Health Canada has been recommending people wear non-medical masks (or fabric face coverings) in situations where physical distancing is difficult to maintain or unpredictable since May 20, 2020. Many stores and businesses that have re-opened are requiring that customers and/or clients wear masks. If you don’t already have masks, you may be wondering if it is feasible to sew your own. In this post I will outline some of the things you may wish to consider before committing to sewing non-medical masks and share some of the things I’ve learned by sewing non-medical masks for myself.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gaffe aside, our exhalations contain water vapour. You may have seen your breath form clouds on a cold winter day. These respiratory droplets have the potential to carry viruses and bacteria.
Effective mask materials must simultaneously be impermeable (to prevent the transmission of respiratory droplets) and be breathable (to avoid suffocation). The fabric that best meets both of these requirements is 100% cotton. Quilting weight cotton and other cottons with high thread counts are recommended and you need to use two or more layers .You may already have suitable fabric at home. Wash and dry your fabric before cutting to avoid shrinkage of your masks.
Masks lose their effectiveness once they’re damp. They need to be washed after each use. You may need one or more masks per day. If you’re not sure how many masks you’ll need, three is a good number to start with. That way even if one is in the wash, you still have one to wear and a spare.
One Size Fits…Some
For your mask to be effective it needs to fit properly. It needs to be large enough to cover both your mouth and nose, but small enough to not have gaps. If you’re making masks for children (aged 2-12 years), teens (aged 13-19 years) or adults who are larger or smaller than average, you may wish to consider a pattern or tutorial with multiple sizes.
The only way to know if a mask will fit is to try it on. I recommend making one mask and wearing it for a few hours before committing to sewing several of the same size and style.
Skills versus Time
Only you can determine if your skills are up to the challenge and how much time you want to spend making masks. I’m presenting these styles of masks in order of increasing sewing difficulty.
1) Rectangular Mask
Rectangular masks are the easiest to make. Cut two rectangular pieces of fabric, sew them together then fold the ends over the ends of the elastic or ties. Here’s a version with the measurements in Metric: Health Canada – Non-medical masks & Face Coverings. For Imperial measurements go here: CDC – Non-medical Masks & Face Coversings. I sewed a mash using theses tutorials and needed twice as much elastic as indicated.
Here’s a video tutorial for a rectangular mask with more advanced edge finishing. [https://www.debsdays.com/2020/04/day-21-no-pleat-face-mask-tutorial-day.html]. I sewed a mash using this video tutorial. I knotted my elastic instead of sewing it to my mask. This made it easier to adjust the length to fit my face.
Neither of the rectangular masks I sewed fit my face (they gaped at the sides) so I took them apart and used the materials to sew other styles of masks.
2) Pleated Rectangular Mask (aka Surgical Style mask)
Pleats help a rectangular piece of fabric conform to the three-dimensional contours of the human face. Sew two pieces of fabric together, pleat them, then sew on the elastic or ties. Here’s a tutorial: How To Sew A Surgical Style Face Mask
I sewed a mask using this tutorial: Face Masks A Picture Tutorial. It’s more involved as two additional pieces of fabric are used to cover the raw edges. This mask is similar to the disposable masks that I have.
3) Form-fitted Mask (aka Olson style mask)
Form-fitted masks are three-dimensional and have a similar profile to the human face They may provide a more comfortable fit than rectangular and pleated rectangular masks. This style of mask requires you to sew curves as well as straight lines. Four pieces of fabric are needed (two each interior and exterior). Sew the interior pieces together along the front curve, sew the exterior pieces together along the front curve, sew the interior and exterior together along the straight bottom and curved top, sew the ties or elastic to the sides and then sew the straight side seams.
I sewed several form-fitted masks using this tutorial: How To Make A Handmade Face Mask. I choose the large size and it fit well.
4) Duck-billed Mask
A duck-billed mask is another style of three-dimensional mask. It gives the wearer’s face a duck-billed profile. The elastic straps go around the back of the head instead of over the ears so more elastic is needed that with other styles. This style of mask requires you to sew curves as well as straight lines. Four pieces of fabric are needed (two each interior and exterior). Sew the interior pieces together along the side and front curves, sew the exterior pieces are together along the side and front curves, sew the ties or elastic to the sides, sew the interior and exterior together along the straight top and bottom seams, then sew the turning gap closed.
I sewed a duck-billed mask using this pattern: Duck-billed Face Mask. I used the method described above instead of following the author’s instructions. The large size is too big for me (there’s a gap under my chin). The tutorial describes how to make the mask smaller.
Ear Elastics Versus Ties, Mask Extenders
You may not have suitable elastic (1/8” to 1/4” wide) or you may not have 1/4” to 1/2” wide binding, bias tape or extra fabric for making your own ties. Assuming that both ear elastics and fabric ties are feasible options how do you choose? It really comes down to personal preference and what materials are available to you.
Different elastics have different amounts of stretch. You may need more or less than a tutorial recommends. Over time elastic may be damaged by repeated high temperature wash and dry cycles. Ear elastics are convenient because they are easy to use. Unfortunately they can also chaff behind your ears.
Fabric ties don’t stretch so the lengths and widths recommended in a tutorial won’t be affected by your fabric choice. Make ties from the same cotton you’re using to make your masks or pre-made cotton or polyester-cotton blend binding or bias tape. Cotton and polyester-cotton blends need to be pre-shrunk before cutting and sewing. Ties don’t chaff but tying them securely takes some practice. Making your own ties is more labour intensive than using store-bought binding or bias tape and that is slightly more labour intensive than sewing elastic.
I sewed my first two masks with one each: ear elastics and ties. Tutorials recommend 1/8” to 1/4” wide elastic and I used 1/4” wide elastic. My mask with ear elastics felt comfortable when I first put in on, but within 15 minutes my ears started to hurt. Initially I assumed it was an issue with the length of the elastic. Slightly longer elastic helped, but it was a problem with the width of the elastic. My disposable masks have 1/8” wide elastic and they are much more comfortable. I don’t have any 1/8” wide elastic so I have two other options: fabric ties and mask extenders.
I made my 1/4” wide fabric ties by cutting strips of fabric 1” wide. It was time consuming to fold the strips in half, pin and press then, fold the raw edges to the center fold, pin and press again, pin the 1/4” wide stripes and then finally sew them. I did this four times to create four ties for my mask. For subsequent ties, I used a 12 mm bias tape tool to make 1/2” single-fold binding, pinned and pressed it in half lengthwise, then sewed it. I recommend using a bias tape tool or using 1/4” wide double-fold bias tape or binding if you’re going to use ties. Using 1/2” wide ties would be less fiddly to work with.
Ear elastics are convenient but can be uncomfortable. Mask extenders “extend” the length of ear elastics so they can be stretched around the head or neck. One mask extender can be used with multiple masks. Homemade options include tying a piece of elastic between the ear elastics, sewing a button to a hair elastic (loop the hair elastic or chain of hair elastics through one ear elastic and slip the other ear elastic over the button), sewing two buttons to a piece of elastic (loop the ear elastics over the button) and sewing a fabric or vinyl strap with snaps, buttons, or velcro on each end to secure to the ear elastics. Another alternative is sewing buttons to the sides of headbands and looping the ear elastics over the buttons.
Nose Wires versus Nose Bands
Non-medical masks that otherwise fit well may have gaps around the bridge of your nose. Nose wires and nose bands allow masks to be shaped to the contours of your nose, thereby reducing gaps.
Create a nose wire by cutting a short length of flexible wire. Sew it between the layers of the mask along the top edge. Tutorials recommend 16 gauge craft wire, 18 gauge floral wire, pipe cleaners, and twist-ties as suitable nose wire materials. You may already have some of these materials at home. Your local dollar chain may sell wire or pipe cleaners. Cut your wire using wire cutters to avoid dulling or damaging your scissors. Fold the ends of the wire over themselves so that they don’t poke through your fabric.
An alternative to the nose wire is the nose band. Create a nose band by cutting a strip of flexible aluminum and folding over the sharp endges to create a 1/4” wide strip. Sew it between the layers of your mask along the top edge. This tutorial recommended thin aluminum flashing and these two recommend strips of disposable aluminum bakeware: Flexible Nose Piece Materials, Make Your Own Face Mask (skip ahead to 13:45 for nose band information). You may already have clean, thin aluminum bakeware at home. Most dollar chains sell aluminum bakeware. Use old scissors to cut aluminum and fold the strips to hide the sharp edges.
I used folded strips from an aluminum oven liner to create nose bands for my first 2 masks. My nose bands had sharp kinks instead of gently bends. I do not recommend oven liner aluminum; use thinner bakeware aluminum. I replaced my nose bands with nose wires made of 22 gauge floral wire (I had to order the floral wire online and wait for it to arrive in the mail). I used this wire for all of my masks in order to get the best possible fit.
Filters increase the ability of a mask to reduce particle transmission. The better a material is at filtering, the harder it is to breathe through. You may or may not wish to use a filter with your mask. In order of increasing effectiveness, here are some filter options: 2 layers of coffee filters, 1 layer of flannel, 2 layers of medium weight fusible interfacing, 4 layers of paper towels, 1 layer of shop towels, a third layer of cotton, Swiffer Dry sheets, and furnace filters.
Washable filter materials can be sewn between the cotton layers of your mask. Non-washable/disposable filter materials (which are discarded after each use) can either be placed between the layers of your mask or used to line your mask (they may collect too much moisture and lose their effectiveness more quickly). Leave your mask’s turning gap open if you wish insert a disposable filter between your cotton layers. I recommend sewing your elastic or ties to the exterior layer of your mask so that the turning gap is held shut when your mask is worn.
I used two layers of medium weight fusible interfacing for several of my non-medical masks and line my masks with either paper towels or pieces of flannel.
Whether you sew or buy your non-medical masks, high quality materials and proper fit are key. Different styles of masks are available. If your first mask doesn’t fit you may need a different style, a different size, or a mask with a nose wire. Ear elastics, ear elastics with mask extenders or fabric ties may be used to secure your mask. Some filter materials are washable but most aren’t. If you wish to use a disposable filter with your mask, you may prefer to have a mask with a filter pocket.
Have you sewn or purchased non-medical masks? Which style fits you best? Comment below and/or Pin this post.