistakable of otherwise monochromatic health care attire. It’s Harvey’s hope that the masks’ unmistakable character signals to those who might wear them that others are thinking of them as they battle the coronavirus head-on.
“These were made by hands,” Harvey said of the masks on her desk. “These were made by ladies’ hands that have a skill, and there’s love in them.”
Harvey’s group uses a pattern distributed by Allina Health, which can be found online at https://blog.bluecrossmn.com/covid19masks/. The patterns call for strips of elastic, which is becoming increasingly difficult to find as the N95 shortage grips supply chains around the world. So Harvey said that anyone who has 1/4-1/2 inch elastic band spools is welcome to send them her way.
Amid the uncertainty COVID-19 has brought upon the world and Belle Plaine, the value of community has become strikingly clear for Harvey, who hopes people continue to come together for one another. Harvey, who also works in the physical therapy field, also hopes that at the end of the pandemic, people will spend less time on technological devices and more time with one another.
In the meantime, continued demand from the medical community will keep Harvey and her band busy for the foreseeable future.
Harvey stated that there’s likely no way to tell how many people are involved in mask-making operations around the world because, from what she’s seen, people often get involved quietly.
“There’s a huge benefit to our community to come together,” Harvey said. “Yes, we’re separated, but we’re coming together.”
Harvey’s regular customers have expressed that there’s no rush to have their orders filled while the world battles COVID-19.