Face Mask Volunteers DIY Their Own Kind of Division of Labor

Making masks, face shields, and other protective equipment is the bottom-up, COVID-19 version of rolling bandages or knitting socks for the troops.


On March 23, Kat Henry was working the cash register at the Kansas City Hobby Lobby, where she's a department manager. It was the last day before the store shut down to avoid spreading COVID-19, and customers were stocking up on fabric and sewing supplies—getting ready, she assumed, to do some quilting while hunkered down at home. "We tend to see that when it's going to snow," she says. "People kind of rush in and buy all the supplies."

Overhearing customers' conversation, she soon realized she was wrong. The cloth wasn't for quilts but for protective masks. One customer's sister was a nurse who needed covers to wear over the single virus-filtering N95 mask she had to make last all day. Two others were hospice nurses who couldn't get ordinary surgical masks anymore. Volunteering to help them out, Henry herself became part of an international grassroots movement that is filling in the gaps in the pandemic supply chain.

Driving that effort is, first and foremost, the personal threat: friends and loved ones who lack the protection they need. "You suddenly have these waves of public understanding all over the world where people are like, oh, this is bad," says Gui Cavalcanti, founder of Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS). "They may not be aware of the larger issues at play in the supply chain, but they certainly know that their spouse is going to work without safety equipment."

Making masks, face shields, and other protective equipment is the COVID-19 version of rolling bandages or knitting socks for the troops. But there is a major difference. No long-established agency like the Red Cross is coordinating today's efforts. They are completely bottom-up. Contrary to social critics nostalgic for the bowling leagues and civic clubs of the 1950s, Americans have lost neither the ability nor the inclination to band together to help their communities. We just have new tools for coordinating and sharing information. And the self-help has gone global.

In Baltimore, the Open Works makerspace is using its laser cutters to create face shields and has enlisted 260 libraries, military bases, and individuals with 3D printers to make the visors that hold them. Volunteers download the plans and drop off the parts at Open Works, which assembles the shields into packs for local hospitals. The design comes from the website of a Czech company called Prusa Research. "In three days," Prusa says, "we went through dozens of prototypes and two verifications with the Czech Ministry of Health." Open Works has supplied more than 8,000 shields to local health care workers.

In the Philippines, the Manila Protective Gear Sewing Club took apart existing protective suits to create open-source patterns and instructions that anyone can download as a Google doc. The group started with a one-piece version for men, then added a two-piece version that makes it easier for women to use the bathroom. Designed to be made of Tyvek 1433R, a material widely available in hardware stores, the outfits aren't as impermeable as medical-grade bunny suits for high-risk situations, but they protect staff who don't come in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

In the San Fernando Valley, a group called the Face Mask Fairies meets twice a week on Zoom to divvy up jobs, share resources, identify needs, and coordinate pickups and deliveries. They track everything on a shared Google doc and divide up the labor, with some volunteers simply ironing fabric, others cutting, some sewing, and others picking up and delivering completed masks. By the end of April, they'd given more than 1,500 to hospitals, animal shelters, day care centers, and supermarkets.

All the local efforts add up, especially as volunteers share information. Facebook, in particular, has proven an invaluable tool for finding out who needs what, who can make it, what works, and what doesn't.

In early March, Cavalcanti started the Open Source COVID 19 Medical Supplies group on Facebook. It now has 73,000 members and has translated its medical supply guides into 40 languages. From March 28 to April 20, members produced 2.3 million items in 45 countries, led by the U.S. and India.

Cavalcanti spotted the supply problem early on, when China's coronavirus shutdown made it impossible to get crucial parts for his robotics company. "What I was really worried about—and have only seen more confirmation of—is that centralized manufacturing and centralized logistical chains get disrupted," he says. "It just takes one plane to not fly to not have several million masks that you were going to order."

Now operating beyond Facebook as Open Source Medical Supplies, the group emphasizes local resilience and good information. It has 160 local chapters and 660 volunteers who coordinate via the computer application Slack. "The things that need to be centralized are data—high quality vetted information," he says. "Distributed information is subject to misinformation attacks. It's subject to scope creep, as people get excited about certain things." Engineers like him, he cautions, are prone to "fixate on the shiniest problem" rather than applying what already works.

OSMS has assembled medical experts to check materials and designs, such as the Manila bunny suit. "Our job is to find the things other people are doing and make sure they're not harmful and then amplify them," Cavalcanti says. "We're not here to solve the problem all over again."

Through the Facebook group, hobbyists who otherwise wouldn't communicate have found ways to help each other. For people sewing face masks, making the bias-tape ties that hold the masks on is the most time-consuming part of the job. When 3D printing enthusiasts learned of the problem, several devised designs for tools for folding the tape, significantly speeding up production. Others came up with jigs for pleating masks. "You started to see infrastructure being one of the things that people want," Cavalcanti says.

Just as the Face Mask Fairies have re-created the division of labor, OSMS volunteers have rediscovered economies of scale as 3D printers prove unable to meet demand. When a hospital needs hundreds of thousands of visors a month, the technology that was great for making one-off prototypes suddenly seems way too slow. "We've now seen probably 10 different groups say, 'This is dumb. We're injection molding now,'" says Cavalcanti. With machine shops largely idle, it isn't hard to get one interested in making molds to supply the local hospital, either pro bono or to bring in much-needed cash. But it does take communication.

Instead of DIY makers, then, chapter volunteers serve as ambassadors and translators. "Connecting that machine shop to that hospital and communicating needs in a way that makes sense is the job of a local organizer that understands how to both speak to the hospital and to the machine shop," says Cavalcanti. "And that's a very specific skill set."

The attractions of this work don't lie in the products themselves. They come from solving immediate, scary problems—and, equally important, from finding purpose and community while much of the world is shut down. "This endeavor has not only filled an area of need for our community but given us a productive purpose," says Michelle Gannes, one of the Face Mask Fairies. "I can't wait to meet in person some of the people on the group as we have developed a virtual camaraderie and hope we'll get to embrace each other after this is all over."