As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed to reach unprecedented levels of concern, the Flagstaff community has found its own way to cope and help those in need. Recently, organizations and local businesses such as Days for Girls, Skunk Mountain Sewing and Threaded Together have made it their mission to sew as many reusable, fabric face masks as possible. While these groups have been sewing face masks, their work has also been stitching the community closer together.

Wendy Wetzel, the Flagstaff team leader and U.S. West Regional Representative for Days for Girls International, said the organization has been running for 12 years and is a registered nonprofit. She said prior to the pandemic, Days for Girls worked solely to make and distribute washable menstrual products to women across the globe.

“By providing these long-lasting kits, we are helping to keep girls in school because they have a discreet way to deal with their periods,” Wetzel said.

Currently, however, the worldwide organization has shifted its focus to a new project, Masks4Millions. The goal of this project is to use the fabric that the various regional Days for Girls teams have and begin making protective masks for health care workers and those in need.

“We have temporarily suspended kit making because distributions are all but impossible,” Wetzel said. “So, we have diverted our energies now to making fabric masks that are being sent to health care facilities, shelters, food pantries, convalescent hospitals, anybody basically who needs them.”

While there are corporations and organizations that are helping to get fabric donated to groups like Days for Girls, who have redirected their efforts to mask making, Wetzel said that most volunteers are just using whatever they can find in their own fabric stashes. She mentioned that most of the sewers on her team probably have more fabric than they could ever use in a lifetime.

Wetzel said Days for Girls team members are making double-layered, cotton masks that can be easily laundered and reused. While these fabric masks may not be regulation in medical terms, they provide some protection to the wearer, which is better than not having any sort of protection.

“We totally understand that these are not CDC approved but they’re better than nothing,” Wetzel said. “We’re finding that health care providers are using them to cover the N95 masks to keep them clean.”

An N95 respirator mask is intended to reduce the wearer's exposure to small, airborne particles and droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These respirator masks fit much tighter on individuals and filter out 95% of airborne particles. The CDC said that common surgical masks, however, fit much looser on the wearer and filter out less than a respirator mask does. Wetzel said the fabric masks she and her team are producing are similar to the style of surgical masks and can be used over N95 masks in hospital settings. The CDC, under their strategies for optimizing the supply of face masks, recommends the use of fabric face masks due to the limited availability of disposable masks.

Wetzel’s team has donated masks to several locations within Flagstaff such as the Flagstaff Medical Center (FMC), the Flagstaff Fire Department, the Coconino County Forest Service and the post office. However, Days for Girls is not the only group that has put their sewing skills to use during the crisis.

“There are probably hundreds of people in Flagstaff who are sewing,” Wetzel said. “Just on my team, I have about 60 who are active right now.”

Katie Preston, the owner of Skunk Mountain Sewing, has also converted her business’ capabilities to purely produce face masks for those who need them. Normally, Preston’s business operates as a repair shop for tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and even for the local fire department.

Preston said she initially saw a need within her community in terms of toilet paper, so she began making reusable “lady wipes” and baby wipes, which she gave out for free. Soon after this transition, Preston said she was contacted by the fire department and asked if she could make face masks to put on incoming patients.

“Once I started, I had a realization that the need was much greater and I just kept making them,” Preston said. “JOANN has been really supportive in providing free materials to make masks.”

Preston explained that Facebook has been a very helpful way for her to network with other locals who want to contribute to the cause. She has encountered individuals who donate fabric or even offer up their sewing skills.

“I’m just trying to network with as many people as possible to get as many masks made,” Preston said.

Lindsey Watson, president and executive director of the local nonprofit organization Threaded Together, said they are also working to produce as many masks as they can for the Flagstaff community.

Watson described the mission of Threaded Together as inspiring creativity and connection through textile programs that empower participants and enrich the community. Watson said Threaded Together has created many sewing related outlets for the Flagstaff public, regardless of age. One of their most successful programs has been their after school sewing program.

“We teach the teens how to hand sew and machine sew with a big focus on sustainability, repurposing and using what we have,” Watson said.

Watson explained that when the pandemic hit, she started hearing about a shortage of personal protective equipment like face masks. Having an industrial sewing shop already set up and ready to go, Watson and her colleagues decided the issue was something they could help with.

FMC recently donated a large amount of medical-grade fabric to Threaded Together, so the organization took to creating face mask patterns and assessing the community’s need for them.

“We started reaching out to places in the community that we thought might need them: shelters, food service workers, doctor’s offices,” Watson said.

Once Threaded Together began producing face masks, Watson said the requests started pouring in. Although the organization is generally trying to remain focused on Flagstaff, she explained they have even had mask requests from surrounding cities.

“We have helped some large nursing facilities in Tucson and Phoenix, but most of our masks are staying here in Flagstaff,” Watson said.

Watson said it has been challenging to turn away requests for masks because the calls are often so desperate and the need is so high. She said facilities housing hundreds of residents and caregivers have no means of personal protection.

Currently, Threaded Together’s goal with their mask production is to remain local and tend to the Flagstaff community first. Watson said the community members have gotten involved and worked just as tirelessly as those who are seamstresses for a living.

“I think for so many people to be able to pitch in to this mask-making endeavor, especially from the comfort of their own homes, has been a really beautiful thing to see,” Watson said. “Everybody wants to help.”

Watson said even those who don’t know how to sew are offering to help by cutting elastic and making mask ties out of T-shirts.

“It’s been a really beautiful thing to see our whole community come together to help our fire department, our doctors and nurses, our shelters, and our food pantry workers,” Watson said.

Watson said seeing the community come together in such an act of solidarity has been a light in the darkness. She said with the mask making efforts, the Flagstaff community is truly threading itself together and will emerge from the pandemic more connected than ever.