Making Masks with My Family

By Yu-fang Chien (簡玉芳)
Abridged and translated by Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)
Syharn Shen (沈思含)

Making Masks with My Family

By Yu-fang Chien (簡玉芳)
Abridged and translated by
Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)
Syharn Shen (沈思含)

Making cloth face masks was not as easy as I thought, but luckily I had my family to back me up. This is the story of how I turned my home into a makeshift factory to sew masks for people in need of protection amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Started from scratch, Yu-fang Chien inspired her family to help make masks for those in need of protection. (Photo provided by Tzu Chi's office in Hamburg)

Since the beginning of March, Tzu Chi volunteers in Europe started online sharing and prayer sessions every night. I joined in at around mid-March, and everyone was talking about the scarcity and the steep price of face masks in Europe. According to the news, people have to queue for long hours to buy a face mask, and I was distressed to find out that once they were done with it, they littered the masks everywhere, which not only polluted the environment but would even help spread the virus.

Although not as good as surgical masks, I have learned that cloth face masks can effectively reduce the spread of respiratory droplets and be washed for multiple uses, making them an environmentally friendly option. After watching some tutorials online, it did not seem all that difficult to make them, so I announced during one of the sharing sessions that I would start making cloth face masks.

My daughter used to love needlework, so we have a sewing machine and a variety of fabrics at home. I spent a full day studying the tutorial uploaded by a Tzu Chi staff in Hualien, Taiwan and had my machine and fabrics all prepared and ready to go. It was only after switching on the sewing machine that I realized I had no idea how to thread it or wind the bobbin. I had to go back to the Internet to research on how to operate the machine, and amid all the watching and learning and sewing, I soon got all confused.

Previously, I could only sew on a button. The tutorial from the Tzu Chi staff was too professional and elaborated for me. For an entire night, I plowed away at the task and even dreamt about it after I went to bed. The following day, the thought of giving up crept into my head, but thinking that these masks can help many people kept me going.

Having said that, I broke the machine, so I had to go online again to find a hand-sewn version that was easy enough to make. After six long hours, I finally completed my first cloth face mask! I was very happy with my work, and I felt it was a testament to Dharma Master Cheng Yen's words: "Don't underestimate yourself, as everyone has unlimited potential."

For Free or For Sale
On my third day of mask-making, my daughter moved back home and after learning about my little project, she was really proud of my work and praised me on my sewing. In contrast, my husband and son had been teasing at my efforts for the past few days. My son literally laughed out loud when I said I wanted to make masks to give to others, saying that my masks would cause more problems than be of help. He told me to just stay home so there would be no need for masks. My daughter, though, was very supportive and gladly offered her assistance, and we finished 12 masks in just a few hours.

To give selflessly is not easy, and Chien was glad that she could share with her daughter the genuine joy of giving.

That night, she was video chatting with her friends, and after seeing our homemade masks, they encouraged her to make a profit out of them. The next day, when she saw me giving away these masks to the neighbors for free, she got rather bummed out, saying that her friends thought I was stupid and that she would like me to stop. That afternoon, I was very troubled as I pondered how to explain my intentions to her.

Before, we sang and chatted happily while making the masks, but now we barely talked. That night, she went to her boyfriend's house and brought some masks with her to give him and his family. When she returned, I asked carefully whether she gave the masks for free or sold them. She replied that she gave them the masks for free. I asked her why, and she replied, "Because I know them, and I want to protect them!"

I told her I was very happy to know that she wanted to protect her boyfriend and his family, and that was my intention as well. "I give away masks to my neighbors and friends because I want to protect them, and I gladly do so. Also, our handmade masks are not as pretty as those professionally-made ones, so I'm already thankful that they are willing to wear our masks!"

"But, you even want to give these out to strangers!" my daughter said.

I further explained to her that I wanted to give the masks to our town folks because we live in the same district, and not knowing them now did not mean we would not know them in the future. In times of need, better is a neighbor than a faraway relative, I told her.

Then I asked her, "Remember our first day making masks together? We had a good time, and you even called me a kind person. But after you wanted to sell them, did we still sing songs happily? In your eyes, I'm no longer a kind person, but a fool." My daughter was quiet. She thought for a bit, and said she got it now.

The next day, we made masks while singing merrily again. We produced more than 40 masks in a few days' work, and a German friend even wanted to bring some cloths for us to turn them into masks. We were happy to help, for it was heartening to know that people finally realized the importance of wearing masks.

Spreading the Love
Ever since the German government imposed a partial lockdown, my daughter and I stayed at home and made masks whenever we had time. One day, I announced my free masks giveaway on our local community website, and I received a message from a Mr. Thomas, asking if he could buy cloth masks from us. He told me on the phone that he was a caregiver in a mental institution, and was told that they had to source for their own masks. I was shocked and saddened to learn that even a need as simple as a basic face mask for a caregiver could not be met in this developed country.

Every member of Chien's family is an essential worker in their mask-making "business." Completed masks were given to neighbors and elders living in a nearby seniors' home.

The institution had around 60 to 70 caregivers, so if they had two masks each to wash and change, we would need a total of 120 to 140 masks. I thought it was time to round up some extra hands, so I sent out a call for help online to a women's association in Hamburg, and soon received some enthusiastic responses.

Two women replied that they could make 20 masks. Another one did not have fabrics at home, but ordered some online specifically for the task of making ten masks. There was a pianist who also volunteered to take up sewing in these dire times to make ten masks. Even a friend I had not met in a long while used her daughter's blanket to make five masks. Seeing their replies really moved me to tears, and I was very grateful for their generosity and kindness.

Mr. Thomas contacted me again two days later, saying that someone had provided him with some cloth masks, so we no longer had to rush his order. I quickly relayed the message to my fellow sisters, so they could take a breather and relax with their family during the weekend.

As for my husband, whom I have neglected for days, he saw me worrying about Mr. Thomas's order and simply said, "I know my job tomorrow is to cut the cloth to size, right?"

During daytime, our house was like a domestic factory producing cloth face masks, and my son even joined in voluntarily to cut the elastic bands for the ear straps. The four of us gathered together in the living room, chatting and laughing as we spent time making masks. Nonetheless, my family kept asking me how many more we had to make, to which I replied, "I have no idea either! We give away masks, and people give us cloths, which mean that they want us to keep making masks to help even more people!" Yet, to be honest, my back has been aching like hell from all the mask-making….

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