Getting by during COVID-19: Fabric Masks

The CDC now recommends that everyone wear a fabric face mask when out in public ( This is more to protect others if you have been exposed and don’t know it yet, but anything is better than nothing when it comes to reducing your chances of breathing in a droplet with viral particles inside. For the love of our medical professional heros, please don’t use a medical-grade mask unless you have one lying around already. Let’s save all of the more protective equipment for people who are at highest risk because they are taking care of lots of very sick people.

Some handmade masks are better than others when it comes to protection, though. Ideally you want a tight fit so that you are breathing through the fabric rather than having air come in on the sides of the mask. Consequently it has to be breathable, or else the air will mostly route in through the sides. You also want tightly woven fabric if possible, because knit fabric has lots of large holes that air can pass through. One good way to see how permeable your fabric might be is to hold it up to a light and see how much light you can see through the fabric ( If you have a choice, go with the fabric that blocks the most light but is still breathable. However, you can make up for more porous fabric by using a mask design that incorporates a filter, or by using multiple layers of fabric in your mask.

You also need to be careful how you use a fabric mask. Take it off when you come home, and don’t touch the outside of the mask when you take it off. Wash your hands after taking off the mask, especially if you accidentally touch the outside. Wash it after each use in hot water.

Ultimately, though, all of the optimization advice in the world doesn’t help if you are limited by what you have on hand. Something is better than nothing, even if you are tying on a bandana. The outside of the masks I am making for my family is fabric from an old pair of my spouse’s shorts (see above picture). It blocks the light well and is breathable, but I don’t want to make strangers breathe through used shorts fabric.

Making a Face Mask is very easy. Here is how you can make it yourself in just a few minutes. Follow these steps:

First cut a bunch of fabric scraps into 15”x 8” rectangles. You would have loads of left over fabric at your house (and loads of free time).

Fold it in half with the patterned side inside. Measure 3” from each end of the open side and mark. Sew and back stitch at the mark leaving an opening.

Turn the fabric so that the seam is now in the center facing up.

Cut 2 pieces of elastic 7” each. You can use 1/4” braided elastic.

Feed one end inside sew to secure. Sew 3/4 across then fished the other end into the opening and pin then sew it.

This might be the trickiest part because if you tried pre-pinning both ends it will pull and pucker. The fishing technique works best.

Measure the pleats on the first few then just start winging it. Sew around all 4 sides for a finished look.

The bonus to the Hobby Lobby version is that you can slide a paper towel or coffee filter inside for an extra layer. These can be worn over N95 or plastic masks for extra protection.

Credit: Dane+Laurel Designs