In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and faculty in VCU’s department of fashion design and merchandising coordinated a system to sew masks for VCU Health workers. The materials were provided by VCU Health Systems. Photo courtesy of Patricia Brown
Ebonique Little, Contributing Writer
The doors of the Pollak Building, where VCU fashion design and merchandising students spend their college career, are locked. The lights are off. Studios and computer software are inaccessible.
VCU’s shift to virtual learning during the spring semester meant that design students could not use necessary equipment once provided to them by the fashion department.
“I miss seeing the shining faces … or even stressed faces,” said Patrica Brown, chair and associate professor in the fashion design and merchandising department.
Brown, much like the students, did not know what to do without access to Pollak, but said she wanted to help with pandemic efforts and connect with her students.
Responding to the needs of health care workers, Brown partnered with P. Muzi Branch, the director of cultural programs for VCU Health Systems. They created a network of those willing to make N95 mask coverings with materials supplied by the hospital.
“I think everybody wants to help [medical workers,] and we’re all kind of like, ‘what can we do?’” Brown said. “So this is
Sophomore fashion design major India Cloe was one of the students who immediately responded to help with creating masks. Photo courtesy of India Cloe
something we can do that is helpful and makes us feel like we’re not just, you know, going along, and I don’t know, it just feels useful.”
Brown said she sent a department-wide email to coordinate with owners of sewing machines and printers who were able to help, when fashion design major India Cloe said she immediately responded.
“It’s a good way to get involved and know you’re doing something to help,” Cloe said. “Even if it’s only making a few of them, at least you can say you had a hand in making them.”
Two students and seven faculty members have plugged in their at-home sewing machines to make protective masks for health care workers at the VCU Medical Center. Since March 26, they have made about 100 masks per week, according to Brown.
For Cloe, the entire process of making one mask takes about 30 minutes. The template used for the shape of the mask, which must meet medical standards, is printed and used to create the base layer. After four layers of fabric are cut and organized, the base is pinned to it. The fabric is sewn together along the edges, allowing enough space for elastic ties.
The masks can be worn on their own or over N95 masks for extra protection against airborne particles, such as those that could spread the coronavirus. This, along with their ability to be laundered, makes them safer, Brown said.
According to an article by VCU university relations, this team of volunteers has helped to bolster the hospital’s supply of
Junior fashion design major Julia Kong sits with her sewing machine, materials and guidelines, which are needed in order to create the masks. Photo courtesy of Julia Kong
personal protective equipment, or PPE, in the event they have trouble accessing it in the future.
When the mask production initiative began, VCU Health intended to use its current supply of PPE first. Now, the student-made masks are required while in the hospital, Branch said.
“The hospital has been issuing the cloth masks to nurses and team members with non-patient care duties… environmental
service, safety officers, patient access representatives, food service, social workers, administrative assistants and pathologists,” Branch wrote in an email.
Unlike some of her peers, fashion design student Julia Kong has access to a sewing machine, which has allowed her to extend
help beyond the VCU Medical Center. Her hand-sewn masks also went to local Starbucks workers, family members and friends.
“I wanted to have something other than just schoolwork,” Kong said, “so I wanted to help out with sewing masks and stuff to make it feel like I was helping out with the pandemic.”
Kong, who is a junior, said the shift to online classes was difficult for her printmaking class when she no longer had access to studio space and materials. The Schools of the Arts sent students a kit of materials, but Kong said it’s “definitely not the same.”
Between receiving news updates regarding the coronavirus and adjusting to online instruction, Kong and Cloe both said that the best way to navigate their stress is by sewing masks.
“I just wanted to do something because I felt like I’d be more in control of my stress if I had a hand in helping,” Cloe said. “I had a lot of extra free time and thought, ‘why not?’”