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by Elaine K Howley

April 6, 2020

Inge Clark, Maureen Fitzpatrick are doing their part to help those on the front lines fight the novel coronavirus

Inge Clark doesn’t consider herself a seamstress, but she’s enjoying her challenge.

The Illinois Masters member began sewing masks for health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to help after being challenged to do so by a pediatrician friend. The effort of Clark and many others is helping alleviate a shortage of personal protective equipment health care workers have faced while trying to treat patients.

“I went into this with no idea what I was capable of, and there are so many people who are doing their part and people stepping up,” she says. “Why can’t I?”

Clark’s only experience sewing was what she’d done while raising her four children. But she decided it was worth trying to figure out if she could help after being furloughed from her position teaching swim lessons and lifeguarding at a Y about an hour south of Chicago.

Clark isn’t the only Masters swimmer to help despite a lack of sewing experience.

Palm Beach Masters member Maureen Fitzpatrick has only sewn kits for a nonprofit organization called Days for Girls International, which provides washable menstrual kits for girls and women around the world. The nonprofit organization put out a call for cloth masks in their network, and Fitzpatrick got to work, learning as she went.

“Learning takes place when there’s a need,” says Fitzpatrick, 68. “There were some strong words from me and a few broken needles on the machine.”

But she soon got the hang of it and has now produced about 60 masks.

Fitzpatrick says her husband cuts the fabric and configures nosepieces for a new design she’s working on at the request of a contact at the University of Florida’s Department of Anesthesiology. That request involves making a very specific type of patented mask design out of a special medical-grade material designed for the task. Fitzpatrick and a sewing partner who lives downstairs are working together on the prototype using the special material that will be trialed in the clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

“If these work, this could make a really big dent in filling that void” of not having enough personal protective equipment, Fitzpatrick says.

Both Fitzpatrick and Clark say that elastic is in very short supply, which can make achieving that all-important snug fit harder.

“My mother had a big stash of unopened elastic that I have been going through,” Clark says. But she’s burning through that stash quickly and says she can’t find more supplies anywhere. “It’ll be a month before I can get any,” she says.

Fitzpatrick says that hair scrunchies have been the best option she’s found in the absence of elastic, as those are generally the right size and shape to “go around your ears and fit snugly.” She says some folks are using cut-up leggings or tights, because they’re stretchy but won’t fray.

The two have found meaning in their work.

“It’s a really good outlet for needing to contribute something,” Fitzpatrick says. “It gives us a bit of purpose while we’re sitting here. Now I sit here sewing until 2 a.m. The dining room has been taken over by the sewing machine, and there’s material all over the place. The whole house has been transformed into a factory.”

The sacrifice of a clean house seems tiny in comparison to what frontline caregivers are dealing with during this crisis, she says.

“They’re putting their lives at risk when they’re not using the right materials,” Fitzpatrick says. “So, we’re happy to help out in any way, and hopefully we’ll be part of that cutting edge to move forward and help protect them even better.”

Clark says she hasn’t kept track of how many masks she’s made, but on a good day, she can churn out a dozen or more. She says that although it’s been challenging to have life upended by this crisis, this newfound purpose and the bonus time with all her kids has been an unexpected delight. And having them be involved in helping make the masks has also been special.

“They need to see what’s going on and understand and be part of making things better,” Clark says. “There has to be some positivity to come out of this.”


  • Human Interest