Million Mask Challenge Keeps Local Sewists in Stitches

Local chapter of nationwide program seeks more volunteers to join the cause

Alexandria, VA – Dutifully following self-quarantine orders, Joanie Stewart was beginning to get a little bored and restless. A licensed acupuncturist by profession, she’d been home for a couple of weeks, not able to go to work. Then she saw online that Deaconness Hospital was looking for volunteers to make masks, and she promptly traded in her acupuncture needles for her sewing needles.

Joanie Stewart holds up some of the masks she’s made. (All photos by Joanie Stewart)

Stewart had learned to sew in her 9th grade home economics class and always enjoyed it, even making some of her own clothes over the years. A member of the Gotta Swing dance community in Northern VA, Stewart had recently taken up sewing again, as the dancers often made their own poodle skirts. As they say, timing is everything. After seeing the Deaconness Hospital plea, Stewart grabbed the leftover material she had on hand and started making masks. At about the same time, her friend and fellow dancer Tom Atwater sent a notice to their swing team, telling them about the Million Mask Challenge and asking if anyone wanted to partake. Stewart was an enthusiastic “yes,” as were several others in the group, who now call themselves the Maskmakin’ Swing Dancers of Northern VA.

Joanie Stewart modeling one of the many masks she’s made for the Million Mask Challenge.

What is the Million Mask Challenge? It started in the Providence health system in Washington State, the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Chapters of the Million Mask Challenge (MMC) developed across the country, and sewists everywhere went to work.

Vanessa Fulton, an attorney in Arlington, VA, who spearheaded the local VA/MD/DC chapter, spoke to NPR’s Scott Simon recently and said they have some 4,000 members in their Facebook group. In addition to the comfort of community in this strange time, the group has a shared mission in making the most of quarantine while also helping to make a difference. “We do Zoom video chats. Sip and sew is what we call them, to try to get people sewing together in the evenings … people who have never met each other.” Fulton continued, “We really need more people to help us in this effort. We have requests for 40,000 masks from 190 different health care providers. Our patterns are accessible for beginners. We want anybody who has a sewing machine sitting at home to feel like they could read our pattern, maybe watch one of the Facebook Live tutorials and start sewing.”

Patterns to make masks are readily available on the Million Mask Challenge website.

Joanie Stewart is thankful to be involved with the MMC. Her group’s first set of masks went to a DC police officer who lives in Alexandria. The mask-makers received a thank you note from him and his fellow officers expressing how grateful they were. The volunteers making the masks improve their product every day, and new sizes are now available for men and younger children (but no masks should ever be put on children under age 2). There’s a model that fits over an N95 mask that can be washed at the end of every day, prolonging the effectiveness of the precious N95 mask.

Now that everyone should be wearing a mask when in public, the service of this group is even more essential. Stewart is happy to have something to keep herself busy until she goes back to work, but there’s more to it, of course. “I enjoy making the masks because I feel like I’m doing something to help.”

More and more fabrics are being used to make masks.

If you’d like to donate money or supplies for the masks, or if you want to volunteer for this worthy cause, please find the group on Facebook or visit the Million Masks Challenge website at https://millionmaskchallenge.com/