As COVID-19 cases began to spike in the Boston area last month, Natick resident Kelly McPherson received an important request. A colleague in her quilting guild was looking for fabric to make masks for local healthcare workers. Since McPherson runs a business from her Natick home that helps crafters finish their quilts, she had plenty of material lying around. She packaged up cotton left over from previous projects and sent it off to her friend.
Women in a Natick Moms Facebook group, meanwhile, were sharing ideas for keeping their kids busy. School was closed, and remote classes hadn’t begun. “I thought, I’ll make up some kits for anybody who wants to teach their kid how to sew,” she recounts.
McPherson put 10 kits — enough cut fabric and elastic to assemble 40 masks — in a bowl in her front yard and posted on Facebook. Neighbors picked up a few. Then requests from healthcare providers and caregivers came rolling in, and McPherson could barely make kits quickly enough.
By the end of this week, more than 300 Natick and Sherborn residents will have collaborated to produce and distribute more than 5,000 homemade masks, scrub caps and headbands from donated fabric and elastic. Call it a local movement that’s re-defined the idea of public service during a time when everyone stays home. The Natick/Sherborn Sewing Support Group has created new connections among residents and deepened their community involvement. “The people who are helping now, they didn’t always. But they think they can make a difference,” says volunteer Ingrid Frank.
I had some woven cotton stashed away myself: scraps from years-ago craft projects, and several yards of purple batik that I bought to make placemats, but never did. I picked up some elastic from McPherson, and started cutting and sewing.
I’ve pulled out my bottom-of-the-line Singer, the one that jams when I work too fast, only a handful of times in the past 10 years. Some pillow covers here, some jeans shortened there. It took me most of the weekend to make only eight masks.
And yet, though it seems corny to say it, sewing brought me back to the world. After almost two weeks of sheltering in place, I was spending way too much time scrolling through coronavirus news and second-guessing my spring allergy symptoms. Sewing
made me feel a little less helpless. The next ten masks went faster.
Sewers in the group range from minimally skilled who can sew on a button, to professional tailors. Those who can’t sew or don’t have access to a machine are helping to source materials, cut fabric, and assemble kits to donate. Others deliver batches of finished items to local hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities providing care or public safety services. Volunteers range in age from tweens to retirees.
“The majority of these people I would have never met otherwise,” says Frank. “You see at every level all these terrible things. Knowing that there are people out there who are trying to work together — it’s the only positive light that we see.”
A community of helpers
Within a week, the group added scrub caps and headbands to their repertoire (the headbands have buttons sewn in so mask-wearers can hook the elastic on them, which keeps their ears from becoming irritated).
As the mask-making operation was gearing up, Gopa Mukherjee, an emergency room nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who lives in Natick, saw a social media post about caps and asked her friend Pam Koskovich to sew her one. “Early on, as we started donning personal protective equipment for suspected COVID patients, I realized that we were not covering our hair,” Mukherjee said. Caps would provide extra protection.
Koskovich, who works for Natick Recreation and Parks as the costumer for the Natick Drama Workshop, found instructions online, tested some prototypes, and distributed patterns through the sewing group. While McPherson continued to manage the mask-makers and track the effort overall, Koskovich organized sewers who wanted a more challenging project to make more scrub caps. Frank and Renee Man stepped in to captain the headband brigade, which includes students from Gymnastics Express who are cutting donated uniform fabric.
“I am helping to find materials, keep inventory, find people to help with cutting and sewing, and serving as a drop-off point,” says Man. “Not to mention sanitizing and sorting thousands of buttons.”
Man decided to get involved because of her own brush with a life-threatening (non-COVID) illness. “I have seen first hand how hard doctors, nurses, therapists, receptionists, kitchen staff and cleaning staff all work every day when there is no pandemic,” she says. “If this gives them even a little bit of comfort or joy then I will feel that I have at least done something. And I like showing my kids” — she has three — “that it is important to pitch in however you can when people need help.”
All of the recipients have a Natick or Sherborn connection, such as an employee or a close relative of one who lives or works in one of the communities. Nurses and doctors at Newton-Wellesley Hospital have received more than 100 masks and several dozens caps and headbands. More than seven dozen items have gone to Metrowest Medical Center. Other beneficiaries include the Visiting Nurses Association, Boston Medical Center, Boston Hope (a temporary facility in the Boston Convention Center for recovering COVID-19 patients), and essential employees working for local government agencies and some businesses.
Mukherjee puts on a cap before leaving the house for each shift. “I can feel the love and support,” she says. “At the hospital, we all have stories of where we received caps from and share them. They remind us that we are not alone and have a whole community
Can community replace commuting?
I’ve lived in Natick for 22 years. Like many people who have been here a while, I’m not surprised to see folks show up to help when needed, or to take the initiative to solve a problem when they see one. “One thing that really struck me about Natick in general is just this sense of community, and of community service and civic duty,” agrees Liz Turi, who moved to Natick in 2012.
Turi has a teenager at home and works full time as a software engineer and interoperability specialist for a healthcare technology company. But she has spent between four and 12 hours a week sewing masks and caps. The differences in community engagement between Natick and other places she has lived “are huge,” she says.
The effort has even spawned a side project. Robin Chalfin, a tailor, made a few hundred masks for healthcare workers, but she wanted to do more. “I have never understood before how important my skills are,” she says. She launched a fundraiser for the Natick Service Council to make a mask for each person who donated $25. So far, she’s raised almost $3,000 (the masks have sold out, but people can still donate).
“I wanted to contribute directly to our neighbors in a different way,” Chalfin adds. “The number of families they serve is going to continue to rise.”
McPherson, who serves on Town Meeting and led the campaign to create the new dog park on West Central Street, thinks it’s possible that as the pandemic subsides, more people might arrange their lives around their communities, rather than their commutes. “If you work from home, that does give you 10 hours a week back to your life, if you work in the city,” she says. “I mean, you could sew with me, or you could join Town Meeting, or you could play a role in the arts community in downtown Natick.”
Also, “it would be really nice to get together and have a toast or meet at a restaurant — and whatever. To just celebrate that which binds us together.”
Natick resident Elana Varon is a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of The Ultimate Side Hustle Book: 450 Moneymaking Ideas for the Gig Economy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.