A retired Winnipeg school principal has assigned herself some homework: sewing face masks in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.
"I think in a time like this, we all have to do something to contribute to the community, if we can," Arlene Skull, 70, who retired in 2018 after 16 years as principal at Gordon Bell High School, said this week.
"I can do that to help people who might be going out and putting themselves in positions where there might be some risk. This can reduce the risk, and give some sense of security to them and their families."
With medical-grade N-95 masks being reserved for front-line health workers, Skull is part of a growing army of nimble-fingered Canadian sewers, quilters and hobbyists taking matters into their own hands and whipping up homemade cloth masks for people in the community.
Such volunteer efforts got a shot in the arm this week, when public health officials — who had previously warned non-medical masks won’t filter out airborne particles carrying the virus — did an about-face and said simple cloth coverings can help wearers avoid spreading the illness to others.
On Monday, Canadian chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said the use of non-medical masks, in tandem with social distancing, can limit the transmission of the novel coronavirus.
"Wearing a non-medical mask is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you," Tam said. "A non-medical mask can reduce the chance of your respiratory droplets coming into contact with others or landing on surfaces."
Skull, a home economics teacher for 25 years before becoming a principal, was surprised public health officials had been reluctant to encourage the general public to make and wear simple cloth masks as a precaution.
"I think they are way better than nothing," she said in a phone interview while self-isolating in her downtown apartment. "I don’t understand why doctors on TV were saying don’t wear one. I’m sure you wear an apron when you’re barbecuing. I wear a tuque in winter. It’s for protection."
Skull's masks are made from 100 per cent quilting cotton, with elastic ear loops and a "fusible non-woven interfacing."
"I taught clothing and textiles," Skull said. "It gave me the knowledge to know what kind of fabric would be best and what kind of interfacing. To you. it (the backing) looks like thin papery mesh. If it’s non-woven interfacing, all the fibres are meshed together so things can’t penetrate it easily. It acts as a barrier."
The former principal realizes homemade masks aren’t suitable for health-care workers, but washable and reusable coverings can certainly help others avoid spreading the virus when out in public.
"The benefit is that you put it on and if you sneeze or cough, it’s not going to go on anybody," she said. "It’s captured in the mask. If someone gets close, there’s protection. Another thing is it makes people more aware: they see the mask and stay six feet away or think, ‘Maybe I should get one of those.’
"Also, it prevents you from touching your face... You’re aware of what you’re doing."
The retired educator has been donating her homemade masks to elderly friends and family, volunteers delivering groceries, the Bear Clan volunteer street patrol, and even a parole officer acquaintance who was still meeting with clients.
She also whipped up masks for Tom Rossi — a former principal at Robert H. Smith School turned outreach worker at St. John’s High School — and two colleagues who are delivering hampers from St. John’s food bank to families of students in need.
"I was even able to find some orange cloth and do the stitching in black and put the school initials — SJHS — on them," Skull said, in reference to the North End school’s team colours. "You could call them 'designer.' I get a kick out of making unique ones for everybody."
She was inspired to join the growing ranks of home mask makers — Facebook groups have popped up around the country — after reading about a rural woman making them for people in her community.
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"I have the skills, so why not use them?" she said. "I can’t make hundreds; I’ve made about 30. I’ve got eight people waiting for them.
"I’m waiting for a delivery of my interfacing material. I hope it comes today or tomorrow. I can pop three masks off in an hour now for sure."
Skull hopes other local sewers are inspired to pick up their thread and needles and join the burgeoning mask-making army.
"A couple of people said, ‘Oh, it’s a waste of time.’ But when I was a teenager someone put out a call for winter mittens for children, and my mother looked at me and said, ‘Many hands lighten the load,'" Skull said.
"There aren’t enough masks; there just aren’t... Somebody will say, ‘I can do that, too,’ and then you have another person making masks for another 30 people. My mother was right: many hands lighten the load."
Doug Speirs Columnist
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.
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