Together for tomorrow


It’s time to sew masks

by | Apr 1, 2020

Finally, general opinion, informed by a growing number of experts and virologists, is in favour of wearing face masks. The question whether to mask or not has led to increasingly tense conversations as the number of global infections of Covid-19 continues to rise. Like everyone else, we’ve been looking for the right answer to the question. We are of the opinion that you should make, wear and, if you can, make masks for others to whom you can safely and easily distribute.

On Thursday (2 April 2020) the Western Cape Department of Health released a statement encouraging the use of masks [see bottom of this article for instructions on how to use and make a mask].  But the government urges the general population not to buy N95 respirators and/or medical masks which are needed by front-line healthcare workers, who are caring for those with Covid-19.  We need to make our own.

While WHO’s website maintains it is unnecessary for the general population to wear a mask, the South African national minister of health Zweli Mkhize says we should. “There is no question that the use of masks is one of the best ways of preventing the spread of infection. We recommend them particularly where people have any cough or any symptoms or in a situation where social distancing is a bit difficult”, said Mkhize.

Washington Post reports that “a growing number of experts — medical doctors and virologists among them — say that a homemade mask, even a bandanna, might provide protection from both transmitting and getting the coronavirus.”

The Atlantic reports homemade cloth masks are less effective than proper medical ones, but are still better than nothing. One experiment, published by the journal of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, found that “a surgical mask filtered 96 percent of viral particles from the air, a tea towel blocked 83 percent, and a cotton T-shirt blocked 69 percent. In general, thicker materials are better than thinner ones… and a tight fit across the face is important. If people use makeshift masks, they should thoroughly wash them afterward. And most of all, they should remember that homemade masks are not fully protective.”

Despite the confusion of the last few weeks, the design industry has already been on the job. Klipadenim turned its Johannesburg studio into a safe space a week ago, and has manufactured 7000 masks since. These have been sterilised, packaged and distributed by ILR Safety to a retirement home and to a police station. The Cape Town-based carbon neutral brand Ballo known for making sunglasses from upcycled cork and wood, is now making face masks from fabric waste.  It is offering to donate one mask to someone in need for every one mask purchased. The Sewing Café in Masiphumele is paying its members who would normally travel by public transport to stay at home. Those who can walk to work are making masks and have made 1000 masks for old age homes and people in need. On Monday SA Fashion Week distributed a pattern for mask making to its database of South African designers.  Big international fashion brands like Chanel, Prada, Gucci and Balenciaga have switched their operations from making luxury goods to making protective gear.  In Zimbabwe, the multidiscipline fashion house Chenesai Africa is making non-surgical masks to service the Marondera farming regions. Founder and director Noreen Chenesai Mukora-Mangoma says, “We live in a farm belt and next to us there are three other farms with a total employment of 3000 people.  We are upcycling and repurposing bed sheets and bed skirts from our homes. And, we are asking other farms to donate too”.

Here is a face mask pattern (1 inch is equal to 25.4 millimeters) to get you started.

Western Cape Government’s guidelines for using cloth masks:

A cloth mask, if appropriately used, and cleaned, can offer the following protection for residents:

  • The mask will reduce the transmission of droplets from the source (any person coughing or sneezing)
  • It will reduce inhaling a large number of droplets from others
  • Will reduce exposure in overcrowded areas such as taxis, shops of government buildings
  • Will create awareness around Covid-19
  • Inexpensive and can be produced in large under clear specifications
  • Usage guidelines applied

When could a cloth mask be used:

Cloth masks can be used by both the community and non-healthcare workers and where there is no physical contact. This includes:

  • Travel to and from work in public transport
  • When stepping outside the house to go shopping or seeking healthcare
  • In self isolation when contact with others is necessary (remember distancing)
  • When stopping and talking to members of the public (for example, traffic police)
  • When conducting interviews during house to house visits (for example, Community workers)
  • When cleaning the streets/ disposing of domestic rubbish

How to properly use a cloth mask:

The usage of any type of mask should be accompanied by strictly adhering to safe use guidelines. Wash your hands before applying and after removing a mask, never touch the cloth part, never fiddle with it whilst wearing, refrain from touching your face. Discard disposable masks. Wash cloth masks with warm soapy water and iron when dry.

It is very important that residents use a cloth mask properly. If they do not, it might result in them putting themselves at risk of spreading Covid-19. The simple guidelines to use are:

  • Only use a mask that has been cleaned & ironed
  • Place the mask with the correct side facing your nose and mouth and covering both well
  • Tie the strings behind your head, or if you are using elastic bands, make sure these are tight
  • Make sure it fits well. Move it around to get the best fit. Never touch the cloth part.
  • Once you have put on the mask, DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE again until you take it off
  • When you take it off, undo the ties, and carefully fold the mask inside out, hold it by the strings/elastic and place the mask in a container preserved for washing the cloth mask.
  • Wash hands thoroughly and dry before doing anything else

Maintaining the mask:

  • You must have at least two cloth masks per person so you will be able to wash one and have a clean one ready for use.
  • Wash the mask daily in soap and hot water (tolerated during hand wash).
  • Rinse thoroughly and dry
  • IRON THE MASK- this is the best means of disinfection!

How to make a mask:

A cloth mask can be made in any non- industrial or domestic setup, and is relatively simple to make. There are many videos on YouTube demonstrating a step by step guide on how to make a cloth mask with varying design.

The following is the Western Cape Government approved cloth mask standard:

A cloth mask typically comprises square pieces of cloth with three pleats that can cover the face from ABOVE the nose to BELOW the chin and almost up to the ears.


Two layers, an inner and outer surface of  the mask:

  • Comprising two different patterns on the cloth – if possible – to distinguish between inside and outside of the cloth mask

Outer layers:

  • Made from thick weave cotton like denim, calico or upholstery cotton fabric that can be easily washed

Inner layers:

  • Two layers of ordinary cotton typically used for linen;
  • If possible – between the two inner cotton layers – a laminate breathable layer of non- woven fabric which is washable at high temperatures – or if you don’t have that, something like a jacket lining inner.

Strings or straps which can be tied behind the head

DO NOT USE STRETCHY MATERIAL WITH A LOOSE WEAVE such as T-shirt material. These offer no protection at all.

  • Our national Coronavirus hotline number is 0800 029 999 from 8am to 4pm, Monday to Friday
  • Visit the  South African government COVID-19 service 
  • Ed’s note: we continue to update this story with new information 

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