Kathy Tidwell has been sewing for more than 50 years, and she said she can basically do it all: repairs, alterations, kids’ clothes, quilts.
But more recently, Tidwell, 62, has focused on face masks. She’s made about 100 cloth masks — with sheets of polypropylene inserted for an added layer of protection — for friends, family and members of her church to help protect them and others from the coronavirus.
Now, as part of the soon-be-launched program by University of Utah Health, Intermountain Healthcare and Latter-day Saint Charities, she and hundreds of others are able to help medical workers, too.
“I love that I can actually help with the actual medical masks and do something for the doctors and all these people that are on the front lines and in danger everyday,” Tidwell said. "I’m really thankful for the opportunity, honestly.”
Tidwell, who lives in Salt Lake City, was among the first volunteers for what is called Project Protect. The project gives volunteers a kit with materials and instructions to make medical-grade face masks, according to its website. It comes with enough to make 100 masks.
Spokespeople for University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare declined to comment on the project until its official launch, which they are planning for next week. Right now, it’s only open to a limited number of participants.
But state epidemiologist Angela Dunn has already started promoting the effort, and the Project Protect website has launched.
So far, the website says, 300 people have gotten kits and made 30,000 masks.
These masks don’t filter air as well as the N95 respirators, but they work better to protect against the virus than homemade cloth masks. According to the project website, these clinical masks are fluid-resistant and will filter small particles from the air. They are recommended for frontline medical workers.
The project anticipates it’ll take people 5 to 10 minutes to make each mask and about 10 to 15 hours to complete a kit.
Tidwell said it took her about 12 hours split over three days to finish. She said the sewing was “fairly basic," but said she thinks having experience would be helpful.
The project also shot an instructional video, which Tidwell thinks will be helpful for those newer to sewing. It was posted on the project’s website for a few hours Saturday before it was taken down.
In addition to the included materials — medical-grade polypropylene and fabric straps or elastic — volunteers will need a sewing machine and strong thread, like polyester, scissors and straight pins to make the masks.
The video also cautions volunteers to disinfect their workspace and sewing machine and to make sure there’s no food or pet hair near the masks. And once the masks are finished, the volunteers are to put them into a clean bag.
Tidwell said she’s already gotten another email to participate in part two of the pilot program, and she hopes to nab two kits this time, so that she and her friends can knock out 200 more masks.
It’s funny, she said Saturday, that her sewing has become so important. She said most of the amateur tailors and quilters she knows are tired and overwhelmed with requests for masks.
A friend of Tidwell’s who lives in Holladay, Elaine Craven, has been spending much of her time working on a similar volunteer effort — along with more than a dozen of her neighbors — making cloth masks to be donated to St. Mark’s and Pioneer Valley hospitals, to be used mostly by patients and non-medical personnel.
Craven said Saturday that she’d just picked up 110 pieces of pre-cut fabric from a friend to work on the masks, which are in high demand since the federal government recommended that people wear one when they go out.
She imagines that the same is true for thousands of sewers across the country right now, many of whom have piles of fabric at home and plenty of time to fashion it into something useful.
“Who would have ever thought people would want sewers?" Tidwell said. "I always thought it was just a hobby. I didn’t ever expect it to be of any great use.”
In the time of the coronavirus, these skills are more than just useful. They have the ability to protect doctors and nurses.
For more information on Project Protect and to sign up to volunteer, visit projectprotect.health. The pilot project is only available to a limited number of people before its official launch.