Who would have thought six months ago that an item used almost exclusively for medical personnel would become a way of life for the general public? Or that some special women with a little spare time on their hands would suddenly become overwhelmed with orders and desperate for elastic and materials?

But such is the new world people all over the continent have found themselves in. Locally, there are several women making a new name for themselves as mask-makers: Victoria Thomasson, Adell Edmonds, Annalise Fellhoelter, Jewell Bellamy, Susie Robbins, Brenda Powell and Kathy Debiec. Each of them has thrown herself into an ocean of fabric.

Thomasson says she got involved almost immediately because her daughter’s college roommate is a doctor in Connecticut and was having a hard time finding masks to use at work, and so many in the health field were having to reuse the masks they had. She didn’t know exactly what she was doing but she threw herself into the task. Then, friends and family started asking for them because no one really had them, and they couldn’t be found for purchase from a store.

She started playing with shapes and fabrics, trying to see how much light filtered through the fabric, which is an indication of how protective they are. She played with cotton and linen fabrics, different shapes and different fabrics for the straps. She was sending them off to Washington, Maryland, Texas and even Mexico. She would put one on herself and walk around outside and see how well it worked and how comfortable it was to know if she was making what could be worn easily for hours.

More recently, she has started making bridal collection masks, as her daughter is getting married this fall. These masks, in addition to being protective, also are covered with beautiful fabric and appliquéd beads and flowers.

As with many people who are making the masks, Thomasson has donated much of the money from selling the masks to charity, helping the YMCA with their food bank service during the pandemic.

Another mask maker, Adell Edmonds, is a retired Halifax County High School English teacher. Everyone knew she sewed on the side, and she created so many special garments for weddings, plays and other needs.

“I had a relative ask if I could make five masks, and my sixteen-year sewing hiatus ended,” said Edmonds.

Edmonds was given some fabric, elastic and pipe cleaners by her sisters-in-law because she had given so many of her sewing items away to a local church. Since then, she has made several hundred masks for her family. Like Thomasson, she has evolved in the way she makes them as she has learned more and experimented. She especially likes back-to-school fabrics and religious patterns. One of her favorite masks she made was for a child with his favorite NFL team’s design.

A person with a different approach to mask making is Annalise Fellhoelter, who only moved to Halifax County last year.

She said, “My mom is a nurse at UVA, so I was making masks for her back in April and May. My family and friends liked them so much they told me I needed to open my own Etsy shop so I could sell them to make a little income since I had not gotten a job yet after moving here.

“I quickly realized that I needed to make a clear mask for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, plus teachers and anyone else who wants or needs to show their smile and lips more. I am a sign language interpreter, and I know how important a clear mask is for people in the deaf or hard-of-hearing community, so I spent two full days developing a great mask. I tried eight different styles to find the best one.”

Fellhoelter’s grandmother has helped by donating fabric, and her mother has helped her to cut fabric and catch up on orders when things became overwhelming.

In the middle of all her orders, Fellhoelter’s sewing machine died, and she quickly found out how difficult it was to find another one, calling lots of places in multiple cities. Her grandmother and mother pulled out their old machines, but they weren’t in good working order either, and as she spent days trying to find one, the orders were backing up. She finally found a new one and has been spending significant time catching up.

Another busy mask maker is Jewel Bellamy, who says she went to bed one night in March and woke up the next morning with loads of messages requesting her to make them masks. A lot of friends knew she was a good seamstress, and she went to work right away, making masks for family at first to help keep them safe, and eventually the requests turned into a whole operation, in which she has now made over one thousand masks.

Bellamy said, “It was a demanding task; however, I am grateful for the support.”

As she adapted the masks she made, she found a way to insert a medical mask inside hers, so it provided a breathable filter, another layer of protection.

Bellamy’s 16-year-old daughter Aylivia has been her assistant during the process. She’s taken orders, made phone calls, sent emails, checked inventory and taken payments. In addition, she also created her own craft by making hand-sewn keychains and lanyards.

“We used this as an opportunity to teach her about entrepreneurship. It has been a real bonding experience,” said Bellamy.

An original approach was taken by another local creative spirit, Susi Robbins. After hearing of how much health care workers’ ears were hurting from wearing masks for so many hours a day, she created headbands with buttons on either side, so the elastic mask straps could fit around the head band buttons and make the whole process more comfortable.

Robbins also had a hard time finding elastic and fabric to use, and she created several different masks using different methods to try to find the best ones. She now uses cotton fabric T-shirts and T-shirt yarn for masks, ear loops and ties. She created a bubble front air space mask and another longer design that covers bearded faces.

She has made over 500 masks to date and makes about 50 per week. People have donated money for supplies and fabric as their way of contributing to the Community Mask Up Mission to save lives. She said one woman had a hard time getting her husband to wear a mask until Robbins found some Crown Royal material that she turned into a mask for him. He now wears it proudly.

Another local seamstress is Brenda Powell who started making masks as a First Baptist Church mission fundraiser. She has donated masks to doctors’ offices, Clarksville Medical Center and other places. Like the other seamstresses, she has changed her patterns and likes making masks more fitted to the shape of a person’s face. She has started doing some children’s masks also that are adjustable and have patterns that children would adore and want to wear. To date, she had made about 500 masks.

A final mask-maker in the community is Kathy Debiec, a well-known woman of sewing talents.

She said, “I decided it was a great way to use my stash of fabric that I had collected over the many years of sewing.”

After she got going, she was approached by Mattie Cowan, who was helping a sewing friend, and asked if Debiec would like some help too.

Cowan took the orders and mailed out the masks, and the two ladies did the sewing.

Debiec said, “Little did we know that elastic, fabric, bias tape, sewing machines and anything having to do with making masks would become scarce. I ordered elastic one time, and it took a month to arrive. I had to cut wider elastic into thinner strips to use. My new favorite mask to make now is the 3-D mask because it is not so close to the face, which makes breathing easier.

“I’ve made close to 3,000 masks so far and am still getting orders,” she added. “Friends have donated leggings to cut up and use, elastic, fabric and thread. People I didn’t even know donated supplies. Everyone worked together to support the cause and be a part of it. Even my husband Jim has helped and has been very patient with long days of sewing. He even pitched in and cut elastic for me when I needed it. It has been humbling.”

Robbins reminds people, “We can all help in some way. The easiest way is to wear a mask. Be a Superhero – wear a mask – save lives. Remember, the life you save may be your own.”

Her sentiments are true, and hopefully by the talents of the many mask-makers in the community, people can all survive the pandemic safe and healthy. Thanks, Mask Makers.