Tucked along Haywood Road in West Asheville is Flora Botanical Living, a sunlit, plant-filled building specializing in interior botanical design and floral arrangements.
But in light of the deadly the spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, the building now operates with a renewed purpose: as the central hub for Masks of Love WNC, a small but dedicated band of doctors, home sewers, business owners, professional seamstresses and other volunteers who are working around the clock to produce face masks for health care workers and vulnerable community members to reduce the spread of the disease.
Masks of Love uses donated and purchased materials to produce two types of masks; one for everyday use by the general public, and one specifically designed to address shortages in personal protective equipment, also known as PPE, for health care workers.
“I would say that the need is very great,” says Dr. Carly Brown, a primary care doctor at Ashewell Medical Group in the River Arts District who founded the group. “There’s probably some adequate PPE at this moment, but the concern is that when we do see a surge, whether we will have enough at that time.”
To address that need, Masks of Love plans to produce thousands of face masks for the community — both free of charge and through a suggested donation.
Just two weeks after the group’s launch, hundreds of volunteers throughout Western North Carolina jumped into action, with more than 400 people volunteering to sew masks for the organization, while dozens more people donated fabric and other materials. A Go Fund Me page for the effort received more than $21,000 in donations to support mask-making supplies and operating expenses. The group also received seed money from Dogwood Health Trust, the local nonprofit formed from proceeds of the sale of Mission Health System to HCA Healthcare.
“There are so many of us that are working together to make this happen,” Brown says. “It’s an interesting kind of hodgepodge of people who found one another, but the community has really stepped forward to help make this a reality.”
Standing among the variety of plants and succulents that furnish the makeshift headquarters, Brown explains that Masks of Love was created in response to dwindling supplies of medical equipment across the nation, and to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that health care workers don bandannas or scarves when proper PPE is not available.
“I can tell you as a physician at that moment — and I bet for most physicians throughout the country — there was the big part of us that crumbled, because we know that a bandanna or a scarf is not any kind of filter to protect us from COVID-19,” Brown says. “We are seeing people who have full PPE on who are getting COVID-19, so clearly our ability to protect ourselves is limited anyway.”
She explains that one reason that medical grade N-95 masks are so effective at filtering viral particles is because of their ability to create a tight seal around a person’s face. She says her group is utilizing professional sewers and machinery and a specific sewing pattern for their frontline health care masks to try to match the fit of N-95 masks.
“Obviously, that’s hard to do with a home sewn mask, or even a professionally sewn mask. But the idea is to try to replicate that as much as possible,” Brown explains. “It’s a challenge but that’s what we’re hoping to do.”
Both the citizen and frontline masks produced by Masks of Love are washable, and include a place for replaceable filters. The group is using hepa filters when available, which Brown says are made to filter viral particles in residential HVAC systems. However, she notes that the masks are not considered certified face masks, meaning that they’re not meant to replace proper PPE.
“We are absolutely not saying that it’s as good as an N-95. All of our health care workers should first and foremost have proper PPE,” she maintains. “All we’re saying is that we want to be better than bandannas. We know that we’re creating something far superior than a bandanna and if nothing, we’re showing our support for health care workers and that their community has not abandoned them.”
Leading the charge of the citizen mask production is Jen Murphy, community organizer and cofounder of local costume and puppet makers, Puppet Club and Street Creature. Murphy works to connect the group’s more than 350 home sewers with mask patterns, materials and other volunteer opportunities.
So far, Heather Rayburn, who works as the communications manager of Masks of Love, says more than 80 kits containing enough fabric, elastic and wire for 1,600 masks were picked up by amateur sewers just last last week. Demand for the citizen masks is expected to grow following new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, announced April 3, that advocate mask-wearing by all people in public settings.
One home sewer, Melanie Wilder, supervises the Fiber Arts program at Warren Wilson College. She says that taking time to produce citizen masks, as well as bags that will be used to transport and sanitize them, gives her the opportunity to maintain her passion for sewing while the college is temporarily closed.
“I would be teaching my students how to sew and I can’t do that the rest of the semester, so it’s keeping me connected to what I would otherwise be doing,” Wilder says.
She notes that the process of sewing masks for the community gives her a sense of peace and purpose despite feelings of stress and physical isolation caused by the pandemic.
“This just feels important, and if you give someone with a sewing machine a mission, they’re going to definitely take it,” she continues. “Even though we’re all in this weird, remote social distancing time, we have that deep need for connection, and this is one way to connect.”
Despite the fact that the small business community in Asheville has been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic, many local business owners are also offering support and supplies for mask making, including Erin Hardy who co-owns the Asheville-based French Broad Sewing and Upholstery.
“I was just doing stuff on the homestead and working on my raised beds, same that everyone else was doing, and then I realized that we have at our disposal a whole fleet of machinery that could really help to address this whole mask shortage situation,” recalls Hardy.
She and her business partner, Amy DeLira, made the decision to postpone any upcoming sewing and upholstery work to dedicate their skills and equipment to Masks of Love. The team is now leading the production of the frontline health care worker masks.
“If I’m not sleeping, I’m making masks,” she says with a laugh.
Ortho Dog, a Swannanoa-based company specializing in orthopedic braces for pets, also joined the duo, offering its facility, materials and volunteer workers. Hardy says that the two companies have produced roughly 500 masks since they started working together just days ago. The pace of production will ramp up as operations continue to become streamlined.
“Really our goal is to get us through 2,000-3,000 masks a week. We’ll be keeping a ticker on our Facebook page and our website to try to help is keep track of it,” she says.
Since then, other local professional sewers have stepped in, including upcycled fashion creators, Arteries Mobile Boutique and AlienMenace.
Meanwhile, Dutch Girl Coin Laundry on Haywood Road has offered to sterilize donated fabric and sewn masks each evening after the business has closed to the public. Owner Rita Lewis says both current and former employees — a team of about 5 people — are sharing the work.
“We just felt like there’s going to be a time when everybody will be called upon to give their skill, their trade and their talents, and this was just our time,” says Lewis, who owns the laundromat with her husband, Patrick. “The community supported us for 23 years, and we’re very honored to be able to support them by being included in this.”
“I think it really speaks to the creativity and resilience of our community and also just the generosity,” Hardy adds. “People who are struggling in their own right are making tremendous personal sacrifices to reach out to their neighbors and their community and our underserved population to make sure that nobody is forgotten.”
After weeks of coordination, planning and countless hours from each of the group’s volunteers, Sara Legatski, who owns Honeypot Vintage and also serves as the group’s project manager, reports that Masks of Love made its first delivery of 110 masks April 3 to several places within the community, including a senior care center, a pediatrics office, a food delivery service and a medical practice in Hendersonville.
“It always feels good to be doing something when there’s such a huge unknown in front of the community,” Legatski says. “It feels really good to be doing something that’s really needed.”
The team is likely to experience many busy days ahead. As of April 3, the organization has received more than 1,000 requests for masks from local individuals, health care facilities and others, according to its website.
Brown says that 50 percent of all masks produced by Masks of Love will automatically be donated to those in need, including healthcare workers and first responders, homeless shelters, medical missions and other facilities that provide support to underserved populations. The remaining masks will be available to anyone in the community with a suggested donation of $5 for the frontline professional masks and $1 for the citizen masks. People who cannot afford to purchase masks at the suggested price, she emphasized, will be given masks “without question.”
“I think it’s reassuring to people to know that people are willing to make the effort to take care of people they’ve never met or don’t know at all,” Legatski notes. “Hopefully it’s inspiring and comforting to see people saying, ‘Yes, this is what’s needed; this is what’s happening; we will get masks into your hands if you need a mask.’”
All earnings from the masks will go directly toward purchasing materials and funding operating expenses to produce more masks, which Brown says the group is prepared to continue doing as long as the need remains. She notes that while the team at Masks of Love plans to stay busy and recruit new volunteers, she hopes that the group can also deliver a sense of hope and purpose in an increasingly uncertain world.
“The idea was that people were feeling like they had no way to help, but it’s just not true. This keeps people from feeling helpless,” Brown says. “We will get through this if we fight through it together as one.”