By Martie Thompson

In light of recent shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) due to the coronavirus pandemic, many local people have heeded the call to sew masks of all kinds at their homes. Some, like St. Johns resident Jean Rolke and Shorty Robbins, district secretary for State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, say it is the perfect activity to keep busy and be helpful during the stay at home order.

“Everybody has their part to play to help out,” Rolke said, “and this is mine.”

Doug Nunnery, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices,

Rolke said she learned to sew in home ec class in high school. Over the years, she sewed some clothes for herself and children, but recently had gotten away from it as other activities occupied her time.

“But when the information came out that volunteers were needed to sew masks, I hopped on it,” Rolke said.

She currently sews most days of the week for six to seven hours a day. Over the approximately 150 volunteer hours she has logged, she has sewn 230 masks.

Rolke said she started out sewing the cloth masks with elastics and then moved on to the ones with ties that are more comfortable to wear. She has gotten some materials donated, especially the ¼ inch elastic that has been in short supply with so many people using it to make masks. She said several neighbors who had some of the elastic tucked away with their sewing notions donated it to her and another neighbor has helped her with some of the sewing.

While Rolke still sews these types of masks, she recently became aware of an initiative by UF Health for a new design of surgical mask. She receives special material for these masks from the hospital; it is called Halyard H600 and is used to wrap sterilized surgical equipment. It can be autoclaved for sterilization and reused. Rolke said that UF is in the process of vetting and patenting this new design and while it cannot be used in place of the N95 mask yet, studies are optimistic that it might be proven even more effective. For now, Rolke is one of a group of volunteers who is making these masks from the specialized fabric and returning her finished products — 68 so far — to the hospital. 

“I’ve learned a lot about masks,” Rolke said.

Shorty Robbins also said she learned to sew in home ec class and said she has continued sewing as a hobby her whole life. Robbins lives in a tiny house and even built a sewing table in the precious little space she has.

She has been working from home, serving State House District 17 constituents. In the evenings, she looked forward to catching up on some sewing projects, but first decided to make some cloth masks for her son, who is asthmatic and lives in Orlando. Since he works for Universal Studios, she found some Harry Potter fabric in the store for his masks and some for his friends. Then, other friends of her son who worked at Walt Disney World requested masks made with Star Wars materials and she obliged. Then she sewed masks for her mom, other friends … and it just took off.

“I know that a lot of people are addressing the very real needs of hospitals for masks,” Robbins said. “I’m doing what I can for individuals in need, especially in light of the recommendation to wear face coverings when out in public. Some of the masks I have made have even been custom sized.”

Robbins is using all donated materials, since in her tiny house she didn’t have a stash of material to use — except for some coveted flamingo material, which she says she has “sacrificed” for the cause. When she began making the masks, she did some online research and found a pattern with a tutorial for a mask she felt was the most comfortable to wear. It calls for a pipe cleaner across the nose for a snug fit and hair elastics to hold the mask behind the ears. Her masks have a pocket in them for a coffee filter which provides additional protection, but Robbins is quick to point out that her masks are intended only for personal use.

As friends and friends of friends, along with members of the tiny house community requested masks, Robbins has tried to oblige. She doesn’t accept payment for her masks, but instead asks people to donate to the GoFundMe account of a fellow tiny house friend in Tennessee who has children with learning and health disabilities and has been very adversely affected by the coronavirus situation. 

“The tiny house community is all pulling together, just like our local citizens,” Robbins said. “It is a great thing to see.”

Photos courtesy Shorty Robbins
Shorty Robbins sews masks in her tiny house

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