How to Make a Washable, Surgical-Type Mask Cover With Multi-Sized Patterns
The US and much of the world faces a profound shortage of protective gear for healthcare workers. Surgical masks are a necessity for people helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The surgeon general has requested that the general public not use surgical masks and respirators that are needed by medical workers. Masks are important both for protecting caregivers at home and for use by people self-isolating with less severe cases of COVID-19, however, so they do not spread the virus further. They are also needed by people doing essential work keeping services available. Because people can have the coronavirus and be asymptomatic, it is also helpful for anyone in public to wear some sort of face covering.
Some medical facilities have already run out of personal protective equipment and are reusing disposable masks and making makeshift masks from bandanas and scarves. Research has found that using masks in an influenza pandemic cuts down on the transmission of infection. (1)
CDC Recommends Everyone Wear Masks in Public
The CDC recommends that everyone wears a mask while interacting with people not in your household. This does not reduce the need for social distancing, but it will help people with asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 to not inadvertently spread contagious droplets to others. It also will stop some contagious droplets in the air from contacting people who do not have COVID-19.
Please note that homemade masks are not going to stop as many particles as medical-grade masks. There is a severely limited supply of medical masks for medical personnel right now, so any masks that can reduce infection in the general public without the use of medical masks are important. Any chance to reduce infections is better than none. You can help flatten the curve by wearing a mask. Note: The CDC does not recommend masks for children two or under.
This article will show you how to make your own mask—either by hand sewing or with a sewing machine—to help cut down on the rate of infections across the country.
What Materials Are Best for Homemade Masks?
While N95 masks do better at catching viruses than surgical masks, and surgical masks do more than homemade cloth masks, any type of protection is better than none. (2)
Researchers have found some materials used for cloth masks protect you from more particles than others, but some of the most protective materials are very hard to breathe through for any length of time. The best filter material was a piece cut from a HEPA vacuum bag, but it was quite hard to breathe through, so people were not as likely to be compliant. It was difficult to use for anyone with respiratory problems. Since using the mask continuously while you need protection is imperative, a number of materials were tested both for effectiveness and ease of use breathing. (3)
Cloth masks made from cotton jersey (T-shirt material) or pillowcase material (think quilting cotton) may only protect a third as well as commercial surgical masks.
Masks both help you to not breathe in virus particles in the air, and, if you are sick, prevent you from spreading the virus. Since some 25% of people who are infected with the coronavirus have few if any symptoms, wearing a mask whenever you are in public keeps you from spreading the virus even if you don't realize you are sick.
These Masks Can Be Used By You or Loved Ones, or Donated to Medical Professionals
This tutorial shows how to make cloth surgical-type masks that can be washed and reused. Whether you want masks for yourself, for a sick loved one, or to donate to healthcare givers as a stopgap measure until medical surgical masks are available again, these patterns can help.
Some of the patterns are sized to make a case to cover a protective mask, so it is safer to reuse it when necessary.
I wasn't sure what to use as a metal nose clip that would not rust, so I tried to make a mask that didn't need to have a nose clip.
After trial and error, I found that cutting out and then sewing together a V of fabric at the top and bottom of the mask pieces and then adding a dart on either side of the nose area made the mask fit more closely around the nose and under the chin.
Adding a Layer of Pantyhose Material Can Improve Effectiveness
Researchers looking to improve filtering while using homemade masks found that using an 8"–10" wide band cut from pantyhose over your homemade mask improved the filtering significantly. The stretchy material hugged the mask closer to the face, so that air was moving in and out through the mask rather than around the edges of the mask. (4)
Supplies Needed to Make Reusable Masks
Most of the supplies you need to make masks may already be in your house if you are interested in sewing crafts. If you are new to sewing, the supplies are easy to get. You can make masks by hand-sewing if you do not have access to a sewing machine.
- Cotton fabric. Cotton fabric with a tight weave is best, but you can use T-shirt material, pillow case material, or dish towel fabric. Just be sure to use new fabric. (3) I think quilt fabric is an excellent choice, and it gives you a wide range of colors and patterns. If you are a quilter, this is a great reason to dig into your stash. You can also use cotton flannel for the inside of the mask.
- Elastic for straps. Round elastic or 1/4 to 1/2 flat works well. (Cut 1/2 inch elastic down the center to 1/4 inch. If you cannot get elastic, you can use grosgrain ribbon, bias tape, or a folded and sewn strip of the fabric you are using to make your mask. I've read about people using hair elastics as well.)
- Flannel, fleece, polyester quilt batting, filter material or a preformed mask for the center layer of the mask.
- Sewing machine or needle and thread for hand sewing.
- Scissors and pins
- An iron is useful but not essential.
- Ziploc bags for each finished mask.
Use a different pattern or color for the front and back of the mask. This lets you be sure which side of the mask may have been contaminated once you have worn it.
Wash your fabric before sewing your mask. Since you are making it to be washable and reusable, you don't want the fabric to shrink and change the size of the mask after you first wear it.
Patterns for PrintingClick thumbnail to view full-size
Downloadable Patterns and Double Checking Measurements
Above and below are patterns you can download and print.
Since not everyone has access to a printer, I also am providing patterns photographed on my cutting mat. The grid is half inch, and the pattern is butted up to the inch measurements around the corner of the mat. (Note that the patterns on the grid start at the one inch mark.)
This allows you to sketch a pattern onto heavy paper, cardstock, cardboard, or any other sturdy material you can trace around.
You can use the set of patterns shown on a grid, which show a ruler on the bottom and left side of the cutting mat, to double check the patterns you download and print to make sure the cutting size is correct as printed.
Patterns for Different-Sized Masks Shown Against a Measured GridClick thumbnail to view full-size
Be Safe While Constructing the Mask
Before you begin working on the masks, make sure your hands are recently washed. If you can, use a fresh pair of gloves. If you are working on a mask for anyone but yourself, wear a mask while you make masks. Your first mask will be great for this purpose, and the masks you make after your first try will look better now that you know the procedure.
Don't worry too much about the looks of your first one, as long as the mask fits and covers your nose, mouth and chin—as it will protect you as well as more polished ones. Remember, any mask is better than nothing.
Wear a Mask While Making Them for Others
Before you begin working on the masks, make sure your hands are recently washed. If you can, use a fresh pair of gloves. If you are working on a mask for anyone but yourself, wear a mask while you make more of them.
Position the Pattern on the Fabric
Fold your fabric so it is doubled. Lay the side of the pattern so the horizontal line with a bent arrow at each end is right along the fold (a standard symbol for placement on a fold). There should be about a half inch of material above the pattern.
Cutting the Pattern Out
If your fabric is folded or wrinkled after washing, iron it out if you can. Taking it out of the drier immediately will keep it from wrinkling. If you have washed your fabric by hand, hang it or spread it flat on a towel to dry smoothly.
Cut the fabric out using the pattern as a guide. If you cut the fabric without pinning it to the pattern, there will be fewer holes in the mask. If you need pins, try to insert them into the front and back mask pieces in different spots.
I found outlining the pattern onto the fabric with a sharpie or finepoint pen helped me cut accurately.
Sew the darts on the pieces first. Don't trim the dart after sewing it. Since everyone's face is different, if you are making a mask for a specific person, you may find that the dart should be wider or longer after it is tried on. Go ahead and adjust it as needed. Mark that pattern piece with the person's name and the change.
Next, sew up the V at the center top and bottom of the mask. The pattern includes a 1/4-inch seam allowance on all seams except the dart. Repeat this on the other mask piece.
Constructing the Mask With a Filter Layer Inside
- Sew the darts and V cuts on both mask pieces, and the filter material piece if you are using one. The filter piece is cut and sewn to fit the mask pieces if you use a filter layer.
- Put the front and back together with the sewn seams showing on the outside. Lay the filter piece on top of the back piece.
- Line the seam lines up in the center, and sew the top from the center to one edge, and then the center to the other edge.
- Repeat on the bottom of the mask. Sew up one side of the mask starting a half inch down from the top, and stopping a half inch from the bottom. Turn the mask right side out through the unsewn side.
Scissors, Dowels, or Chopsticks Can Be Useful for Squaring Up Corners
I use the tip of my scissors or a thin dowel or chopstick to make sure the corners are squared up and pushed out right to the seam line. You should be able to push the chopstick or scissors point through the side of the mask where you didn't sew right to the edge. This is where you will insert the elastic.
Constructing the Fabric Mask as a Cover to a Regular Mask
- Find the pattern pieces marked to fit an N95 or pollen/dust mask inside. Sew the darts and the V seams as directed above.
- When you have the front and back of the mask pieces sewn, put right sides together and sew the top seam from the center to the edge, matching the center seam and the dart on each piece.
- Open the mask and turn it so the wrong side is up. Narrowly turn or roll over the left edge twice, to cover the cut edge. Pin it and sew it down.
- The completed seam should show the right side of the fabric and be about 1/4" wide. This seam goes all the way down the length of the top and bottom side, over where the front and back are sewn together.
- Fold the right sides back together.
- Sew the bottom seam, from center to each edge.
- Sew down the side seam starting a half inch from the top and ending a half inch before the bottom that you did not turn under.
- Turn the mask inside out, and poke a chopstick or your scissor tips into the corners so the corners are square. Your mask now has an opening with a finished edge where a mask can be slid inside.
Inserting the Premade Mask Into the Cover
- To slide a mask in, gently fold the mask in half, with the front on the outside.
- Once it is in the middle of the mask cover, open it up. Push the top of the mask against the peak of the nose, and fit the mask into the middle curve.
- There are generally metal strips in a premade mask, and the wearer of the mask should shape the metal to lightly clamp their nose. Leave the elastic attached to the premade mask, as it allows you to pull the mask out to wash the cover.
Step-by-Step Photos of Constructing the MaskClick thumbnail to view full-size
Closing Up and Finishing the Mask
- If there is a filter layer in the mask, you can sew up the open side now. Fold the cut edge of the fabric into the opening and top stitch the last side closed, starting a half inch down from the top edge, and stopping a half inch from the bottom.
- Take a piece of 1/4" elastic and slip the end about a half inch inside the top opening you left on the side.
- Stitch the elastic to the mask by top stitching shut the opening. Back stitch a couple times if you are using a machine. By hand, take several stitches through the mask and elastic, and tie a firm knot before you cut the thread.
- Repeat at the bottom corner on that side.
- If you know the right length for the elastic straps, stretch the top elastic out, slide a half inch in the top opening on the other side, and then topstitch it to the other corner.
- Repeat for the other end of the bottom strap.
- When you're finished, slip the mask into a Ziploc bag and seal it.
Most people will find the lower strap should be shorter than the upper strap. You want the elastic to fit snugly, under some tension, so the mask will not slip.
If you don't know the correct length of the elastic, use safety pins to attach the mask to the opposite corner, and follow the directions in the following "Fitting the Elastic" section.
If You Don't Know the Correct Length of Elastic, Use Safety Pins
If you're donating a mask to someone else and don't know the correct length of the elastic, you can use safety pins to attach the mask to the opposite corner. What I ended up doing was inserting and topstitching two strips of elastic to one side of a mask, and attaching the other sides with a safety pin. I then put the mask in a Ziploc bag and passed it on.
Fitting the Elastic
Most of the first masks I made were for family members, and fitting the elastic was not too much of a problem. However, I started being asked to make masks for friends of family, and I really didn't know how much elastic would let the mask fit tightly. I generally use a 10" strip of elastic for each strap.
What I ended up doing was inserting and topstitching two strips of elastic to one side of a mask, and attaching the other sides with a safety pin. I put the mask in a Ziploc bag and passed it on.
Attaching the other end of the elastic to provide a custom fit takes as about as much sewing skill as resewing a button. If that is not possible, they can fit the elastic correctly, and fasten it with the original safety pin. (I encourage you to use a sturdy safety pin, as the tiny ones are not adequate.)
How to Attach the Elastic If the Cloth Mask Is to Be Used as a Cover
If you are leaving one end of the mask open to slide in a regular mask, push the elastic inside the opening firmly against the top and bottom seams. Pin them in place with a sturdy safety pin. Stitch them in place when you know the correct length of the elastic.
I sew lengthwise down the elastic for about a half inch, back stitching it a couple times. By hand, go over the stitching at least twice and knot your thread firmly.
Some Additional Tips and Reminders
- Remember to wear a mask while sewing masks. Always wash your hands before starting to cut or sew masks. Wear clean gloves if you can. Masks for medical workers should be made in as clean conditions as you can manage. If you drop the mask or otherwise are afraid it may have been contaminated, wash it before you give it to anyone.
- I slip each mask I make into a Ziploc bag to keep it clean. I found quart bags are a better size than sandwich bags.
- Wash your fabric before sewing your mask. Since you are making it to be washable and reusable, you don't want the fabric to shrink and change the size of the mask after you first wear it.
- Use a different pattern or color for the front and back of the mask. This lets you be sure which side of the mask may have been contaminated once you have worn it.
- If you cut elastic down the center to get two 1/4" wide pieces, stretch the cut pieces. Pull off the little whiskers.
- If you are hand sewing the mask, be sure you take small stitches and tie down or knot the ends of the threads. Double stitch the elastic to the corners, and tug on it to make sure it is firmly attached. Since the mask will be washed and reused, you want to be sure your stitching will not unravel with use.
- Be sure to wash your mask with soap and water at least daily. This is essential to keep from infecting yourself from your own mask. If you make a couple masks for yourself, you can wash one every time you use it and hang it to dry while you use your other mask.
- If you are making masks for children, try and let them pick colors and patterns they like. They are more likely to use it when needed if they like their mask and feel it was made specially for them. If you can't get input before you make their mask, try to have more than one mask in the appropriate size to give them a choice in the decision.
- Don't use more than two layers of cloth for masks for children. More than two layers make it harder for them to breathe through the mask.
- Cheerful fabrics can help lift your spirits, and the spirits of people who see the mask. Bright colors and patterns are great.
- Recent research has shown some evidence that using hydro knit shop towels as a sewn-in filter improved the efficiency of homemade masks significantly. The hydro knit towel can be washed within the mask. (5)
Please feel free to share these patterns with anyone interested in making masks.
If you think of a modification that would make this pattern better, please leave me a comment. I may add it to the article.
These studies compare homemade masks with respirators and surgical masks:
- Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic?
- Professional and Home-Made Face Masks Reduce Exposure to Respiratory Infections among the General Population
- What Are The Best Materials for Making DIY Masks?
- Adding A Nylon Stocking Layer Could Boost Protection From Cloth Masks, Study Finds
- Using blue shop towels in homemade face masks can filter particles 2x to 3x better than cotton, 3 clothing designers discover after testing dozens of fabrics
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rebecca Scudder