Coronavirus in Austin: People are sewing masks. Are they effective?

Austin 360 (3-24-2020)

Peggy Cerna has been busy in her Shady Hollow neighborhood home. She sewed until midnight one night making homemade masks until her sewing machine broke, and her husband helped get it running.

In mid-March, she went to JoAnn Fabric and Craft Store and found she and the other three customers in the store were all doing the same project.

The retired school principal has been making masks using a pattern and handing them out to family and friends. Now she’s put a bin on her front doorstep for her neighbors to take them. People have offered to help her distribute them if she will keep sewing.

“We’re helping how we can,” she says.

The Austin Quilt Guild’s Facebook page was busy with members sharing templates for masks. JoAnn’s also has a template and instructions.

But do those homemade masks work?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its recommendations Friday based on new understanding of the virus and new knowledge that “a significant portion” of people infected with the virus might not have any symptoms but still can give it to other people.

The CDC is recommending that all people wear cloth face coverings “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

It is a voluntary measure, and the CDC notes that maintaining 6 feet of social distancing is still important, even with a mask or cloth face covering.

It wants ordinary folks to save those N95 masks and other medical-grade personal protection equipment for medical professionals.

Health care professionals can use homemade masks as a last resort when other masks are not available, but they are not considered personal protective equipment because their effectiveness is not known.

The CDC says health care professionals should use homemade masks in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front below the chin and the sides of the face.

Austin’s Dr. Ann Messer, who founded the nonprofit One Good Turn, which takes her all over the world training community members in medical care, said, “It would be unlikely that a quilter can make a mask that would work because the holes in the fabric have to be smaller than the size of the virus.”

Yet, when she talked with fellow doctors, the consensus was that anything, even a T-shirt or bandanna, is better than nothing.

“Having any mask prevents the wearer from touching a virus and rubbing it into your mouth,” said Luke Padwick, CEO of Austin Emergency Center, which has stand-alone emergency rooms.

If you’re in a room full of people wearing masks, it will cut down on spreading your cough to another person, Padwick said.

Coronavirus in Austin: What does ‘shelter in place’ mean?

Cambridge University tested different materials that folks might have in their homes and found homemade masks captured about 50% of particles compared with 80% for surgical masks. That study recommended using cotton T-shirts, double layered with a space to put a filter inside it. They recommended vacuum cleaner bags as the best filters.

If you are making masks, Austin Disaster Relief Network is accepting them and will distribute them to the City of Austin Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Capital Area Trauma Regional Advisory Council.

They are recommending that masks have these characteristics, which were vetted by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio:

‒ Be made of breathable material and include a double layer if it doesn’t impede breathability.

‒ Ability to stand up to industrial sterilization with high temperatures so masks can be reused.

‒ Fabric laundered in hot water before sewing to prevent future shrinkage.

‒ Be pleated or have sufficient fabric for comfort.

‒ Provide adequate coverage for the face going up to the bridge of the nose and extending underneath the chin.

‒ Sits tightly on the nose to not slip off. You can sew in a paperclip or a metal twist tie to create a place to pinch the mask at the bridge of the nose.

‒ Some type of tie to ensure custom fit such as fabric ties or elastic material that can stand up to high heat.

‒ A pocket so that a filter can be added later.

The hospitals and doctors’ offices we reached out to are not accepting homemade masks yet.

Austin Regional Clinic said in a statement: “We appreciate the community coming together to help healthcare workers. At this time we are still using our surgical masks and N95s as they are significantly more effective (at least 5-25 times) in blocking transmission than homemade masks. Our hope is that anyone who has N95, P95, or surgical masks, proven to prevent infectious disease spread, will donate them to their local hospital or clinic.”

People with 3D printers at home have begun making protective equipment for medical staffers.

Reza Piri, an Austin software consultant, reached out to the co-founders of Masks for Docs, a Los Angeles-based group, last weekend and has coordinated a Central Texas network of volunteers to make protective face shields and visors for local medical professionals using 3D printers.

About six Central Texas folks have volunteered their 3D printers to produce masks.

James Williford of Buda owns 10 printers for his 3D printing business, but with business being down by 90%, he is donating his time, making up to 50 masks a week. He has been short on material but has seen big help from community members who are donating money and material via social media for him to continue producing.

“We shouldn’t need a pandemic to come together; it shouldn’t take people dying for humanity to come out,” Williford said.

A standardized design of masks was made based on medical experts’ opinions. Masks for Docs locally is working with personnel at Dell Seton Medical Center to get equipment to them.

Also using 3D printers to make protective equipment, the UT Cockrell School of Engineering’s Texas Inventionworks innovation hub, in collaboration with Dell Medical School, is prototyping a mask with a reusable plastic shell, replaceable filter, straps and a flexible foam or rubber seal.

The team hopes to mass produce the masks once it finalizes a design.

Austin manufacturers are turning their businesses into mask manufacturers.

Austin Couch Potatoes, a furniture store that launched its handmade line about a year and a half ago, has started producing surgical masks. Owners realized that the fabric the company uses to line the cushion cases of its couches was the same one used for medical masks: nonwoven polypropylene.

They started talking about making masks on March 19. By March 20, they were taking apart a surgical mask and making a template. They went looking for materials for the tie, but couldn’t find any elastic at local stores, so they turned No. 19 rubber bands into ties.

By the night of March 20, they had put a blurb on their social media pages and told people that if they were on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic and needed a mask, to reach out to them at Within minutes their inbox began to be flooded with message from surgeons, pediatricians and nurses, as well as people handing out public school lunches, people with autoimmune disorders, and people caring for elderly family members, said Brian Morgan, a co-founder of Austin Couch Potatoes.

By March 23, they had 1,000 masks to give out, and they are continuing to make masks and now gowns.

The company has stopped making furniture and has created a kit for volunteers who sew to also contribute to the effort. Volunteers can sign up at Each kit comes with the supplies to make 50 masks as well as a mask to wear while you are sewing. Already about 20 people have signed up.

Austin Couch Potatoes has a checklist of things to do before, during and after you sew, such as taking your temperature and sterilizing your work area. The company is creating a video with instructions as well. It’s the same process its employees use in the factory.

The goal is for staffers and volunteers to make a total of 1,500 masks and 6,000 gowns a day.

Austin Couch Potatoes founders hope to be able to do it all as a community donation to help people who need masks, but they are also worried about paying their staff, Morgan said, and have created a GoFundMe page on the website

Morgan said they have been preparing for a year and a half to learn how to sew, buy equipment, train a workforce and use the same material in their couches as is needed in surgical masks without knowing that something like the coronavirus pandemic would happen.

“You cannot make it up; it’s a God story,” Morgan said.

SPIBelt, an Austin-based fitness accessory company, has turned from manufacturing fitness belts to store your stuff while running to making masks for personal use. Founder Kim Overton has been working with Austin Emergency Center’s Padwick as her medical consultant.

She said she already had all the wicking material and elastic for her belts that can now be used in the masks. She wants to get them into the hands of people such as grocery clerks and takeout food delivery people as well as sell them to consumers.

“We’re doing our part,” she said.

The mask are for sale for $7.50 on

Overton, who has a permanent lung condition that puts her at risk for complications from the virus, said this is especially important to her.

She also is creating an exchange system. As a manufacturer, she was able to order 50,000 disposable masks for the medical community and 500 already-sewn public-grade ones.

She’s trying to get those masks into the hands of people who need them. If you have medical-grade masks, especially the N95 masks, she will exchange those for the ones she’s making, which are public-grade masks. People will be able to go to Austin Emergency Center locations to make that exchange.

Padwick is excited about that possibility. His centers have tried three medical equipment companies to get N95 masks and found a six-month waiting period. Right now, they are recycling the ones they have using ultraviolet sterilization, he said.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said.

American-Statesman staff writer Sonia Garcia contributed to this report.