The whir of a sewing machine fills the room as a woman sits at a desk surrounded by fabric. Much like a pianist, she constantly raises and lowers her foot on a pedal as she plays the ballad of her instrument.
Her song is the hum of the machine, and her sheet music is the pattern she sews. Sewing is an often overlooked and at times undervalued skill. But throughout history and to this day, it's been a necessity.
Sewing has an even more significant role in the COVID-19 pandemic. A worldwide shortage of medical face masks and the demand for cloth face coverings in public have created a call to action for the seamsters and seamstresses of the world.
“I was sitting at home and seeing all the news about hospitals running out of masks, and I started looking for a way to help with my sewing,” said Andi Reyes, founder of the Medical Mask Sewing Effort: Rota Military Community Edition group out of Naval Station Rota, Spain.
“I found a post on Facebook that said the local hospitals needed help and started calling around to see how I could help," Reyes said. "I figured I wasn’t the only one that wanted to help and put out a request for other seamstresses in the area to pool together to sew for our community, both Spanish and American.”
On April 5, the Navy released NAVADMIN 100/20, which required all service members, civilians and spouses to wear face coverings on base when social distance couldn’t be ensured.
This had a major impact on the personnel stationed within Navy Region Europe, Africa, Central (EURAFCENT). The host nations in the region had been hit hard by COVID-19; most had gone into a “lockdown” or restriction of movement in early-mid March, which shut down many businesses, including fabric shops.
At the same time, many people don’t know how to sew or don’t have the needed supplies.
“When the news reached Sigonella that we would all need masks every time we entered the commissary, NEX [Navy Exchange], post office, etc., I knew that demand would be high, especially [since] was already a shortage for medical personnel,” said Bonnie Matthews, a seamstress from Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy.
“I remembered I had a bunch of extra fabric, mostly leftover from Christmas projects. I had been praying for a way to tangibly help amidst the pandemic, and this seemed to be an answer to that prayer!”
While Rota and Sigonella have individuals working together, Naval Support Activity Bahrain’s Family Readiness Group (FRG) hosted a Sew-A-Thon event. Volunteers from the base would sew for upwards of 12 hours a day making face coverings for personnel on base.
“We love our NSA community,” said Kile Doubravaa, a member of the Bahrain FRG. “Here we become a family because we are all so far from home, so we take care of each other. The need of double-sided face masks was made very clear to us.
"Our community has been asking of ways to help, so we reached out to those who were willing," Doubravaa said. "We have about 15 helpers that show up, as well as a handful that sew at home and bring in their finished mask to be distributed. We are able to get make about 100 a day, we will work until the need has been met.”
Selina Parker, from NSA Bahrain, has been making masks from home while working and taking care of her children. “I decided to start making the masks because I saw a need. Very few people in the base community had sewing machines or the materials (and the time), and I knew I had the ability to make the community feel safer,” Parker said.
“First, I did extensive research on different mask designs available. I wanted to make sure that I was appropriately meeting the needs of the community. And that included having the best fit, the ability to adjust to different face shapes, and the ones I could make with the materials I had on hand," Parker explained.
"I then created cardboard templates of each design and used them to trace onto the fabric," she said. "I used a combination of elastic, ribbon and bias tape ties to secure each mask after sewing depending on the design. Depending on the mask design, I can make one in as little as 30 minutes.
"What I found to be much better than making each individually was to batch sew 10-15 at a time," Parker said. "So you do step one for all 15 masks before moving to step two and continue working on each as a group. You'll find you get them done a lot faster. This way I've been able to make 50 masks in three days, all while being a mom and working!”
While some volunteers use sewing machines, not everyone has access to them. One spouse from NSA Naples, Italy has been individually sewing all of her masks by hand.
“It takes me anywhere for each mask one to two hours, depending on the materials and how tired I am,” said Louise Arndt. “I hand sew each mask making sure that they are secure and done right because I know it will be worn by a Sailor multiple times.
"I learned to make these watching an online tutorial and had small experience stitching little things here and there," Arndt said. "I felt proud that I could make a mask that would be comfortable and usable for my husband to wear at work and in public. I know that making masks could offer some relief to people who are having a hard time trying figure out what they are going to use for themselves.”
Arndt started out by making masks for her husband, son and close friends in the area, but discovered a much higher need than she originally anticipated.
“There are no masks that you can just go in and pick up. Some individuals that have picked up for their husbands told me that sewing materials are sold out in the NEX and all masks are sold out.
"Adding to the pressure, many have no experience in sewing or have any materials in their home that can make a mask," Arndt continued. "It's important because these are human beings, and someone's loved one.
"I don’t accept payment," she noted. "I have the supplies, the experience and ability, and the time to make them. I will gladly make anyone a mask that needs a mask because it is important not only for the individual but for the public as well.”
With materials in short supply and specific appearance requirements being enforced for some tenant commands, volunteers have had to look at new material options for creating face coverings while still maintaining CDC standards.
“With a worldwide shortage, we have to do what we can with the materials we have on hand,” said Sarah West, a member of the sewing group on Naval Station Rota. “This is only part of the solution; we make sure to remind people know that they still must adhere to social distancing policies and stay at home.
"We're using donations, and Andi and I and a few of the other seamstresses are lucky enough to have a rather large fabric stash. We’ve also been buying sheet sets so that we have enough solid colors on hand to help with making sure our military have masks that respect their service.”
West said the group is expected to have more than 900 masks made within the next week and added that not all the volunteers sew or need to sew. They can help with cutting materials and ironing fabric to expedite the sewing process for those who are able to sew. She added that those interested in learning to sew in order to help can.
“Sewing is not hard; it’s just practice,” West said. “If you can sew a straight line, you're good!! I would look at the CDC pattern to start, and there are YouTube videos online. Use an old pillowcase or dress shirt and try it out.
"If you need supplies, don’t hesitate to put it out there to your community," she advised "The greatest thing about this is seeing how so many people have come together to help. Don’t be ashamed and think your efforts are not good enough. I have a friend, who is one of the ombudsmen from our ship, who has been practicing and practicing, and the last mask she made was brilliant!”
As the communities within Region EURAFCENT’s area of operations band together making hundreds of face coverings per week, a global pandemic and shortage of needed materials has left first responders and military personnel around the world dependent on the generosity and hard work of the very people they swore to protect. In this way, community members are helping protect those that protect all of us.
If you're stationed at one of Region EURAFCENT’s installations and need a cloth face covering, reach out to your local ombudsman or one of these groups on Facebook: