My grandmother was a dressmaker. I’m not.

She taught me how to sew, and I did sew because I liked having cool clothes. I still do like cool clothes, but I gave up sewing decades ago for the ease of thrift stores, and later, catalogue shopping.

Today, the husband and I stood in a line at Costco, waiting for our turn to enter. I wore a red calico mask and he a brown one with bronze squares. I had just made them, primarily to defy the president’s laissez faire attitude toward CDC experts, but also because I am a team player and want to show everyone else that I trust the CDC.

This is my mask-making accomplishment for today. I set out to make masks for hospital staff. Whole groups of sewers are making them. (I guess I should use the term “sewing people” Sewers, well, is something else.) I’ve looked at numerous YouTube videos, downloaded a pattern from a local dressmaker, and ventured into JoAnn’s Fabrics, where weary, overworked clerks cut yards of cotton calico for me as I stood six feet away.

Today’s masks were not hospital staff grade, and not because they weren’t make of N19 certified material. I was in a hurry, because we had to get to Costco to pick up the husband’s meds. (After the line to enter Costco, in the rain, the husband is feeling more sanguine about using mail order for his meds.) Therefore my seams, pleats and margins were crooked. My fabric cuts, using expensive Case scissors I bought decades ago, were uneven.

I blame my tools. Of course I blame my tools. They’re outdated. In the video I settled on, “Ann”, the sewing expert, used cute little clips to hold the fabric together, rather than awkward and dangerous pins. She also had a rolling cutter and a big plastic measuring template that one could lay the fabric on for measuring and cutting. She also had a way-newer sewing machine that probably was smart enough to sew all by itself.

I grew to hate sewing. Mainly because it took so long, and I have never been one to enjoy the process, only the outcome—as long as it happened quickly. Maybe that’s why I liked critical care nursing so much. What ever you did, the outcome was instant, whether good or bad. Things moved quickly, unpredictably.

In sewing, careful slow time is required. Thought given to each measurement, adjustments to the machine, clear stitching, straight lines. Here’s a secret. My grandmother made my clothes—she made them for my two sisters and all our dolls. Until my mother bought my first pair of pants in a department store, I never knew that my grandmother understood my measurements—my big butt, for instance. She adjusted each sizing and stitch to ensure my butt was covered adequately. I could bend, move, play, without the worry of the fit.

My first pair of store-bought pants revealed the genius of my grandmother’s work. When I squatted, or bent over, the pants would ride down my butt uncomfortably and in embarrassing ways. She knew, understood, women’s bodies, and measured clothing to flatter, to fit, like the perfect seams she gave our doll clothes, bodices, hems, lined coats.

I view sewing as a means to an end. I envision a perfect outfit, sleek, flattering and cutting edge. I never could get there, despite my grandmother’s instruction.

And now, I can’t reproduce her precision. It’s a personality thing.

In the making of masks, there is the need to look good and to last. If I, as an RN, was going to take one of these from a donation bin, I would be looking for straight seams and durability, cleanliness of appearance. I would wonder about repeated washings, how many layers, whether I could put a filter in it. With a home-made mask, I would not expect full protection against the virus micron. I might use it in a less fraught setting. A recent New Yorker Magazine piece described the possible relationship between volume of viral exposure and severity of resulting disease. If a home-made mask was all I could get, I would use it.

So, I suppose the result of all this discussion about sewing and tailoring results in this: attention to the minutiae brings forth perfection, or so it seems. Or seams. My grandmother understood this. I have moved forward without, moving quickly in split-second decisions. Until now when attention to detail is a matter of life, or death.

Thank you, Bessie, for the hope of a straight seam.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


Masked — 8 Comments

  1. I find that the biggest barrier to precision now is vision. After cataract surgery, I no longer have my myope’s ability to dial it in until I can count each thread. However, there are a ton and a half of different mask patterns out there. I found a no-pleat drawstring one today!

  2. Hubby just donated an old T-shirt to the cause. I guess it’s time to go find one of those patterns, though I was hoping Brenda would do one and put it up on FB. PS I sold my sewing machine and all the bits and pieces of trim an elastic and gadgets and stuff. Kept only a pin cushion and some scissors. I think there might be a spool of black thread in the cupboard. Not sure.

  3. Thaks, Jill — very stylish! My sewing machine stopped working years ago, so I’m going to make the no-sew folded bandanna masks for Thor and me for shopping!

  4. Yay, mask-makers! I’ve got 65 masks waiting for elastic (the new toilet paper); I can make them with ties, but not everyone likes ties–and I have to make the ties by hand, because I didn’t have enough twill tape or shoelaces to go around. Sigh.

    Phyl: I started a group on FB called Coronavirus PPE Mask Makers (or something): there are a bunch of different patterns, more advice than Heinz has pickles for mask sewers (and T-shirt mask makers, too).

  5. I don’t mind sewing but I hate to cut out patterns. I was delighted that my sister sent us two home-sewn masks for our use. Her wonderful son and his wife went grocery shopping for us and brought us the masks and Easter candy along with the food.

  6. I have no sewing machine or the knowledge to use one, so I hand-sewed two masks today — all they need are ties.

  7. Sy a pattern yesterday that called for HEPA cloth vacuum cleaner filters in addition to a cloth layer. Of course now the filters are all sold out!