There are two basic types of surgical masks- one that has elastic ear loops and one that has longer ties. While the elastic is easier to put on and take off, the elastic can eventually irritate the ear over long-term usage so for comfort, the tie-back style is preferred.
It is important to understand that a proper surgical mask has two elements to it that aid in protection: a fluid barrier, and a filter. The outer layers of the mask are water-repellent, mostly to protect from splashes and bodily fluids during procedures, but it has been suggested that the water-repellency might also help prevent any droplets in the air from clinging to your mask.
Then there is a filter inside to prevent particles, bacteria, and viruses passing through. The CDC has recently revised its recommendations that all people should now wear cloth masks when in public, especially in situations in which it would be difficult to keep the proper distance of six feet between people, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.
There are plenty of instructions for making knit masks roughly the shape of the N-95 respirator online; I have been making something closer to a surgical mask so I will present a method of making that kind of mask at home. Please understand that these instructions are for informational purposes only, that I make no claim or warranty about any of its usefulness to prevent the spread of bacteria or viruses, or that following these instructions may help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
What you will need:
- Material for your face mask- a piece 7 ½” x 14” long per mask
- Soft aluminum wire for a nose bridge- 6 1/2” long
- Elastic ear loops or woven ribbon or tape for head ties- two 7” elastic loops or four 15” ties
- Optional filtration media
A Cambridge University study found that basic cloth masks could filter 50% of viruses and bacteria, as compared to the 95% filtration rate achieved by N-95 respirators. 50% is certainly better than nothing so we are being encouraged to cover up in public. A website called SmartAirFilters makes the study a bit easier to understand, and concludes that, although other items provided better filtration rates, the overall comfort and breathability of pillowcases and cotton t-shirts made them the best choice for a DIY mask. If you wanted some level of fluid barrier like in a surgical mask, you could consider something lightweight and water resistant like Ottertex Ripstop from Fabric Wholesale Direct
If you look at an N-95 respirator you will notice it has a flat aluminum bridge across the nose; studying surgical masks you will also notice they have wire across the top. These help the mask to conform to the shape of the nose and the upper face, creating a better seal.
Aluminum is best as it is soft and moldable, and won’t rust. Without this wire there are significant gaps on either side of the nose through which unfiltered air and particles can pass easily. My personal preference is a flat aluminum wire, like this one from Joann
I have also used a 1mm x 4mm flat aluminum wire from Michael’s. If you can’t find flat wire, you could use soft round wire this this one from Home Depot
The mask can be fastened to the face using elastic loops cut to 7” lengths, like this from Joann
You could also use flat ribbon like this from Amazon.
Any kind of twill tape or ribbon or double fold bias binding can work, or you can make your own by cutting strips of fabric 15” long by 1” wide, folding them in half and sewing ¼” from the long edge, then turning them to the right side, like spaghetti straps.
To use a filtering layer is entirely your choice. I cannot endorse any of them, but can point out a couple I have heard of. Household HVAC filters with a minimum MERV-13 rating are supposed to be able to filter bacteria and viruses (nothing rated lower than 13), however I feel they may be a bit too stiff to conform around the face properly. I haven’t tried it so I don’t know. There is also a company called Filti which makes washable household filters; they claim that their patent-pending nanofiber technology can filter viruses, and is washable. They are selling their filter material on their website which can be found here.
Making your mask
- Print out and tape together the pattern. Using the pattern, mark out your piece, and mark the notches or trace the fold lines using a tracing wheel. If you have a selvedge, use that for one long side of your piece. As sewers, our natural inclination is to want to finish the mask neatly, by sewing a seam right sides together and then turning, or perhaps by binding the edges with bias binding. I have found, however, that the extra bulk and stiffness created with finishes like this prevent the mask from conforming with the shape of your face and it can have a tendency to sit away. For this reason I prefer to use a serger or zig-zag stitch to finish the edges; it is softer and molds better. If you don’t have a serger, and have a lot of time on your hands because you are confined to your house, you could also hand-finish them using a blanket stitch.
- Cut a length of wire 6 1/2″ long. Fold the rectangle in half lengthwise, wrong sides together. If you choose to include filtration, sandwich your filtration layer between these two outside layers. If you have a zipper foot you could tuck the wire inside the fold and stitch alongside it, otherwise stitch a ¼” channel along the length of the fold. Insert the wire into the channel.
- Refer to the pattern for pleating instructions- fold along fold line A and match it to placement line A. The pictures below show the pleat formation just so you get a better visualization of it- you should be pleating the folded cloth, not the pattern. Pin each of the pleats; if you are using a filtering agent you may want to avoid pinning through it if possible, as the pins may leave holes through which particles can pass. When all three pleats have been pinned or basted, sew along one edge of the mask, pivoting at the bottom, continue across the bottom, then up the opposite side.
If you are using elastic, cut two pieces 7” long (cut them shorter for people with small heads and children) and tack them to the corners like this commercially-available surgical mask.
Otherwise tack one end of each of your 15 long head ties to the corners.
Always wash your hands before putting on and removing your mask, and avoid touching the mask itself while removing it- only use the straps. Wash your mask after every use, and avoid touching your face. Wishing everyone stays healthy and that we come out of this crisis soon.
What is next?
- Make your own face mask following these Best Practice guidelines first for yourself, then your family – Download our FREE original mask sewing pattern here
- Register as a member of the Work From Home sewing network – Register here
- Volunteer to help make extra masks (for hospitals, the elderly, and other vulnerable communities) – Sign up here
- Stay informed and get notified of additional mask sewing information – Subscribe to our mailing list here