One stitch at a time, a group of local seamstresses are helping protect front-line medical workers and others in their battle against the coronavirus.

They are voluntarily sewing masks using a variety of fabrics to be used as N95 mask covers for healthcare professionals or as standalone masks to help people avoid contracting COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

Many are members of the Winston-Salem-based Project Mask WS group, which has produced over 8,000 masks for medical providers in about two weeks. Despite that productivity, they can’t make the masks fast enough to meet demand—nearly 12,000 mask requests have poured in of late.

As of Thursday, the group had 551 volunteers and had received over $7,200 in donations. Its Facebook page had amassed over 1,500 members in just two weeks.

The seamstresses use only one mask pattern for efficiency; wear masks themselves while cutting, sewing or delivering masks; use only donated materials picked up from designated “mask caves;” and take a day off every week to decompress.

Group member Jamie Minton teaches family and consumer education at West Wilkes High School. Since Wilkes schools closed on March 16, she has been at home helping her students with remote learning and her two sons with their school work.

Minton has also been furiously making masks, receiving orders for more than 60 on Wednesday alone.

“So as long as the fabric, elastic, and bias tape holds out, I’ll make more, free of charge,” she said. “Some people have been so kind and refused to let me do it for free.”

Instead of accepting pay, Minton has asked them to donate fabric to West High students who can’t afford the material for a sewing basics class. She’s telling her customers if donating fabric is beyond their means, to simply “pay it forward” to someone else in need.

Minton said the masks she and others are making “aren’t the best protection for the COVID-19 virus, but it’s the next best alternative.”

Wilkes natives Sarah Guthrie Horvath and Hannah Guthrie Myers are sister seamstresses. Their parents, T.A. and Elizabeth Guthrie, live in Wilkesboro, and their grandfather, Zelotese Walsh, lives in Boomer.

Horvath said Wednesday that she’s made more than 100 masks so far to donate to the cause. “It’s been a great activity to keep busy during this difficult time and a small way to help contribute to the community need for protective gear.”

She said many sewer artists, or sewists, are donating their own materials to make the masks. Money collected from the donation sites goes directly into buying supplies to make more masks.

“As we say here at Project Mask, every mask counts,” noted Horvath.

Myers said she and her sister are both crafters who love to sew and thought joining the group was a way to help out during shortages of personal protection equipment in local hospitals. “We are just little fish in a big pond of local sewists.”

She credited her mother, Elizabeth Guthrie, with shipping supplies of fabric and elastic out of her personal collection to her and her sister.

Melissa Lewis Miller, a Wilkes native who resides in Lexington, had made 109 masks for donation to healthcare workers as of Thursday. “I wanted to be able to help those who help others every day so selflessly. It’s sad they are expected to risk themselves and potentially expose their loved ones due to lack of equipment. Sewing masks and staying home is my way of helping and showing my appreciation for those working the front lines with this virus.”

She said that every mask is made “with grace, love and a prayer that whomever wears the mask will remain healthy and safe. I’m proud to be a part of a community that comes together during times such as this to help those we can.”

Shelly Mitchell of Wilkesboro and her 13-year-old daughter, Alea, spend about an hour each day sewing masks on two sewing machines while they are staying at home.

“While I’m excited to be a part of the larger effort to stop the virus, I am also enjoying the time with my daughter,” who also creates her own patterns for clothes and bags, said Mitchell. “I am working full time, and she has lots of school work to complete, so the sewing is a great wind down at the end of the day.”

Others contributing

Outside of the Project Mask WS group, many other locals are producing masks for virus protection.

Crystal Nickelson of Wilkesboro said she turned the embroidery and design room at her store, Under His Wings Designs Boutique & More in North Wilkesboro, into a mask-making room last week because of the high demand for masks.

“I could not imagine being in the medical field during this time with low quantities of masks,” she said. “I prayed about what I could do to help, and God just laid it on me to try and make a mask, so I did and it turned out great. I’ve received far more interest than I could fathom. I feel blessed.”

Jinny Roberts Brown of Hays is a stay-at-home mom whose husband was recently laid off. She makes double- and triple-layer masks and charges just enough to pay for fuel to deliver the masks.

“I prayed that God would provide for our family, and if it was meant for these masks to be a part of our family’s ministry, then we would listen and follow Him,” she said. “The very next day, the orders started coming in, and our whole family pitches in when an order comes in.”

Brown said she is using her own fabric and elastic that she has collected over the years. “I go to great lengths to make sure each mask is disinfected and I will continue to make masks as long as I have supplies and there is a need. We are all in this together so we need to reach out and support each other.”

Ashley Orozco of Roaring River said the masks she is making and selling are not medical-grade masks, but they help people from touching their face and conceal coughs or sneezes. She has sewn over 100 masks and has almost 50 more to make, all while taking care of her two children at home. Her husband Oscar helps out, too, she added.

“I just couldn’t sit by and do nothing when God gave me the ability to reach out and help the community,” she said. “God has blessed me in many ways and I want give back. I’ve had an abundance of encouragement and prayers from people and I am so thankful for that.”

Laura Michelle Welborn of Taylorsville has made about 150 masks so far through her business Apple City Knits, a majority of which have been donated to essential medical workers, she said.

Most of her family and friends live in Wilkes, she said, and she’s delivered or shipped masks to daycares, home health providers, retail workers and law enforcement officers in Wilkes, Alexander and Catawba counties. She said N95 masks are either depleted or in short supply in those counties.

Welborn’s masks are made with four layers of cotton and have elastic bands to fit behind the ears. “They do not guarantee protection from COVID-19; however, they can help to stop respiratory spray from coughing and sneezing. They are also great for working around the yard during allergy season. I have found that wearing my mask helps to keep my hands off my face.”

She dropped off masks on Thursday at Alexander Central High School for cafeteria workers who are distributing food.

“Together we will all get through this pandemic and come out a stronger community,” she added.

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