Mask-Making and Culture: The Social Context of What We Make

Photo Panel: (left) Two women with packaged masks; (middle) Person wearing a black "Distill My Heart" mask; (right) Black "Distill My Heart" spunbond nonwoven polypropylene mask on counter with labeling instructions.

In this post, we hear from Rachel McCrafty (aka Crafty), who shares with us some of her experiences and observations about the social context of making masks including: perception of sewists, diversity in mask making, and inequities in mask access. This is part of a series of guest blog posts where we get a chance to hear voices and perspectives about making masks more accessible.

Wow! Millions of Masks Made

As of the week of June 15th, mask-makers in the U.S. had produced 860K* cloth masks. Think about that. That number is huge even in the face of the overwhelming need. Consider all the organizing, materials, cutting, and thread snipping involved in that.

Infographic from OSMS: Worldwide Cloth Mask Production for COVID-19, March 28-June 15, 2020. (right, bottom: data table) Cloth Masks Made by Country: United States made 861K, India made 363K, Spain made 15K, Canada made 10k. (top right: bar graph) Total Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Production Per Week, quantity in millions on the y-axis, week on the x-axis, type of PPE produced color coded in stacked bars. Majority of PPE produced according to graph is face shields, followed by cloth masks. Note, number of cloth masks made likely underreported. (bottom, left) Bar of cloth masks produced by country, contains image from chart, and small slices of data from other countries. (right) Heat maps of the US and the Globe showing areas where mask making was reported, showing data from 21 countries, with 825 separate submissions, and over 1.3 million masks made.

Present Tense Tension

Most folks who sew know that getting the tension right is key to things going well. And navigating the context of mask making is no different.

Infographic: Present Tense Tension. (top, 3 red boxes) Validation for sewists, Diverse types of mask makers, The moment for mindful helping. (bottom, gray box) A Global Pandemic + Rapid Social Change
Factors at play

The pandemic is a tragic shared experience that has highlighted social inequity, supply chain issues, public health shortfalls, and so many other challenges in our country and around the world. The action taken to address civil rights has been profound, as has government response.  All this is happening on a scale that has never been seen before. When thinking about the social context of mask-making, I am exploring three aspects that have proved significant: perception of sewists, diversity in mask making, and inequities in mask access.

Validation for sewists

Bubbles with text: Crafty perceived as scientifically valid, Sewing as an actual skill, Sewing, including mask-making seen as more than "woman thing" by the general public, ability to effect real positive change
New spheres of influence

In the US today, handmade items often have a perception of either being low-value crafts or super high-end hipster goods. The pandemic and the rapid social change we are all experiencing has changed not only how the world sees sewists and quilters, which are predominantly women, but also how we see ourselves and each other.

One trend I observed in the maker-sphere was a realization of the level of skill that sewing takes. Inexperienced folks with skills in other areas thought mask-making was all about machine access and quickly discovered that this was not the case.

For many, this is the first time that such “traditional” or “feminine” skills have been in such dire need. Agency and action of the part of sewists showed a marked ability to help and effect change. We came through when it counted.

Diverse Types of Mask-Makers

From non-profits to church groups, and local clubs to social activists, mask makers have more than proven their commitment to harm-reduction in our communities.

What mask-makers have in common

  • Desire to help
  • Skills and time spent on sewing machines
  • Action-oriented in the face of catastrophe
  • Burn out…

What are our differences are

  • Access to resources
  • Culture of origin — many immigrants come from cultures that have strong sewing traditions
  • Religious practice or lack thereof
  • Politics
  • Working styles and language
circle graphic with text = Hobby Groups, Social Good activists, Independant home sewers, Makerspaces, Church Groups
Just a few different types of mask making groups

In the past, these differences between communities have often created silos and cliques — social divides that are being put to the test. Helping on the scale we are with supply chain gaps and grassroots efforts has different groups working in greater proximity than ever before, oftentimes trying to work with each other for the first time.

By remembering we are having different experiences, we can better appreciate each other and work together to respond to the crisis. There are many right ways to help.

Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better. – Maya Angelou

We also now have an opportunity to explore thoughtfully how we are building our own mask-making communities as well as how we can be mindful about the communities we choose to serve. And make no mistake, each mask-maker is choosing what project they participate in and to whom they give their masks.

The moment for mindful helping is now

Who are your masks for?  As a significant new supplier of vital protective equipment, what are our responsibilities? What are the opportunities?

In the map below showing COVID-19 rates by Zip Code in Alameda County (CA), which areas do you think are black neighborhoods? Poor immigrant neighborhoods? Affluent white neighborhoods?

It breaks down pretty much as you might think. When I look at this map, I notice some of the highest case rates of COVID-19 in East Oakland – predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods, not a quarter-mile away from Alameda Island with a large population but some of the lowest rates – predominantly white, I am struck by the social and economic inequity between them.

Map of COVID-19 rates by zipcode in Alameda County, CA
Source: Alameda County Public Health Department, California.
(photo) A black 'Distill My Heart' mask made from donated spunbond nonwoven polypropylene bags, two care and use labels for masks, one in English 'Washable Mask' and one in Spanish "Mascarilla Labable", and one individually packaged 'Distill My Heart' masks (blue) with label in a ziplock bag that is ready for distribution
Distill My Heart Mask – NWPP Mask with English and Spanish Packaging Labels

When designing the Distill My Heart Mask project I and my partners at Circuit Launch had this inequity in mind. We spoke with local healthcare workers and social good organizations. We actively chose to prioritize the least resourced populations in Oakland and the East Bay.

Once we chose who we were serving, we needed to find out the best way to do it. That drove our material choices, our pattern choices, and how we packaged our masks.

We asked ourselves:

  • Who the user was and what resources did they have for cleaning and reuse?
  • What did distribution look like and were the contamination risks?
  • Who was already doing distribution of aid?
  • What was the best balance between material, fit, and production?
  • What support did sewists need? Could we recruit sewists from an already overtaxed volunteer base? What did contracting look like?

This was the result:

  • Material: NWPP supplied by American Distilling Institute conference bags organized by This provided masks with good droplet barriers that could be easily disinfected in a pot of boiling water, and rapidly dried without a dryer.
  • Open Source pattern from Common Sewing. This pattern had a range of fit, a filter pocket, and was production-proven by the Orlando Facemask Strong project.
  • Packaging and Labeling. We individually wrapped the masks for safety in distribution. The packaging is in English and Spanish. This made for safe distribution to un-housed folks and through agencies where access to laundry facilities are not likely to be available. This also made it an ideal mask during protests and was distributed to street medics.
  • Producing quality mask kits for sewists with laser cut pattern pieces, threading tools, and most importantly, a sample of a finished mask. This reduced the barrier to entry for a wide range of volunteers. Offering a piece-rate where applicable for sewing.
  • Distribution to at-risk communities through established social good organizations. This required establishing new relationships and cultivating new volunteer resources.
  • Progress to date. The Distill My Heart Project has provided over 1900 masks to under-resourced Oakland communities to date and will provide over 3400 before the project transitions to a more evergreen project run by Ace Makerspace in North Oakland.


Moving forward with intention

The Distill My Heart Mask project is just one case study. We (all mask-makers) now have an opportunity to explore thoughtfully how we are building our own mask-making communities, as well as how we choose what communities we serve and how. This may take investigation on your part, careful listening with a humble ear to what our neighbors need and have to offer.

And it isn’t all about equity and altruism. Under-resourced populations are more likely to have to continue working, have fewer options for social distancing, and are more likely to overwhelm inadequate healthcare systems.

We don’t have to be perfect right out the gate, but as thinking, caring people, we have a great opportunity to put our time and energies to good use in ways that build stronger communities.

Photo of Rachel Sadd, sitting at a table and smiling, with "Be Nice or Leave" in large pink letters highlighted as a banner in front of her. The color of the text matches the vibrant color of the pink streak in her hairAbout the author

Rachel Sadd, aka Crafty, is a Bay Area based artist, designer, and maker. A long-time builder of art and community, Rachel prioritizes the connection that comes from building and designing together. Her unique energy and willingness to try things inspire those around her to engage their creativity and stretch their skillsets. Equally engaged by beauty and utility, she creates projects which span genres and challenge ideas about art, craft, and culture. When she isn’t creating she brings these same values to leadership at Ace Makerspace in Oakland, CA as the Executive Director.


Mask-Making and Culture: The Social Context of What We Make
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