Sew worth it—fashion design students use skills to craft masks for hospital workers

Contact: Erin Flynn
Video of The Work Continues

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—As the influence of automation grows, some have called sewing a dying skill. That skill, however, is now helping protect frontline medical professionals from the potentially deadly threat of COVID-19.

Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services made an urgent plea for volunteers to sew face masks as demand for personal protective equipment increases exponentially. Several members of the Western Michigan University community are lending their skills to answer that call.

Fashioning Protection

Carly McKay sews a mask.

The news is hard to escape. Every day, a constant stream of updates on the COVID-19 pandemic trickles through various forms of communication. Senior fashion design student Carly McKay saw a clip about the need for hospital masks and realized, finally, there was a way for her to pitch in.

"This was an awesome chance to bring together design students who normally only have the opportunity to sew together when it's required for a class," she says. "We were able to do something together that was bigger than us and forget for a moment about the chaos around us.”

Rose Soma irons masks.

She rallied together a group of fashion design students Monday to get to work. Al Mauriello brought along a few of her Chi Omega sorority sisters to help out as well.

"We were able to teach them how to cut the fabric, so while they cut, we sewed,” Mauriello, a senior majoring in fashion design and development, says.

The group made a little more than 50 masks in two hours and have continued the project separately over the course of the week, donating what they’ve crafted to Bronson Hospital. Mauriello also says she’s seen an outpouring of support and people interested in helping since posting a photo of the mask-making session on social media.

“Taking on this project allowed us to have a sense of unity during a time when many people are feeling alone,” says Mauriello.

“It was empowering to come together to do something for the community,” adds Rose Soma, a junior majoring in fashion design. “There’s no greater feeling than doing something you love and helping people at the same time.”

Adding Perspective

In addition to filling a critical need, the project also renews the students’ appreciation in the skills they’ve developed in WMU’s fashion design program.

Al Mauriello sews a mask.

“It made me realize that practically—regardless of passion, inspiration or personal desire that comes with fashion design—sewing is a skill people need, and I should never take my education for granted,” says McKay.

It also opened the door to new career possibilities outside of the fashion industry.

“I hadn’t thought about designing/making things like hospital gear, so it may have diversified our career path considerations,” Soma says. “We also had to use teamwork to get an assembly-line system going in order to make production the most efficient. It was an awesome example of working with people with a variety of skill sets!”

Above all, Mauriello says, it helped keep her busy during this time of isolation and gave her an outlet to continue doing what she loves.

“We are all here to change the world one small step at a time, and I am just doing what I can to get that movement started.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.