Spotlight: U.S. professional costumers turn to mask making amid COVID-19 pandemic

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by Julia Pierrepont III

LOS ANGELES, April 12 (Xinhua) -- As the coronavirus sweeps through the United States and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has finally instructed all American to wear masks in public, a severe shortage of factory-made surgical masks has arisen.

In a touching "wartime" call-to-arms in the battle against COVID-19, ordinary American citizens are stepping up by the thousands to create handmade masks for frontline workers, loved ones and others. Costume designers, wardrobe workers, nursing groups, quilters, and a host of ordinary needle-wielding citizens are joining this new crusade.

"This virus is big, so we need to make BIG efforts, sweeping efforts, to do all we can and more," Gail Baldoni, costume design instructor at the Dance Department of State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase and costumer for pop icon Barry Manilow, told Xinhua.

Baldoni and many others like her have become unexpected heroes in the fight against COVID-19. Instead of spending their days glamming up Hollywood stars or designing dresses to die for, costumers are using their formidable sewing skills on real life and death matters - to help turn the tide on the coronavirus crisis by making general purpose masks to curb its spread.

Nickolaus Brown, president of the Motion Picture Costumers Local 705, was alerted by his sister, a nurse in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to the desperate shortage of masks for healthcare personnel, reported the Los Angeles Times. His sister's husband had been exposed to the virus working as a radiologist in their local hospital.

Without missing a stitch, Brown went from sewing costumes for Dwayne Johnson in Netflix's new action pic, "Red Notice," to recruiting 250 wardrobe workers to stitch up medical masks by the thousands, the newspaper reported.

Brown's group has been working with University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to create a medical-grade prototype that their sewing teams can make in volume quickly.

"IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) has been functioning as a true partner to UCLA Health during our crisis response efforts," said Becky Mancuso-Winding, executive director of Strategic Community and Business Relations at UCLA Health.

Matthew Neff, a full-time stitcher for West Side Story on Broadway, told Xinhua he sat alone in his apartment in quarantine listening to the eerie howl of ambulances carrying coronavirus victims day and night. His brother, a former Marine who used masks in Afghanistan, asked him to make masks for him and his colleagues.

With specs from their sister, a nurse, Neff started sewing cool-looking neoprene masks and posted them online on neffnyc, his Instagram feed. Suddenly orders started pouring in.

"As time went on it became frightening real that I was not going to be able to build all of them fast enough as more orders were coming in," Neff told Xinhua.

In less than a week, he was able to employ other furloughed friends to help fill the mounting orders and ship them all over the world. "I always knew NYC was a cool place but it's really been surreal to feel like I've impacted so many people while being alone (in isolation)," Neff shared with Xinhua.

Until the lockdown, Jeannie Naughton, a member of the Theatrical Wardrobe Union Local 764 in NYC, had been dressing famed headliner Patti LuPone on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim's new musical "Company."

When the Great White Way shuttered, she found herself out of work like all of her colleagues, and living in Teaneck, the epicenter of the virus in New Jersey. She saw a friend's post on Facebook calling for masks for local hospitals.

"I was compelled to break out my sewing machine and do what I could to help. I am grateful for the purpose," Naughton told Xinhua.

Her group, Bergen Mask Task Force, also developed mask patterns with nurses and posted them on their Facebook page.

Los Angeles-based fashion designer Lauren Oppelt launched Mask Crusaders which quickly grew to 100 members, including many from Costumers Designers Union Local 892, reported the Los Angeles Times.

At the Costume Designers Guild in Burbank, California, other guildmembers are sewing up a storm and also handing out mask kits to anyone else who is willing to make masks at home. Urban Resource Institute in The Bronx borough is also coordinating mask-making kits in New York City.

But this nationwide frenzy of mask-making goes far beyond wardrobe professionals.

Moms, Pops, nurses, professors, quilters, crafters - in fact, people from all walks of life and all across the United States are heeding the cry for masks and are selflessly jumping in to help.

Baldoni told Xinhua they can't get elastic anymore to make masks, so they are using cloth ties and finding what materials to use to make the metal clasps on the nose piece.

"Wire hangers are too hard, so are aluminum pan strips. Twist ties from bread bags aren't bad, but those fuzzy pipe cleaners you use to clean out tobacco pipes are the best," she noted. Others told Xinhua that floral wire and green plastic and wire garden ties also work well and that plain paper towels are effective filters when inserted between two sheets of fabric.

"My friends and I were out of work and needed a united purpose," said Baldoni with conviction. "We must beat this together."

Her friend and colleague, Vera Stromsted, a professional NYC hair and make-up artist who supports their efforts, concurs. She told Xinhua, "Our Humanity - that is the thing that will pull us through." Enditem

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