While we’re in the throes of a global pandemic, one effective way to slow the spread of the covid-19 virus is to wear a facemask when out in public (please try to not go out in public). However, a global pandemic also means a global shortage of protective equipment like face masks. And we need to prioritize everything that’s available to front-line medical workers so they can keep us and themselves safe.
For the rest of us though, a recent Cambridge University study shows that masks made from household materials are still very effective at protecting you and others from infectious particles!
The sweet spot of protection, breathability, and availability appears to fall squarely on the workaday t-shirt. Better yet, it’s also set up for you to repurpose it with minimal effort!
So here’s our humble effort at showing you how to make a protective mask from a t-shirt and materials you have at home.
Do note, this is not our attempt to make the most artisanal craft face mask you’ve ever seen—these aren’t meant to be used over and over. THIS IS NOWHERE CLOSE TO BEING AS EFFECTIVE AS N95 MASKS, WHICH CAN FILTER OUT MUCH SMALLER PARTICLES THAN A SURGICAL MASK. It’s rather something that you can make as quickly and easily as possible from whatever materials you have laying around until our supply chains catch up and real masks are available again.
What You’ll Need
- 1 sacrificial t-shirt (a shirt that fits you will most likely make a mask that fits you)
- 1 paperclip
- Scissors (or some other way to cut fabric)
- Measure tape (or some other way to measure, I’ll convert for dollar bills)
- Needle and thread (a stapler will work in a pinch)
Step 1 – Harvesting Materials
A standard surgical mask measures about 4.5 x 7 inches (11.5 x 18cm, 0.75 x 1.1 dollar bills). Based on our data from our Great White T-Shirt Review, we can get at least that much fabric out of the sleeve of almost any t-shirt!
So first, cut a sleeve off of your t-shirt. Make sure to cut the seam off with it about a half-inch into the body of the shirt. This will stop the raw edge of your mask from unraveling and help secure the paperclip later.
Next, cut up the seam in the middle of the sleeve that runs into the armpit to turn that sleeve tube into a flat piece of fabric.
Most face masks are secured behind the ears with elastic bands. You probably don’t have those on hand, but guess what does? The collar of your t-shirt!
Cut out the collar of your shirt, again making sure you’re cutting beyond the seam to keep it from unraveling.
Step 2 – Measuring Your Mask
Now that we’ve got our materials, we need to cut them to length. Lay your sleeve piece flat on a surface so the hem of the sleeve is facing towards you and the edge you cut is facing away.
The flattened sleeve will probably be the right height but a little bit too wide. We want it to be about 7 inches (18cm or a dollar bill plus the length of your thumb to the first knuckle).
The shirt sleeve will most likely rise to a peak where it attached at the shoulder and then taper off on both sides. Trim both ends evenly so we have a 7-inch piece of fabric maintaining that peak in the center.
Then take your collar ring and snip it down the middle so you have two equal semi-circles.
What you’ve got should look like the pocket off a very big shirt and two cantaloupe rinds.
Step 3 – Assemble the Nose Bridge
Straighten out your paperclip so it matches the angle of the peak on the shirt-sleeve and place it just below the seam that connected the sleeve to the body of the shirt.
Fold that excess fabric beyond the seam over on top of the paperclip and whipstitch it in place.
Whipstitching is probably the easiest hand-stitch, just loop your thread around and around the paperclip to keep it snug. Here’s a video in case you need more help.
Now you have an adjustable piece of metal at the top of your mask that will form to the contours of your nose!
Step 4 – Attach Those Straps
It’s time to stitch on the collar/ear-straps. Place one of your collar halves on top of the mask/sleeve with an overlap of about half-inch so it looks like a funky coffee mug.
But don’t stitch it just yet! Surgical masks are gusseted to account for the curve of your nose and chin. Add those by accordion-folding the fabric on top of itself, sandwiching the collar/strap between one layer of fabric on the bottom and two layers doubled into an S-shape on the top. This will also make the stitches more secure.
Now you can stitch it in place by just running your needle and thread through that sandwich a bunch of times (10 should probably do it).
Repeat this accordion folding and stitching for the bottom half of the strap.
It might feel like it’s getting too small on the sides—it’s not! The distance from the top of your nose to your chin is a lot longer than from your ear to the edge of your jaw.
Do the exact same thing for the other side and voila—we have a mask! (Or a jockstrap/diaper looking thing, who’s to say?)
How to Use It
Wearing it is fairly self-explanatory: sling the straps around your ears, adjust the paperclip, and go about your business. Maintaining it is a different story. The coronavirus can apparently live on surfaces for up to 72 hours, so you should wash your mask frequently or have several that you rotate between. Definitely don’t share one with another person.
Otherwise, it’s just that easy to MacGyver together a face mask from a t-shirt and a paperclip! It’s better than nothing, but still don’t feel safe to be around sick people with one of these on. Again, it’s ~70% as effective as a surgical mask but marginally as effective as the N95 the pros are wearing.
So take an hour to try it out, if anything it’ll give you something else to do besides stare at a screen and you’ll have a weird souvenir from these weird times we’re living in. If you don’t have the materials to follow this guide, wearing a scarf or a bandana over your nose and mouth is more effective than nothing. But more effective than everything is just staying home.
Stay safe, stay well, and stay inside if you can!