From Hutterite colonies to sewing networks, Manitobans making masks for front-line workers

By | April 10, 2020

Manitobans are threading their sewing needles to help make face masks, along with other innovative equipment, for front-line workers and vulnerable people during the coronavirus pandemic.

Among those makers are members of 50 Hutterite colonies in Manitoba, who have started making and delivering masks for free to health-care workers.

Evelyn Gross is a nurse assistant who lives in Winnipeg, but is originally from the Homewood colony, about 30 kilometres west of Winnipeg. Last weekend, she put out a call out to her community of Hutterite sewers to help make equipment for health-care workers like her. 

“I don’t even have the words. I’m extremely grateful for everyone that stepped up to help,” she said. 

Gross and her community have already made more than 500 masks since they started and are working to fill an order of 4,000 homemade masks for health-care workers. 

Shawna Gross and Hutterites from 50 other colonies are working to provide thousands of masks, headbands, and laundry bags to help health-care workers around Manitoba. (Submitted by Evelyn Gross)

Along with the masks, they are also making other equipment, like headbands with buttons that face mask straps can be hooked on, preventing the need to hook the straps behind the ears.

After long days, Gross says her ears are sore from the mask straps — and so her community is making about 2,500 headbands to make things a bit easier for health-care workers.

“The Hutterites are the best people out there if something is needed. They are willing to step up and do whatever anybody wants them to do,” Gross said.

In total, Gross says the colonies have already made 1,500 masks, headbands, and laundry bags and are aiming to make a total of 8,000 items for health-care workers — all for free. 

Face Masks for Manitoba group

The homemade cloth masks don’t provide the same protection as medical masks — like the N95 respirators, which are designed to filter out tiny aerosol particles that carry the novel coronavirus.

But a network of crafters has emerged who hope they can free up medical-grade masks for health-care workers by making cloth masks for other Manitobans.

The group, called Face Masks for Manitoba, was started by Grace Webb. 

Grace Webb says she has been overwhelmed by the positive response and requests for face masks. She currently has three weeks’ worth of orders from across Manitoba. (Submitted by Grace Webb)

She’s providing masks — or the resources to make them, like patterns and material — to vulnerable Manitobans, and those who work with them.

She says that the response has been overwhelming and all of the requests she receives come with a story — from people like those living with cancer, seniors, or someone who just came out heart surgery, for example.

“We’re doing what we can for each other,” Webb said.

“If you can help, then that relieves some of the anxiety you have about what’s going on.” 

That is why Webb says she is working hard to get the masks out, but she has a backlog of about three weeks, since distribution is on a first-come, first-serve basis. 

Each of the make-your-own mask kits provided by the group can be used to make around 30 masks, and Webb is asking those who request a kit to donate back half of the masks they make for others.  

The group is not charging for the kits or masks, but is accepting donations to buy materials to keep a group of 20 volunteers sewing and making kits. 

The Face Masks for Manitoba group provides instructions and information with each of its kits. (Submitted by Grace Webb)

“Doing things to help each other is what’s going to help us get through it as a community,” said Webb.

She hopes those who use homemade masks understand that the masks aren’t going to prevent individuals from getting sick — but they may help slow the spread of the virus to others.

Science on masks uncertain 

The rise in demand for homemade masks comes after Canadian health officials earlier this week said wearing non-medical masks can be an additional measure in the fight against the coronavirus.

However, officials cautioned that non-medical masks don’t protect the person wearing them — and they aren’t a substitute for measures like staying home when possible, practising physical distancing and frequent hand-washing.

“Wearing a non-medical mask is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, on Monday.

“The science is not certain but we need to do everything that we can, and it seems a sensible thing to do.”

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr Theresa Tam spoke with reporters on Parliament Hill on Monday 2:21

Canadians are encouraged to make sure they’re aware of the Public Health Agency’s guidelines for non-medical mask use, which emphasize that washing hands before putting on or removing a mask is critical. 

Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, has warned that those who wear masks might feel an unsubstantiated level of protection and not pay as much attention to social distancing.

The main message, he says, is to still stay at home and practise physical distancing. 

Mask-making as a family

In Stonewall, Man., Joan Ransom agrees with that.

“I just hope that everyone does follow the rules and stays safe, because it helps everybody,” she says.

However, for those who can’t, she and her family have made over 100 masks since Sunday.

The family assembly line she calls her “quaran-team ​​​​​” works together, each taking a specific job in the creation of a mask. 

Ransom has her parents wash, dry and cut the material, while her children make metal nose fasteners and pin the masks before she sews them together.  

Working with her family, she can make about 30 to 40 masks a day.

Joan Ransom’s father, Terry Kennedy, is one part of the physically separated assembly line. He works from his home to cut material for the face masks that his daughter sews. (Submitted by Joan Ransom)

Over FaceTime, she and her neighbour Kim Sheppard, a nurse at the Grace hospital, have arranged to distribute the free masks to health-care workers and anyone else who needs them, including grocery store clerks and seniors.

“It’s really heart-warming to know that there are people all over Manitoba who are stepping up and trying to do this for each other,” she said.

“It’s nice to be a part of that.”

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