Moved by the current global crisis, renowned Birmingham-based designer Heidi Elnora, of Heidi Elnora Atelier, has transitioned from creating wedding gowns to sewing face masks. And while the covers aren’t substitutions for the medical-grade N95 masks, Heidi and her team are directly reaching healthcare professionals on the front lines by creating free washable, re-usable options that offer a layer of protection beyond the bandanas that so many first responders are using out of desperation. Find out about her inspiring work and how you can volunteer to help.
At what point did you decide to shift your efforts from making wedding gowns to face masks?
When I saw there was a need. Even before they told us that we had to close our retail store, I was seeing it everywhere — everyone I knew was saying there weren’t enough materials for our first responders and our health professionals, and I just felt called to do it. On Sunday, March 22, I made an announcement and asked my community to rise up and help me. I didn’t know what it would turn into or what it would look like, but I took some time to pray over it and ask how I could be a blessing to others and still keep social distance. I couldn’t just sit there and watch as people on the front line had nothing. I couldn’t sit back and not do something.
What are the logistics involved with everything? Did you have a pattern or create one?
It’s interesting. One of my girlfriends — she’s a stay-at-home mom, and prior to that, she was a nurse — she was starting to sew from home and help people. I reached out to her and asked, “How can I help you? “And she’s the one who turned me on to what was going on and opened my eyes. She showed me the pattern that she was using, a pocket pattern. Initially, I had a Joanne’s pattern. It’s all been pivoting very quickly as I gain more knowledge and information, and I’m adjusting on the fly. I think we all are because there’s virtually no time to waste. So, we changed it to this pocket pattern. And then one of her nurses who’s on the COVID-19 floor, dealing with and helping to take care of COVID-19 patients, let her know that they were running out of N95s. The COVID-19 nurse is the one who said, “What about air filters?” She’s the one who inspired it. It didn’t come from me; it came from a nurse. Some of these nurses were taking actual filters, cutting the wires off, and putting them on their faces with elastic — whatever they could get to cover their faces because they had nothing. And I thought, surely to goodness, we can do better than that, so I did a lot of research.
I want to make sure that everyone knows these are not N95 masks. However, the CDC says, “A bandana can be used as a last resort.” These people are at “last resort,” and I can do better than a bandana. So, we created these pocket masks – that’s what we’re calling them. And we have filters (they are a specific filter that doesn’t have fiberglass) that we’ve actually been taking apart and cutting into squares. We’re getting masks out with one filter in between, and what’s good about this is the filter doesn’t physically touch the health professional’s face, and they can reuse and rewash these masks. The N95s, after you wear them so long, have to be thrown away. If someone on the front line has an N95, this is an extra layer of protection on top to help that N95 last as long as it possibly can. And for the ones who are using bandanas, or who don’t have anything at all, it gives them a layer of protection. We’re helping to keep the virus from transmitting out.
Right now, there’s a shortage on elastic. When this pandemic came out, and people started thinking, Hey, I’m going to sew these at home, they started buying up elastic. So, if you go to Amazon, eBay, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby or Joanne’s, you can’t buy 1/8- or 1/4-inch elastic; it’s all gone. Elastic is a valuable resource to make these masks. This way, they can at least wash the masks, let them dry and reuse them. We’re creating a sustainable item that can prolong the life of the mask or protect their N95s.
We got a message recently from a nurse who’s on the COVID-19 floor, and her quote was, “This feels like Christmas.” That broke my heart. This is just a piece of cotton with a filter, and she said it feels like Christmas. It’s very humbling. What we’re doing breaks my heart, but it makes me smile at the same time.
I want to be very clear — it’s not just me in this effort. I’m really proud that God called me to serve, but I’m not doing this by myself. There are so many wonderful people who are donating their time and energy to help me. I want this to be about all of the precious people who just want to help and make a difference. I’m so appreciative and grateful for all of the people who are behind me saying, “Hey, you’re not alone. We’ve got you, and we’re going to help you.” I’m just one little human, and we’re not a huge company — I’m still a very small business in the whole scheme of things. So, I’m really grateful for the men and women who have stepped up to let the people on the front lines know they’re not alone. We’re working as fast and as hard as we can to help them fight this war.
Can people volunteer to help you make masks? If so, do they need to be master seamstresses?
The human spirit rising to the occasion is pretty awesome. I’ve had people contact me from all across the country asking how they can help and what they can do. People can download our two examples of masks, and they can start doing it on their own — they can start helping their local community. They can get on my website and sign up for a mask, volunteer to sew, or donate if they feel called to donate. Some of the people who are selling have lost their jobs, so it’s also a way for me to help give back to the local economy. It’s not a lot. However, it is some money for those who have nothing. It’s also giving a real sense of community and getting people to support.
Is your goal to fill every request? How are you delegating that?
I have an awesome family. I have volunteers who are school teachers who are at home, and they’re helping to delegate, keep track of the requests and respond to the emails. It’s taking a task force of people to do this. And God bless my local elementary school — teachers who are like, “We can do that. We’re at home.” Then I have my team that’s sewing. I teamed up with Redland Cotton, which is a factory in North Alabama, and they are precious. They’re working with us to generate masks as well. Theirs are more for hospitals that are requesting commercial-grade masks. So, they’re able to do those, and we’re able to support them, but our teams together aren’t enough to fill this gigantic void. We still need the help of home seamstresses who are willing to help, because some hospitals — most hospitals — are taking whatever they can get. We just had a single request for 3,500 masks, and there have probably been a little over 7,000 requests just in the past 24 to 48 hours.
In terms of materials, you mentioned it’s difficult to find supplies now. Do you already have materials in place?
I have about 6,000 yards of medical-grade elastic on its way that’s going to help me create over 19,000 masks. I was proactive in this fight. Prior to my announcement, I had already purchased 1,600 yards, which will make 4,400 masks. So, we are currently cutting out the yardage for those. As soon as we’re cutting them out, we’re getting them to seamstresses, and then we just have an assembly line of receiving, getting, going, doing. Our goal is 1,000 masks a day. I don’t want to promise we can do 1,000, because that’s a lot, and it’s a lot of work.
How long does it take to make one mask?
For people who are making them from home, they can make an average of 20 to 40 masks a day, depending on their speed. We have 25 home sewers across Alabama right now. And they keep calling! It’s really cool — we’re all social distancing, but everybody’s picking up and dropping off on porches. People are at home. If they want to sew, why not give them the opportunity and the materials to help?
Do you accept volunteers outside of Alabama?
We do. The only thing that’s hard about that is shipping the masks and getting them as fast as we can. But yes, seamstresses can apply from all over. There’s not just need an Alabama; there’s a desperate need across the country. I had one dad email me and say, “Can you please get a mask to my daughter in San Francisco? She doesn’t have anything.” I was like, “Yes sir, I’m working on it.” I had a nurse in Louisiana say, “Can you please help us?” I asked, “How many do you need?” And she said, “Is eight too many?” I thought, God bless you and your humble spirit. I’m coming.
That’s what fuels me — these people are so humble and kind. So, we’re just going through all the requests and trying to get them to people as fast as we can. I just hope people understand that it’s a process. We’re not some huge, 60,000-square-foot production facility. We’re just doing the best we can with the materials that we have available, and all of it is being done through donations. That’s the only way we can do it — through donations.
Aside from donations, what other ways can people support your efforts?
Sharing! The biggest thing is sharing, so people really understand what’s going on. I think people should be aware of what we are doing and the effect that it’s having on healthcare professionals and people on the front line — I think that’s really important.
Are you accepting random fabric?
The main thing that we need – it’s not necessarily fabric – is we don’t have enough filters. Or if not a filter, some type of government-approved thing we can use as a filter. Most of the nurses are just happy to have the masks, but I feel like the filter is an added layer of protection. It would be nice to know if there’s another option that we can start cutting and putting inside the masks. And that’s kind of my next step, to find another resource. What else can we use to help slow down the transmission?
Do you sleep?
My husband says that I’m part vampire! But I have an awesome family. They understand that the mission that I’m on is huge, so they’re stepping up and taking care of my kids. Knowing that my children are safe and that my parents and my husband always have my back just makes me want to be more of a warrior for them and everyone else.
My mom is a nurse. I grew up with a first responder-trauma-critical care nurse, and that’s why I feel so called to it. I’m doing it for my mom; I’m doing it for the women and men in blue. Because I know what it is to be raised by a nurse, and I know the compassion in their hearts. They’ll give until they’ve got nothing left.
How long do you plan on making masks?
Until I physically can’t anymore. I pray for God to protect me, my health and my family so that I can help others. As long as I am able to serve, I will serve.
What is the best advice you’ve received to help you get through?
I don’t think it’s necessarily advice; it’s a can-do attitude. It’s Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” My journey hasn’t been easy; I wasn’t raised with a silver spoon. I’ve had to work for everything I’ve ever had. But I also know who guides my path. When people tell me, “no,” that fires me up. When it comes to trials and troubles, it’s usually when I rise up the most. My motto is “faith over fear.” That’s how I’ve prevailed, because fear would stop me from making masks. It would stop me from asking people to help me. Fear would keep me sitting at home and minding my own business. But that’s where my faith comes in.
Learn more about how you can jump in and help Heidi and her team’s efforts on her website. Click HERE.
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