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Which at-home materials replace the N95 mask materials?

Written by Annita Emerson

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Posted on April 27 2020

One Woman’s Story of Sewing 400+ Protective Masks for East Bay Medical Workers

Six weeks ago we put all of our Shabby Creek Off/On Main business on hold. That’s when we heard about New York having shortages in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This scarcity hadn’t hit the East Bay yet, but I had a feeling it was coming. At that moment, I knew it was time to learn how to sew face masks for our essential workers and hospitals. 


I reached out to my friends at our OTA Mercantile shop and asked if they would sew with me. Although we took different approaches we all had the same hope in our hearts to protect our community. 

 

They quickly started sewing for the general population and anyone who reached out to them. Then I started sewing protective masks for hospitals. So many nurses reached out with genuine fear in their voices asking me to sew for their teams. When you hear a nurse getting choked up, you know shit is getting serious. My mother in law is a nurse and she’s generally very methodical and calm.


Also, wives of doctors asked me to sew masks for their husbands who had been displaced from their homes to keep their families safe. 


To date, I’ve donated over 400 masks to the medical community. One nurse came to pick up 80 masks and I apologized for the crude sewing. I did my best to knock them out in one night. Her beautiful response was “Oh honey, you’re not sewing for perfection, you’re sewing for protection.” After hearing that, I was inspired to keep on sewing as quickly and effectively as I could. 


Time to perfect the craft

Now that we’re six weeks into lockdown and our county has ordered all citizens to wear face masks while out in public, I have had some time to do research. Let’s face it, there was so much conflicting information in the beginning. First, everyone said you don’t need to wear a mask, then they said a bandana will work, then they said don’t use stretch fabric. After that, the recommendation was to use 4 ply cotton and now the advice is to use 4 ply cotton tightly woven fabrics. 

 


In time, I grew tired of the conflicting information and watching companies make masks without any solid guidance other than what they read from the CDC. Intuitively, I knew I needed to research what an N95 mask is made from. This is a surgical mask that uses three layers of polypropylene and an N95 respirator. 


The first is “an outer layer of spun-bond polypropylene, a second layer of cellulose/polyester, a third layer of melt-blown polypropylene filter material and an inner (fourth) layer of spun-bound polypropylene.” 


This really got my head spinning. It’s getting warm outside and 4 layers of cotton over your face won’t be very fun. So, I wanted to figure out how to achieve the same benefits of the N95 mask, and still make them comfortable and breathable.


What does each mask layer do?

The first outer layer is basically waterproof, breathable, and extremely inexpensive. The second layer and third layers, act as filters that have a high capacity for trapping dirt and small particles. And the fourth layer is the same as the first layer, a water-proof material. So, if we know the basic properties of an N95 mask, then what type of American textiles and materials can we use instead that are readily available to us?


Which at-home materials replace the N95 mask materials?


  • First (outer) layer: Instead of using spun-bond polypropylene, you can use an anti-microbial fabric. Some of these fabrics have silver, which can kill viruses and bacteria. However, there are no studies on the safety of this fabric in clothing, so I skipped this option. But, I did find studies on the use of anti-microbial fabric (without silver) in hospitals! Antimicrobial fabric without silver is made from 100% cotton and has a 300-thread count or more. Aside from infection control, these amazing textiles also protect against acne, odor, fungus, mildew, and mold, plus they’re breathable and lightweight. They also withstand bleach and peroxide, making sterilization easy and possible.

  • Second layer: Using cellulose/polyester in the N95 creates a filter. So, if polyester is an option what about a wicking polyester fabric, right? Wicking fabrics pull moisture away from your skin. That means a good spandex/polyester fabric with wicking properties is working double duty — filtration and pulling moisture away.

  • Third layer: Who would’ve guessed that melt-blown polypropylene is a lot like polyester? I learn something new every day! Both are made from plastic, but polypropylene cannot be washed in hot water or dried. So again, a wicking polyester is our choice or a nice tightly woven cotton fabric with a high thread count.

  • Fourth and final layer (closest to your face): Just like the first outer layer, you can use an antimicrobial fabric in place of spun-bound polypropylene.

Next steps 

Now, it’s time to test the effectiveness of your homemade mask. Keep in mind the COVID-19 virus particles range in size from 0.06 microns to 0.14 microns.


  1. Hold your mask up to the sun. If there’s light coming through, then it probably won’t protect you.
  2. Hold a flashlight to the back of it. Do you see light coming through? If yes, then it won’t be very helpful.
  3. Do the cornstarch test. Cornstarch measures 0.1 - 0.8 microns. On a paper plate, dump out a few tablespoons of cornstarch. Now, grab your mask and the hose nozzle on your vacuum. Hold your face mask at the end of the hose nozzle and put it directly over the cornstarch. If your mask gets filled with cornstarch on the opposite side then it’s probably not protecting you.
  4. Put your face mask on. Then light a match or lighter. If you can blow it out (through your mask), then it won’t provide much protection.
  5. If your glasses fog while the mask is on your face, then you’re not properly wearing your mask or it’s too big.
  6. If there’s sagging or sizable gaps, then it’s not a proper fit.

My last thought on creating the safest face mask was putting a seam down the middle of it. If the Coronavirus particles are measured at .06 microns to .14 microns, and my sewing needle is in millimetres, with one-millimetre equaling 1000 microns, then how does that measure up? 


Would the 4 layers of fabric with a seam down the middle work? Since I wasn’t 100% sure, I created my own pattern. Instead of sewing a seam down the middle, I stitched one at the top of the nose and under the chin. Now, I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I’m just a gal who loves to craft and make home décor items. But, it seems to me that all this makes sense. 


With so many face mask options and lots of conflicting information, I’m inspired to do my own little study with some cornstarch and a few different styles of face masks. Stay tuned, because I plan to post a video soon.


Final words

In closing, I want to extend my sincerest gratitude to everyone who’s sewn and continues to sew masks, to the medical community, to the essential workers, and to all Americans who’ve followed the rules and sheltered in place. Your love for our country and fellow countrymen is awe-inspiring. I’m so grateful and proud to be part of this country and I pray this all ends soon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ab0yK6PLuw0

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