You may be required by law to wear a mask where you live. Or perhaps a business you frequent recently added a "No mask, no service" sign. Indeed, research has shown that wearing face masks in public can really make a difference in preventing the spread of the virus causing coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19.
Masks may be particularly important because the 6-foot (2-meter) social-distancing recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is based on research from the 1930s. That's before researchers had the technology to detect submicron aerosols that can come from speaking, coughing, and sneezing. Those smaller particles can travel much further and take much longer to settle to the ground. Though universal masking "results in the least exposure," a public rush to buy medical face masks can make it difficult for the medical professionals we all rely upon to acquire them.
So what’s a person to do? It turns out that masks made from most common fabrics are sufficient, but leakages around the mask area dramatically reduce their effectiveness. So, especially if your store-bought mask doesn't fit, consider making your own!
Here at American Scientist, our staff has been trying out designs and figuring out what we like. We've reviewed several masks below (and may add more as we try out new ones). In these reviews, we're covering user experience: how easy the designs are to make and what it's like to wear the masks. Click the masks below to read each review.
Editor's Note: Everything that is coronavirus-related is particularly fluid right now, so if we try out other designs, we'll post the latest ones at the top of this list (which begins just below) and update the date of this post—please check back for updates. (Original post 4 June 2020; updated 25 June 2020)
My first attempts at sewing masks went well, and I came up with a functional, although somewhat crude, design. I was discussing my progress with digital features editor Katie L. Burke, and she pointed me to a tutorial for a similar-but-more-refined version. The design was still simple, and I had the materials, so I decided to give it a shot.
For me, this new design is a winner. Using it, I have made 18 masks for family and friends, I have another 5 in progress. The blogger who designed it, Brie of Homemade on Our Homestead, is a registered nurse, so she knows what a mask needed from the standpoint of comfort and safety, but she is also a crafter, so she knows how to design a successful project with easy-to-follow instructions.
Of course, everyone has preferences, so I did make some tweaks to her design. I kept the little compartment for the pipe cleaner nosepiece from my previous design because it’s just so dang easy. And I used macramé cord for the drawstring because that’s what I could get at the craft store. I have made a few masks for kids using rectangles measuring 9 ⅹ 7 inches (rather than the 10 ⅹ 8 inches for adult masks).
Some of the people for whom I made masks said they didn’t want a filter pocket, so I experimented with making a version without one. It’s easy enough to do, but requires some slight modifications. I place two pieces of fabric together with the wrong sides facing out and then sew a seam almost all the way around the rectangle, leaving a gap about 3 inches wide on one side. I then use that 3-inch gap to turn the mask right-side-out and hand-sew it shut with a ladder stitch so that it doesn’t show. I found that the version without a filter pocket takes longer to make because of the hand stitching, but the version with a filter pocket takes 50 percent more fabric, so it’s a trade-off.
The finished masks are comfortable and secure. I also like that if I’m running from the grocery store to the post office, I can untie the mask and leave it hanging around my neck, ready for the next time I need it. The function is the same as that of my previous design, but it looks more finished and is more durable.
The mask is not perfect. I find that if I don’t get the placement right, it can be difficult to breathe. It can also muffle my speech a bit, which isn’t a problem most of the time but can cause trouble if I’m trying to convey something complicated, such as the spelling of my last name. If those issues concern you, it might be better to opt for a mask design with more structure, which tends to provide a bigger air pocket. Overall, though, I have found these masks to be easy and reliable when I need to venture out into public.
As the COVID-19 virus spreads, online face mask tutorials are multiplying. It’s hard to keep up with the different types. For now, I’m relying on materials I have at home, because it would be silly to go shopping and increase my risk of exposure to the virus in order to make a mask to minimize my exposure. Duh!
My first home made mask was a good one, and quite labor intensive. Because I’m a petite person, the mask was too large for my small face. I found a tutorial for a child-sized mask that I hoped might be a better fit for me . This tutorial also had the advantage of a filter pocket. A common household item such as a paper towel, a coffee filter, a vacuum cleaner bag, or the material removed from a house filter could be used inside the pocket. Sanitizing this mask for multiple uses could be as easy as disposing of the filter and laundering the mask.
Materials needed for this second face mask are a bit simpler:
- One piece of fabric
- A pair of shoelaces
Sewing is still involved in this mask construction. But the amount of sewing is minimized, and so this mask came together much faster than the first one. This design also had fabric folds which were much easier to assemble and sew because fewer layers of material are involved, and I used a lighter, cotton fabric this time.
Shoelaces are meant to stay tied, and I liked the secure fit. They were much easier to sew into the seams of the mask compared to first mask where the seam binding had to be folded over the sides of the mask and carefully stitched through the thick layers of fabric.
Unlike the first mask I made, this second style seemed usable. It fit my face without gaps around the edges, and the shoelaces stayed securely tied. A coffee filter, folded in half and inserted into the pocket, served as my filter. I've used this mask several times for trips to the grocery store and Home Depot. After each use I tossed the coffee filter in the trash, hand washed the mask in very hot soapy water, and let it dry out in the sunshine.
I enjoy sewing, so I favor the sewn mask designs. For those people who don’t sew, you might want to try one of these no-sew face mask tutorials.
There are plenty of instructions on the internet for making face masks. The first video I came across was from Good Housekeeping.
I happened to have all of the materials on hand without having to go out to a store to buy something. According to the instructions, the best fabrics to use are 100% cotton, tightly-woven with a high thread count; the fabric should be somewhat heavy, like denim, bedsheets, or heavy-weight shirts. I used a drapery fabric. I don’t know whether it’s 100% cotton, but it fits the other criteria.
A few of the things I liked about this face mask pattern were the fabric folds, the extra layer of interfacing inside, the use of ties to adjust the fit instead of elastic, and the inclusion of a wire that can be bent around the bridge of the nose for a better fit. I used a paperclip for the wire.
I found that because of the thickness of the fabric I had to improvise where to place the folds, rather than following the pattern markings. Machine basting before attaching the binding tape helped to secure the folds in place.
The finished face mask looked good.
Even with the self-ties, the fit wasn’t ideal. There were gaps that I couldn’t close no matter how tightly the mask was tied. Maybe this pattern was meant for a larger person.
This face mask took a couple of hours to assemble. It wouldn’t do to have to toss it out after one use. Washing the mask with soap and water should be enough to sanitize it after each use.
I am an avid crafter but a beginning sewer—I took my first sewing lesson just five months ago. When home-sewn mask patterns started popping up on the internet, I was intimidated by their designs. But then I saw some that looked pretty simple, just two squares of fabric with a single long, looped string to draw the mask closed. I figured even I could do that, so I borrowed a machine from my sewing teacher and started experimenting with the designs.
I cut two 8-inch squares from an old cotton crib sheet and laid them together with the wrong sides facing out. Next I sewed the two squares together along one side with a seam placed a quarter of an inch from the edge; after that, I repeated the process, creating a seam along the opposite side. I then turned the fabric right side out and topstitched a line along each seamed side about half an inch in from the edge, leaving the top and bottom of the mask open. The spaces between the top stitches and the seamed edges serve as tunnels for a drawstring.
I then chose one of the open sides to become the top edge of the mask. Along this top edge, I wanted to create a narrow compartment into which I could insert a pipe cleaner to serve as a nosepiece. I topstitched three sides of a thin rectangle into the fabric, with the long sides parallel to the top edge of the mask. I used a seam ripper to slice a slit in the top layer of fabric along the open side of the rectangle. When I slide a pipe cleaner into the resulting compartment, it stops at the far end of the rectangle, keeping the nosepiece in place. The slit allows me to remove the pipe cleaner before laundering the mask.
I chose to close the bottom edge of the mask, but it could be left open to insert a filter. Filters can be made of a variety of materials, such as paper towels, vacuum cleaner bags, or coffee filters, and should be removed and thrown away before you launder the mask. (If you do close the bottom edge of the mask, be careful to only stitch between the two tunnels; if you stitch across the entire bottom, you won’t be able to thread the drawstring.)
Next, I made a drawstring out of an old T-shirt. I cut a strip about 1-inch wide from the bottom of the T-shirt and then snipped the resulting loop of cloth, turning it into a long ribbon. When I pulled on the ribbon, it rolled in on itself to make a stretchy rope.
Before inserting this drawstring, I tied it to a pipe cleaner and used that to help thread it through the tunnels. Starting at the top of the mask (the side with the nosepiece), I brought the drawstring through one tunnel to the bottom of the mask. Then I pulled the rope across the mask and inserted it into the bottom of the tunnel on the other side, so that I ended up with both of the loose ends of the drawstring at the top and a loop of drawstring hanging below the mask.
The design of the mask is incredibly simple, but putting it on is not intuitive. I put my head through the loop of the drawstring and wriggle the mask up to my neck. Then I pull the two ends of the drawstring so that the sides of the mask scrunch around my face, and then tie the rope behind my head. Finally, I press the pipe cleaner down around my nose, sealing myself all the way around.
This mask can be made quickly and easily, and it’s comfortable to wear. It can also be adjusted to fit heads of almost any size. If I pull the strings tight enough, I can even get the mask to fit my three-year-old son. If you don’t have a sewing machine, you can make a version of this mask using staples. If you do have a sewing machine and more advanced skills, it would be fairly simple to conceal the rough edges of the version I’ve described here.
When advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control switched to recommend wearing medical face masks, I had just finished an intense press deadline during a pandemic and had no time to sew. What’s a busy person like me to do? I followed the instructions here for a no-sew option. My assessment: It works in a pinch.
My trial run with the design didn’t work, but there is a simple workaround. I first tried using hair ties as the elastics that go around the ears, but the mask pulled apart when I tried to put it on. So I followed the alternative strategy suggested in the tutorial, and cut up an old sock into stretchy rings. Those worked fine. They were stretchy enough to hold my mask in place, but loose enough that I could put the mask on without it falling apart or pulling on my ears.
The final version looked OK, and I find it useful in a pinch. But the folded layers do sit against my mouth and muffle my words more than other masks I’ve tried, and without a wire to tighten around my nose, my breath fogs up my glasses. It’s not the best mask, but it is a quick option when necessary for a short outing. Now, my mom has sewn me a couple masks, and those are my go-to.