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Steampunking Surgical Masks

With COVID-19 on the rise, steampunk makers are supplying hospitals with homemade gear

Saturday, March 21, 2020
Michelle Wyrick's face masks
Steampunk maker Michelle Wyrick fabricated this mask for her daughter, an X-ray tech at a hospital in Amarillo, Texas. Now she’s making more.

As steampunk creators are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, some are putting their skills to use by making face masks for hospitals facing severe supply shortages due to a surge in patients. This comes amid a global effort to enlist makers for a wide range of medical supplies, from hand sanitizer to personal protective equipment (PPE) and even medical devices.

Before you head to your sewing machine or 3D printer, you should keep in mind that products used in healthcare settings, even relatively simple ones such as surgical masks, typically must meet exacting quality and design standards. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that healthcare professionals should use homemade face masks only as a last resort when medical-grade surgical masks are not available.

Woman wearing surgical mask
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay.

Nevertheless, some hospitals are now seeking volunteers to make face masks, and steampunk makers are heeding the call.

One is Michelle Wyrick, proprietor of Lilly Mae’s Steam Trunk in Amarillo, Texas. Her daughter works as an X-ray tech for a local hospital and asked her to make a few masks. “So I got one done and she wore it at work,” Wyrick says. “Now all the others in her department want a few. The hospital is running low on masks and ones working with the COVID patients need the masks the most.”

Steampunk artists in Boston; Dallas; Washington, D.C., Rochester, New York; Bloomington, Illinois; Oklahoma; and Utah are reporting similar efforts to make face masks, either for hospitals or people in their communities.

Why They’re Needed

Surgical masks and homemade face masks are not as protective as N95 respirator masks, which are also in short supply. But many hospitals say they still need the face masks, which they use primarily to prevent the wearers from infecting others. The masks can also protect wearers from large droplets. However, even a medical-grade surgical mask “by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures,” states a fact sheet from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Surgical masks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the face mask and your face.”

The Stillwater Medical Center in Stillwater, Oklahoma wants homemade face masks for non-clinical workers and “worried well” patients, so it can free up other protective gear for healthcare workers. The medical center is asking residents to sew masks with their own materials, using a pattern from Button Counter.

In the Seattle area, Providence Hospital launched the “100 Million Mask Challenge”, which seeks area residents to sew masks using kits provided by the hospital. “Please note this effort is focused on medical-grade masks for health care professionals on the front lines of COVID-19,” the hospital writes. The kits include lab-tested material that is not available to the general public. The hospital is looking for people in the area who can sew at least 100 masks.

In Michigan, the Henry Ford Allegiance Health System also recruited local volunteers to sew face masks using the hospital’s own design.

Protective outfit
Image by leo2014 from Pixabay.

With its standard disposable masks on long back-order, Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Indiana launched a campaign on Thursday encouraging residents to make washable fabric masks. It posted instructions and a YouTube video, and these have become guides for makers around the country. In the video, Deaconess VP Cheryl A. Wathen shows how to make a surgical mask from tightly woven cotton fabric and rope or flat elastic. It’s based on a pattern from The Turban Project, an Ohio-based non-profit.

Deaconess now says it has a plentiful supply and advises folks outside the area to contact nearby healthcare facilities to see if they need homemade masks.

Update: Deaconness has posted a directory of healthcare organizations across the country in need of face masks.

The Sewing & Craft Alliance and American Sewing Guild have launched WeNeedMasks.org, a website that lists hospitals and other care organizations in need of masks. The website also provides instructions for sewing masks, including designs dubbed Olson Masks that include a pocket for inserting a filter.

The Olson Masks were designed by clinicians at UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which has posted a video with instructions for fabricating them. The video begins with a caution that the mask is not a replacement for personal protective equipment. “It’s an alternative that we can possibly use if we need to,” says Rose Hedges, nursing research and innovation coordinator with the health system. The video apparently replaces an earlier one that was posted and removed.

Medically Reviewed Designs

The Deaconess design is one of several that were medically reviewed by Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies (OSCMS), a new group set up to “evaluate, design, validate, and source the fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies around the world.” Launched on March 10, it has grown to nearly 30,000 members, including doctors, nurses, makers, and engineers.

Other designs reviewed by OSCMS include a pleated mask by Helpful Engineering, a volunteer group formed in response to the outbreak. The mask is made from non-woven polypropylene, the same material found in reusable shopping bags. OSCMS also reviewed a DIY flu mask by Properfit Clothing Co., which is available as a $2.99 downloadable pattern.

High Demand for Respirators

Hospitals are also running low on N95 and N100 respirator masks, which protect wearers from tiny airborne particles including bacteria and viruses.

Copper3D, a developer of anti-microbial 3D printing materials, has designed a respirator mask, similar to an N95 mask, that can be downloaded and 3D printed with standard equipment. The company filed for a patent, but then released the patent and made the design open source. It’s intended for use with the company’s Plactive material, which uses a copper-based additive with anti-microbial properties. The material has been approved by the FDA, but it appears that the mask itself has not yet been independently tested.

Members of the OSCMS Facebook group have posted info about their own designs for respirators that can be 3D printed. However, others are expressing skepticism about the potential for 3D-printed respirator masks, citing concerns about porousness, leakage, contamination, and other factors.

The group is also looking at the potential for open-source projects in many other categories of medical supplies and equipment where shortages are likely. This includes big-ticket items such as ventilator machines that require specialized engineering know-how.

For makers who want to help, the group has this advice: “Educate yourself and your community on how COVID19 is treated, and understand the entire problem at hand, before you start designing or building or ideating anything. . . Go out and find as many existing solutions as possible to the supply problems we’ve highlighted, and focus your work on the gaps. Cataloging existing solutions is just as important as designing anything new.”

We’d like to thank Debra Kaye Campbell of Steaming Stitches in Elk City, Oklahoma, who alerted us to this story. She responded when her local hospital requested face masks, but is still awaiting instructions.

Further reading

Perspective: Simple DIY masks could help flatten the curve. We should all wear them in public. (The Washington Post)

'Cosplayers Unite!' Medical officials in Washington state solicit homemade face masks (KUOW.org)

Video: Coronavirus Has Hospitals in Desperate Need of Equipment. These Innovators Are Racing to Help. (The New York Times)

COVIDbase is a work-in-progress curated list of projects, news, and data related to COVID-19 (COVIDbase)

What’s “Plan C” for COVID-19? (Make Magazine)

UnityPoint - St. Luke's Hospital, Mercy Hospital looking for sewing volunteers to help make masks (KCRG-TV)

Calling All People Who Sew and Make: You Can Help Make Masks For 2020 Healthcare Worker PPE Shortage (Forbes)

DIY Masks: Worth the Risk? Researchers Are Conflicted (Medscape) - Requires free registration

Copper3D organizing global campaign to 3D print antimicrobial masks on a global scale (3D Printing Media)

What Are The Best Materials for Making DIY Masks? (SmartAir)

Donations and DIY Masks: Health Care Workers Get Creative With ‘#GetMePPE’ (WBUR)

Hospital Workers Make Masks from Office Supplies Amid U.S. Shortage (Bloomberg)

Simple Respiratory Mask (Emerging Infectious Diseases)

Respirators Versus Surgical Masks (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)

This story has been updated with additional links plus info about Olson masks and N95 respirator masks.

See all of our coronavirus coverage, plus useful resources, in our COVID-19 News Hub.

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