The fashion community is taking action against COVID-19, with many designers taking the initiative to create protective masks with their equipment and supplies for those in need. In London, designers Phoebe English, Bethany Williams and Holly Fulton have teamed up to co-ordinate mask production, and now are working to create the Emergency Designers Network to connect people who can support the making of urgently needed PPE (personal protective equipment) items in the UK. As part of this initiative, designer Patrick McDowell has been working with English, Fulton and Williams and has created a simple yet informative tutorial on how people can make their own protective masks at home, even if they have little or no experience in sewing: a guide that gives everyone the opportunity and knowledge to be helpful during this pandemic.
Here, McDowell expands on the process of making and distributing the masks, as well as how the fashion industry is shifting from a creative field to a life-saving industry, highlighting the essence of community.
Christina Kapourtzoudi: How did you come to start making masks?
Patrick McDowell: Initially, there was a call with lots of people from the fashion industry talking about consolidating all the assets and efforts people have done and are doing in terms of producing protective clothing, and we discussed the need for masks for non-healthcare key workers to free up the surgical masks for people in the NHS. So, the idea was that if designers all came together and made as many as we could each week, we could get those out to people that are still having to go to work, like care workers or shop workers. That's something Phoebe English, Holly Fulton and Bethany Williams started as an initiative for small designers to be able to come together, help and unite for this cause, because the government isn't doing enough to centralise these efforts.
CK: In your video, you show us that bedsheets can be used to make masks. What other materials can be used?
PM: You can use quite a lot of different materials, as long as you wash them at 90°C beforehand. You can use t-shirts, or old shirts that have densely woven fabric, which is preferred so you are still able to breathe through it. But the key property of the fabric you use is that it is be able to support the kitchen paper or bag filter afterwards cause that’s the protective material.
CK: How are you distributing the masks you've produced?
PM: I distribute them in my local community, in stores that have to stay open. The important thing is to also provide the information that masks need to be washed every four hours at 90°C (or boiled in some water), and that the filter needs to be changed every four hours as well. If you're going to get them to your local store, and there's five people that work there, you're probably going to want to bring them 15 masks, so they can swap them throughout the day and then wash them at night. It's just things like that to bear in mind: health care is really important. There was a Cambridge University study that showed that these masks are only 50% effective, but obviously that's better than not having one at all.
CK: You've spoken publicly about self-isolation, working from home and creating masks for those in need. What feedback have you received from people, both within and outside of the fashion community?
PM: People seem happy to have a simple to follow and easy to do tutorial that allows one to actively engage in helping, which is one thing the fashion industry–especially designers–aren’t further communicating to the public very directly and easily. I have always thought that active engagement was something that I was good at, so I hope this tutorial of making masks, where equipment and materials are hardly required, is helpful. Phoebe English, Bethany Williams, Holly Fulton and I are working on creating a list of places that need protective masks, since the government hasn't implemented a central scheme for it yet.
CK: Other than creating protective masks, how else can the fashion industry contribute?
PM: There are great initiatives taking place. Burberry’s factory in Castleford has been retooled to make non-surgical gowns and masks for patients to support those hit by the pandemic, and the company will supply surgical masks to NHS staff as well. I know there is a whole community of large suppliers across the UK that have also been doing the same, for example the costume designer Caroline McCall has switched her studio to creating supplies for the NHS. There are a lot of people we may not have heard about taking action as well. What I would like to highlight is the importance of mental health and looking after your own well-being. Anything extra people can do to support is incredibly appreciated, but I'm aware that, for a lot of people, this crisis is an incredibly difficult thing to go through. Looking after yourself is the primary focus at the moment, because you're not going to be able to help anybody else if you don’t take care of yourself first.
CK: How can the government help designers and creatives who want to voluntarily create masks or scrubs?
PM: What could potentially make it easier is to be able to transport fabrics from places to people that can make them. It’s not necessarily about not having enough supplies, we also need to be able to physically move them around the country in time. The government could definitely help with infrastructure support to be able to get the right materials to the right people. Rolls Royce and BMW have mobilised their entire fleet of cars to help good causes locally, which is very helpful for transporting supplies across the country.
CK: We see fashion shifting from a creative industry to a more practical one, playing a vital role in saving people’s lives. How do you feel about that and what do you think may change in the fashion industry in the future?
PM: Our role as designers is to redesign systems and to design positive ways to create new things that on this planet. Designers, for a long time, have been lazy, creating things they just like the look of, and they've not thought about the impact they have on people and the planet. Hopefully, this is the wake up call that we needed to be able to rethink our roles. The fashion industry can really contribute to its community.