When Julia Curry lays out her fabric to make masks that'll shield people from the coronavirus, the Menlo Park quilter does it assembly-line-style. In one hour, she can sew six masks; on Wednesday, she completed her 300th.
Curry is one of hundreds of quilters in the Bay Area are making masks by the thousands to donate to frontline medical staff, senior centers and their neighbors.
The quilters even have a new meme. It's a poster of a woman, a la Rosie the Riveter, sitting at a sewing machine and making a mask in front of a quilt-stitched background. "We Can Do It!" the poster proclaims.
Across the nation, the movement has taken off, aided by the American Hospital Association's call to action through its 100 Million Mask Challenge.
Local mask makers range from individuals who have found inspiration and patterns on the internet to quilting guilds of hundreds of sewers. It's a good thing to do while under the stay-at-home order and gives a sense of accomplishing something, said Curry, who is outreach chairwoman of the 140-member Peninsula Quilters Guild, an organization that spans from San Francisco to Santa Clara counties.
"It's typical of quilters' behavior. When there's a disaster, we turn to our sewing machines," she said, recalling recent efforts to make quilts for fire victims. "When things get tough, we get sewing."
Jena Walter, the guild's president, said she and a couple of members started making masks before the stay-at-home order. They have since donated 550 masks to the field hospital at the San Mateo County Convention Center, whose workers don't require N95 masks.
The guild also has partnered with the nonprofit organization My New Red Shoes, for whom some quilters were already making cloth bags for new shoes for needy children before the coronavirus outbreak. Then the organization asked for masks to distribute to hospitals and other health care providers, and the quilters switched gears.
The guild also has distributed thousands of masks to other organizations, such as the nonprofit Samaritan House, which provides safety-net services; to a San Francisco homeless shelter; and to breast cancer survivors, Walter said.
The massive sewing effort has run into problems that have forced quilters to become creative: Bendable nose pieces and elastic for fastening the masks are hard to find during the shutdown.
"Elastic has become the new toilet paper," said Palo Altan Eileen Wall, an Evergreen Park resident who makes masks for people in her neighborhood and for veterinarians.
Some people are using fabric ties and shoelaces as fasteners.
To create the mask's nose piece, which seals the gap around the bridge of the nose, Walter has used coffee bag clips, floral wire and aluminum craft wire.
"The clips on coffee bags are perfect. You can get two of them out of each one," she said.
No one is dictating the designs. There are patterns and sizes for men, women and children, and each is equally effective, although some are more complicated than others, she said. Some sewers add a pocket into which the mask wearer can insert disposable filters, such as paper towels or other fabric, for additional protection. The fabric masks themselves can be washed and reused, Walter said.
Midtown Palo Alto resident Connie Butner, who teaches classes through her business Let's Go Crafting, said she's posted an online tutorial to show people how to sew masks.
Butner started making masks after two of her students' mothers requested masks for their departments at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara and Fremont. Butner now has a container at her home at 3331 Vernon Terrace into which people have been dropping off the masks they have made. So far, she's distributed 200 masks to Kaiser in Santa Clara, the Palo Alto VA Health Care System, the nonprofit organization Blossom Birth Services and a group of physical therapists who go to the homes of seniors and people with disabilities.
Most of the recipients have contacted her with requests, she said. She also has sent out notifications on Nextdoor, Facebook and through a Palo Alto mothers group.
"As fast as they come in, they go out," she said.
Butner cranks out about 10 masks a day, depending on how much she has to help her children with their homework, she said.
Retired residents have gotten into the act. Wall, a longtime sewer and quilter, jumped in after a friend who owns a veterinary hospital said they could not get any masks. Wall figured other animal hospitals might be in need, so she reached out to them as well.
"They were quite grateful," she said.
Quilting cotton, without batting, is the preferred material for masks because of its dense weave, which helps keep out droplets of moisture, Wall said. She has made about 150 masks and on average makes about eight a day with a maximum daily output of 20, she said.
Not all patterns are the same. Kaiser Permanente has posted a pattern for mask making that is curvy and goes up over the nose and around the face. Some people like the "Fu" mask, a flat, smooth mask without pleats that covers the nose and entire jawline.
Wall considers the potential recipient when she's choosing the design.
"The challenge is sewing masks without flowers on them," she said of making ones for men.
Wall also gives away masks to her neighbors by posting on Nextdoor. She puts two masks each in plastic bags and leaves them in a box on her porch. After a recent post, the masks were snapped up within hours. In return for her generosity, people have left nice cards and even a box of tea, she said.
Walter, a former psychotherapist, said that quilting has been a good way for people to use the isolation of the shelter order productively.
"It's an introvert's heaven, just to stay at home and work on something that is helping people," she said. "One of the biggest problems is fear, and this is a great antidote for powerlessness."
• Kaiser Permanente mask instructions: kaiserpermanente.org.
• Let's Go Crafting tutorial video: youtu.be/Q3Mq5sftNuo.
• Peninsula Quilters Guild: facebook.com/peninsulaquiltersguild.
• 100 Million Mask Challenge: 100millionmasks.org.
• U.S. Centers for Disease Control mask guidelines: cdc.gov.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.