By Ron Hayes
Their mission began in March, when dozens of women took up battle positions at sewing machines along our coast.
Day after day, week after week, they cut patterns, stitched borders, folded pleats, attached ribbons and elastic bands.
They made masks.
Some were experienced seamstresses, some nervous amateurs learning as they worked.
All are members of local service clubs, doing their little bit each day in the war against the COVID-19 pandemic.
By early May, these women of the Briny Breezes Hobby Club, the Ocean Ridge Garden Club, the Casuarina Woman’s Club of Lantana, and the Boca Raton Garden Club had produced thousands of protective masks.
Today, some of those masks are worn by doctors and nurses at the VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach, the Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade, the Lynn Cancer Institute in Boca Raton and the Delray Medical Center.
They’ve been sent to fire departments in Indiana and the Keys, a homeless shelter in New York, hospitals in Georgia and Oregon, families and friends in Colorado, Connecticut and Arizona.
“We’re all quilters, so we have lots of scraps and fabric stashes,” explained Marla Guzzardo, president of the Briny Breezes Hobby Club.
Using patterns they found online, the women began sewing both masks and head coverings in early March, working together in their clubhouse until safe-distancing guidelines shut it down. Then they took the club’s nine sewing machines home and worked alone.
“I drove around in my golf cart collecting the masks,” Guzzardo said. “We’re quarantined, so we’ve been sewing fools.”
By May, the women had sewn more than 2,000 masks and head coverings.
Club member Christina Adams, a registered nurse, sent a mask to her friend Tricia Marinella, who’s been screening employees and patients at Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade since her regular job as a school nurse at Park Vista High School vanished when the county’s schools closed.
“Lakeside saw the masks and thought they were really cool, so I reached out to Christina and they sent us about 20 masks and 20 head coverings,” Marinella says.
Then Adams sent more to a nurse she knows at a hospital in Tifton, Georgia.
Gabrielle Taylor, another nurse and club member, brought 80 masks to her colleagues at the VA Medical Center.
Guzzardo sent 40 to the Tavernier Police Department in the Keys.
Like a benign and loving virus, the masks were spread far and wide by word of mouth.
In Ocean Ridge, Mayor Kristine de Haseth was given the Briny Breezes pattern and a couple of masks by Christina Adams. The mayor called Stella Kolb, a member of the Ocean Ridge Garden Club and an experienced seamstress. Together they turned the club’s attention from gardening to sewing.
All they needed were fabric and ties.
“I was doing something in my granddaughter’s bedroom and I saw a headband and it hit me,” Kolb recalled.
She and de Haseth hit the Dollar Stores, buying up elastic headbands, five for a buck. Some were hot pink and fluorescent, with fake rhinestones. But they would do.
Next, Kolb stood in line at the JoAnn Fabric store in Boynton Beach for an hour or more while shoppers were admitted 10 at a time.
“They limited the patterns and amounts, so I went three times and bought some of this and some that,” she said. “I must have bought 50 to 55 yards.”
Now, with de Haseth organizing the project on her computer and Kolb offering sewing lessons, the garden club members set to work.
Some sewed, some made financial donations toward the materials.
“I let the ladies sew whatever they’re comfortable with,” Kolb said. “Some used patterns, some improvised. Some made masks for their children.”
Packed in zip-lock bags with instructions, the first masks went to the town’s police officers and Town Hall staff. Officer Debra Boyle distributed masks to the elderly and infirm residents she checks on regularly. Then they were passed to club members and their families and so on to residents of Crown Colony, Wellington Arms and other 55-plus condo communities.
“We’ve distributed over 400 masks,” Kolb said, “but we’re still making them because we have the fabric and elastic.”
JoAnn Fabric in Boynton Beach is also where de Haseth once took sewing lessons from Christine Burtch and Rosemary Mouring. Burtch is the store’s education coordinator and Mouring one of the sewing teachers.
They are also the president and past president of the Casuarina Woman’s Club in Lantana.
“Just the two of us are doing it,” Mouring said. “We don’t have many members, but we work together. When she’s not working, she comes here to my house and we sew.”
At JoAnn, Burtch put together kits containing enough material to make five masks and handed them out to some of those patient customers waiting in line. The idea was for JoAnn’s customers to make the masks and bring them back as donations to local hospitals and health care providers.
“The majority were not brought back,” Burtch said.
But working together, the women had sewn 102 masks by May, including some of green material for the Sheriff’s Department.
And they’re still turning them out.
“Since I’m not teaching, it’s good to be doing something,” Mouring said. “I’m bored to death.”
On March 23, members of the Boca Raton Garden Club got the message by email.
Calling all seamstresses!
Mary Kaub, president-elect, had seen the need and knew the club could help.
“Holiday House is our biggest craft sale of the year, and we had all this leftover material,” she said.
When Bianca Boone got the message, she knew she was just what the project needed.
As a teenager growing up in Brazil, she’d learned to sew patterns from a neighbor who gave lessons. But then her career intervened. She came to Boca Raton and worked as an engineer at IBM, then retired. Two years ago, she joined the garden club.
“I never thought I’d be in the garden club sewing, but I’m loving it,” she said. “Working at home, I get into a production line. I work about three hours a day. I don’t work that long, but you get more and more efficient. I think I’ve sewn about 400 now.”
On Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 11 a.m., the women, about 21 of them, drop off their masks at the club and pick up the fabrics to make more.
“Our seamstresses find a pattern that works best for them and they turn those in,” Kaub said. “We’re not picky. I’m quarantined, so I sew at night, and I can make about a dozen a day.”
So far they’ve donated about 1,200 masks, to the Lynn Cancer Institute and Boca Raton Fire Department, as well as hospitals as far away as Oregon and New York.
“We’re using cotton materials,” Kaub said. “All cotton, and we wash them to make sure they go out clean.”
The basic patterns and rules for mask-making don’t vary.
Christine Burtch at JoAnn Fabric recommends a 6-by-10 inch rectangle of 100% quilter’s cotton, sewn in two layers. Some mask makers leave the top open to create a pocket in which a paper towel or coffee filter can be slipped to enhance the protection. And some use different colors for the front and back so wearers can tell which side they’ve put over the mouth.
Health care workers wear the donated masks over their medical-grade N95 masks to extend the life of the professional protective gear, not as a substitute.
For all the women wielding their sewing machines in the war on COVID-19, function always comes first. But that doesn’t mean they can’t accommodate a touch of style, too, and a smile.
“I wanted a Lilly Pulitzer mask,” Stella Kolb of the Ocean Ridge Garden Club said. “All pastel pinks and greens and blues. So I wound up taking a Lilly dress I hadn’t worn in 10 years, cut it up, and I even sewed the buttons on because they had her name on them. I got about 12 or 13 masks out of it, for me and my friends.
“I’m a Lilly,” she explained. “There’s a lot of Lillys along here.”