Adventures in Mask-making

Written by Stephanie Tretick

8/25/17 4:11:35 PM  Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 2017 European Tour
Stephanie Tretick on PSO 2017 European Tour © Todd Rosenberg 2017

Effects of the COVID pandemic began suddenly: sent home from rehearsal amidst a state wide total lockdown. Traffic noises subsided from the neighborhood, there were fewer airplanes overhead. The silence was eerie.

Our electronic network informed us that preparations for a pandemic onslaught were woefully insufficient, that our front line health care workers were improvising to protect themselves with gear – especially face masks – which should have been in generous supply for their use, and weren’t. Health care associations of all kinds began to ask for help online to fill the void. And so my adventure began.

Masks made by Stephanie Tretick
Masks made by Stephanie Tretick

The first face mask orders I filled were modest, for a local group which not only provided kits of fabric and instructions, but also delivered and picked up the finished product. Their initial plea for help was filled quickly (my contribution was only a couple dozen masks), so I looked for another group that needed sewing help.

A newspaper article on May 6th in the Tribune Review piqued my interest. I made a trip out to the photography studio of Mary Beth Kratsas, one of the founders of Sewing for Angels, icon Rosie the Riveter. The association is made up of an army of volunteers: some people wash fabric, some cut out masks, some sew, some make deliveries to organizations which have requested help from the group, and some donate funds to keep the whole beehive running. I offered to sew.

That first trip I brought home a bag of 31 cut out masks. My job was to assemble the shell and lining of the masks, incorporate an aluminum nose wire and ear elastics. I put one together and cogitated. Musicians look for efficiency. Hand a musician a phrase and it will undergo scrutiny: how best to deliver the musical effect. Face masks are no different. I found myself looking to tweak the instructions, paring the sewing process down to the essentials. And it was not just during waking moments – I began to have dreams of numbers and proportions, seams functioning structurally and decoratively at the same time, combining operations to save thread and time…

Masks made by Stephanie Tretick
Masks made by Stephanie Tretick

How about a faster machine? My grandmother’s Singer has an external motor. I googled the model and discovered it was possible to upgrade the motor from .5 amps to .9 or even 1.5. Like Tim on “Home Improvement”, I said “More power!” and ordered a new motor. The package had hardly left the Amazon truck when it was open and the motor was installed. My grandmother’s machine went from 1200 stitches per minute to 3000. Nirvana! I sewed through 75 masks in 20 minutes, giggling the whole way. And then suddenly, nothing but silence and a very hot electrical smell. The motor had committed suicide. It was fun while it lasted. Mr. .5 Amp went back into its hallowed spot, stitches per minute became sufficient, not ostentatious.

My schedule, previously defined by rehearsals and concerts at Heinz Hall changed locus. The epicenter was now my dining room table in front of the sewing machine. Meals were now fleeting events, held standing in the kitchen while the iron heated up to press open seams and press pleats in front of the china cabinet. I found no trouble getting up before the sun to iron, as the cool of the morning made pressing face masks bearable.

Masks made by Stephanie Tretick

I don’t think I’m a particularly patient person. But sitting behind the sewing machine pushing small squares of fabric into the presser feet I have wondered why I have volunteered, and why I continue with this venture. I have come to the conclusion that forty years as an orchestral violist has greatly contributed to my ability to sustain this activity. The viola section’s contribution to the orchestral web is more glue than decoration. Glue is vital, but not always glamorous. Violists are used to mind numbing repetition, but while we lay a framework for the whole we also find ways to make our contribution a beautiful thing, something without which the whole would not shine as brightly.

I sew on. My masks and the masks of my Rosie colleagues continue to find homes all over the Pittsburgh area. The Aviary, local hospitals, TV shows. The numbers grow. My personal total is over 1300 since May. It is still not enough.

Masks made by Stephanie Tretick