The Seattle Southend SEWers group has assembled dozens of South Seattleites committed to making medical masks during the COVID-19 pandemic
by Andrew Engelson
Like most confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, South Seattle resident Jessica Breznau was looking for a way to lend a hand during the crisis, while also finding an activity to keep her mind off the constant stream of terrible news.
Late last week, while chatting with friends who are nurses in other parts of the country, Breznau heard about volunteer efforts to make medical-grade surgical masks in their homes. Breznau –– full disclosure: she’s a friend and neighbor –– did a little research and found that Providence Medical Center in Seattle had a put out a call for experienced volunteer sewers to make medical masks in their 100 Million Mask Challenge.
What happened over the days that followed was a whirlwind of efforts that eventually resulted in several dozen people in the South End working to fill the need for medical-grade and other protective masks across the city.
“I was feeling overwhelmed by the news,” said Breznau, who’s the owner and founder of Southside Booty Camp, a women’s outdoor fitness course. “I wanted to find a way to participate in the wider world, to make a difference.”
Though Breznau wasn’t experienced at sewing, she had a sewing machine she figured she could loan out to someone who was. Breznau then created a Facebook group, Seattle Southend SEWers in the Covid19 Mask Making Effort, and very quickly had more than 20 people in South Seattle committed to making masks with kits that would arrive from Providence.
At about the same time, costume designer Candace Frank, who lives in Renton was starting to organize her colleagues in the theater community across the city to make medical masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) and started a citywide Facebook group: Crafters Against COVID-19 Seattle. Soon, Breznau and Frank connected online, and now Breznau is helping out in South Seattle to distribute kits for making medical-grade masks, and then collect the completed masks and get them back to Frank’s organization.
“We’ve already finished 700 masks with 40 stitchers,” said Frank, who has extensive experience making costumes for productions at On the Boards, ACT Theater, Seattle Opera, and many others.
Over the weekend, it turned out Providence was overwhelmed with the response to its 100 Million Mask Challenge, and realized coordinating with individual volunteers was going to be complicated. Instead, they worked with a Mukilteo-based manufacturing company, Kaas Tailored, which agreed to completely restructure its upholstery making factory in just a few days and is now producing thousands of medical masks and face shields.
Columbia City resident and product developer Vincent Sagisi, who’s also signed up with the Southend SEWers, also recently became involved in the efforts to recruit more workers for Kaas Tailored to make thousands of masks.
Sagisi described to the Emerald about how he’d spent the last two years founding a nonprofit, Northwest Sewn (now part of the Seattle Good Business Network),
Sagisi described to the Emerald about how he’d spent the last two years working on a local initiative, Northwest Sewn (part of the Seattle Good Business Network), which supports people working in sewn goods manufacturing. Sagisi has worked with Kass Tailored over the last year to create a state-recognized apprenticeship program for sewers that, coincidentally, was supposed to launch this week.
“The volunteer effort is great, and obviously there’s a need,” said Sagisi. “And this work is not free. Sewing professionals are often people with socioeconomic barriers to success. We need to honor and respect their work. This crisis highlights why. We’re leaning on a volunteer effort to save those on the front lines because of a lack of federal response.”
Meanwhile, Breznau and Frank met up on March 24 outside Breznau’s home in the Othello neighborhood to distribute kits, all of which Frank’s group had created with very specific instructions and materials as specified by participating health organizations. Her group has already received requests from a hospital in Sequim, Valley Medical Center, and Bloodworks Northwest.
“It feels weird to say this,” said Frank, after she finished loading a box of mask-making kits into Breznau’s car, while the pair keep a strict six feet of distance from one another. “But I’m thriving now. You know how writers talk about the words just flowing? I feel like I just know what I’m doing now and the process flows.”
One of the Southend SEWer volunteers, Liz Cruz, lives in Rainier Beach. She’d already been sewing homemade masks for several weeks to help out people who wanted them for non-medical situations, such as her partner, who works as a bus driver for King County Metro. Cruz soon connected with Breznau and Frank online.
“I’ve done a lot of sewing my whole life—apparel, costume design” Cruz said “I stocked up on fabric and just started.”
She’s sewn many of the non-medical masks and now has agreed to take on some of the kits, as well. Cruz has a job in human resources for Amazon and has been working from home since early in the outbreak. Sewing the masks provides a welcome relief.
“It’s so nice to step away from the computer and sew,” she said.
As a reward to the volunteers in her South End sewing group, Breznau has offered each of the early participants one loaf of her home-baked sourdough bread (though she says can’t promise that for new volunteers).
“This is just where I need to put my energy right now,” Breznau said.
It’s important that those who want to volunteer their skills sign up for a group and get instructions before trying to do things on their own. Frank has very strict protocols with the kits regarding sanitizing and creating the masks.
“You don’t want to make something that just ends up in a landfill,” said Sagisi.
Those who have experience sewing skills and want to volunteer should request an invitation to Seattle Southend SEWers or Crafters Against COVID-19 Seattle before starting. The groups will help assign volunteers either to the surgical mask projects, or to create more informal masks that can help workers outside the medical field, such as grocery clerks, bus drivers, and those volunteering to serve South End residents without shelter. Breznau said her volunteers will soon have 100 non-medical masks available and invites community groups with requests of a minimum of 25 masks to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I never imagined I’d be using my sewing skills for something like this,” Cruz said. “A lot of this is about keeping our mental health in order. Helping others is how we do that. Whether it’s sewing masks, going to pick up groceries for a neighbor who’s vulnerable, or just calling and checking in on a friend. I’m so glad I can use this skill set to help people out.”
To donate to Crafters Against COVID-19 Seattle, visit their GoFundMe site.