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Bates students make masks for workers

A team of seven in the Bates costume shop has made hundreds of cloth face masks for Bates employees and resident students. From left, Wenjing Zheng ’21, Nicole Kumbula ’21, Jade Zhang ’21, Christine McDowell, Gabi Gucagaite ’21, Zhao Li ’21, and Aidan McDowell, assistant technical director. (Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College).

At first glance, it would seem there’s not much to do in the Bates costume shop. Spring theater performances that require tailor-made outfits have been canceled, as has the Bates Dance Festival. But the space is still there, as is equipment like sewing machines and an industrial iron, plus a lot of surplus fabric.

Associate Professor of Theater Christine McDowell, Assistant Technical Director Aidan McDowell, and five rising seniors who are still living on campus decided to put those resources to use by sewing hundreds of cloth face coverings for Bates employees’ use.

“This is one of the few times in life where a practical skill that, not only do we have in our wheelhouse, but that I really advocate as part of the Bates experience, could come to the forefront,” Chris McDowell says.

The students and employees in the costume shop, who are being paid for their work, are among a few groups and individuals who are making protective equipment for employees on campus, says Director of Environmental Health and Safety Jessica Smith.

The masks are made in accordance with Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Cloth face coverings are recommended for use in public settings where social distancing isn’t possible to reduce the spread of coronavirus, while the CDC says medical-grade masks and respirators should be saved for healthcare workers.

In addition to the costume shop team, Lysanne Doucette of College Advancement and retiree Shirley Govindasamy are also hand-making masks for their fellow employees, while Assistant Professor of Biology Andrew Mountcastle, in addition to 3D-printing protective face shields for healthcare workers, is coordinating a team making “ear savers,” devices to hook elastic bands together behind the head instead of one’s ears. Still more faculty and staff are making masks for themselves and the wider Lewiston community.

Smith, who is distributing the masks and helping to coordinate production, has already shared 432 masks from campus sources and more from a local industrial supplier. The masks are primarily going to staff who still need to work on campus, particularly security, Post and Print, limited numbers of dining and facilities staff, and – until the campus steam plant was shut down this month for the summer – boiler operators.

Smith says she currently has enough face coverings for any employee who asks for one, and she hopes to have hundreds of masks at the ready when more employees – and, eventually, students – return to campus. That’s thanks in large part to the supply of handmade masks, which are of particularly high quality.

“They’re so well-made,” Smith says. “The fabrics are beautiful, the stitching is tight, and they have multiple layers of good fabric. We have options to fit the various sizes and shapes of people’s heads. As I hand them out, people are happy to receive them and appreciate how well they’re made.”

It’s a true assembly line at Schaeffer. Depending on the type of mask, there are 12 to 15 steps of outlining and cutting fabric; stitching together layers of fabric, elastic, and wire; ironing; quality control; and, in recent weeks, putting together more “ear savers.”

The fabric comes from the costume shop’s stash as well as a supply donated by Chris McDowell’s mother, an avid quilter. The masks have two layers of fabric, each side with a different pattern so the wearers can keep track of which side is against their face.

Because employees’ preferences differ, the group is making both double-sided shaped masks – made to fit tightly over the bridge of the nose – and pleated masks, each coming with an instruction sheet on how to wear and wash them.

“We’ve been getting a lot of feedback from the people we’ve been giving them to about what they prefer and what they need, so we’ve been able to tailor some of the requests,” Chris McDowell says.

Some of the student mask-makers already have experience with sewing or working with fabrics. Jade Zhang ’21 of Hefei, China, is a theater major concentrating on costume design, with Chris McDowell serving as her thesis advisor. It was Zhang who recruited most of the other four student mask makers.

Nicole Kumbula ’21 of Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, also has some experience around textiles — she would sometimes accompany her mother to Singmark, a small clothing factory where her mother works in retail, and help her do small tasks, such as folding fabrics and buying buttons.

So, the first day Kumbula came to the costume shop to make masks, “there was sort of a nostalgia for me, and I decided I would like to stay and learn to do each and every single part,” she says. “It reminds me of my mom and everybody at home.”

At the same time, she and her mask-making colleagues are learning new skills, particularly related to the (relative) mass production of items. “I’m a chemistry major, so precision and measurements are on my mind all the time,” Kumbula says. “It’s been nice to apply that side of my brain to this place as well.”

Beyond learning new skills and providing a critical service for the campus, the students’ new job provides a sense of structure and purpose during a stressful time.

“It’s nice to have a dedicated time when you come in and just do something with your hands,” says Gabi Gucagaite ’21 of Kaunas, Lithuania.

“It’s a creative process that can also relieve pressure you get from quarantine,” adds Wenjing Zheng ’21 of Wuhan, China.

The students also have the regular chance to see each other in person — not a guarantee elsewhere, given social distancing rules. (The seven mask-makers are only coming into contact with each other and in the case of the students, their roommates, if they have them, McDowell says.)

It’s been a bonding experience, particularly for the five students. “We just get to know each other so much better and in unexpected ways” in the costume shop, says Jade Zhang. “We’re making something good out of the pandemic.”

And, being on campus, they get to see the fruits of their labors.

“We definitely have seen staff wearing the masks that we make here,” says Zhao Li ’21 of Guangzhou, China. “You feel like you’re a part of something.”

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