Who could have predicted in January that a simple mask would become the “face” of our lives by April? Ours has never been much of a mask culture – at least on any regular basis. Just about the only masks I remember from childhood were the Halloween kind. Oh, and the bad guys who robbed banks and stagecoaches wore bandanas as masks in the slew of Westerns predominating television screens when I was a kid: The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke and Hopalong Cassidy and the like. I also remember back when an uncle or two donned full-face masks during occasional welding tasks.
Rather, masks have been much more likely to define us occupationally. During my couple of surgical procedures, attending physicians and nurses were appropriately masked as required of those in the medical profession. Lots of other folks also wear specialized face gear to keep them safe at work. Masks basically filter out or provide a physical barrier to unwanted nasties: splashes, sprays, dust, fumes, vapors, pollutants – all that “stuff” we do not want splattering in our faces or entering our respiratory systems.
Then there are other, more extreme uses of face masks. For example, workers cleaning the most egregiously-cluttered houses on those hoarding shows often wear respirator masks that look similar to the World War I gas masks I saw pictured in my high school history book. On the evening news I have seen SWAT teams storming stand-off situations and police in riot gear restoring the peace, their faces in both instances shielded by some sort of protective covering. And in recent weeks we have all learned about the most important face masks of all that are in the shortest supply of all: the N95 respirator mask.
Mask usage during the course of daily life, however, is more prevalent, encouraged, and even expected in other countries and cultures of the world. In the aftermath of natural disasters, it is not uncommon to see rescuers and recoverers wearing face masks. And I am rarely surprised when I see news footage of more than a few people in eastern Asian cities wearing masks as they make their way through crowded streets or board public transportation during rush hour.
Because I really hate stereotypical thinking – especially my own – I did a bit of reading about masks in Asian culture. I found that Japan lost 5% of its population during the Spanish influenza in 1918 and suffered through another pandemic a quarter of a century later. In between, raging fires brought on by an earthquake destroyed 600,000 Japanese homes. Later Japan’s rapid rate of industrialization after WW ll led to chronic pollution in its densely-populated environs, spilling over into other Asian nations. Commonly-held beliefs that good air brings good health combined with a variety of societal factors have made face masks on that side of the globe a common fixture, part national responsibility and part fashion statement.
But now coronavirus concerns have brought the cloth face mask front and center in our own culture. Several weeks ago, mention of folks making face masks at home began popping up on social media, and the internet filled with patterns and sewing instructions, especially after the CDC’s recommendation. Some sewers are even turning out masks in large numbers as charitable projects or profit-making ventures. Regardless of source or motivation, masks have become part our lives for the foreseeable future.
I have seen Facebook pictures of cloth face masks fashioned from all kinds of fabrics, photos posted by sewers displaying their all-American, can-do spirit. However, there is another kind of sewer also making entry into the self-made mask arena, albeit with a sense of caution: the precise seamstress.
Such sewers, many of them of Boomer age and upbringing, stitch to high standards set for them by mothers and grandmothers and 4-H extension agents like Pauline Mills – many of whom expected the inside of a handmade garment or the underside of a handstitched tea towel to look as good as the public side.
These sewers pore over the many patterns available, with fabric choice even more difficult because of the need for breathability as well as filtering properties. Most seamstresses will opt for good quality, tightly-woven material over knit fabrics with larger holes between stitches, although they might allow themselves to sandwich a piece of flannel between two layers of lesser-quality cotton.
Another quandary arises in the appearance of the fabric, although these finely-tuned sewers will in all probability choose two different prints or colors so as to avoid confusion for the wearer wondering which side is which.
With fashionability perhaps the most consequential factor, the precise sewer will decide on complementary colors and prints as well as fabrics to match the masked person’s age, interests, and sense of style. Virus or no virus, no self-respecting seamstress can live with the thought of sending a friend or relative into a social distancing situation in a face mask lacking in taste or style.
For the next chapter in our history book, all of us are somehow affected by this new sign of the times. No matter our location, generation, ethnicity, role in life, sewing precision or lack thereof, – a scrap of cloth hooked over our ears has become something we all share for the health and well-being of ourselves and others, perhaps even a symbol of civic responsibility. Mask up, my fellow Americans, we are all in this together!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.