Mask Making 101

You’ve pulled out all the fabrics from the closet and you’ve done a few curbside deliveries from Jo-Anns and Michaels. Your spools are at the ready and the bobbins are loaded. It’s time to make your first mask.

And time to make a few decisions! Will it be an Olson style mask or a standard surgical? Cotton or poly? Tie straps or elastic bands? And what should your backing material be? Plus, you’ve heard a lot about pocket masks and coffee filters… and who will be the benefactor of your first batch? Family and friends? Or perhaps the local assisted living facility?

Here’s your first piece of advice: Just relax and breathe.


Before you settle in for an eight- or ten-hour stretch in front of your sewing machine, just take a moment to center yourself and breathe. So much can come from that simple act. Remind yourself what your reasons for starting this project are. Perhaps you have a loved one who asked for a mask and you don’t just want to make one, you want to make as many as you can!

Or perhaps you have seen all the other volunteers posting about taking their sewing supplies out of mothballs and you want to lend your own hand. You might be a crafty person who just happened to be looking for the next big project to keep those artistic juices flowing. In the end, your reasons are your own to savor and simply wanting to help out during this time of need is enough.

Rest assured, we are going to talk about styles and materials and outreach organizations in just a moment, but for now you won’t be any good to anyone if you don’t take a moment for yourself! All good?


There are a plethora of options for mask types: surgical, Olson, neckerchief, bandana, biker, and an assortment of undergament-turned-face-covering masks. Which is to say nothing of the much-ballyhooed N95 masks — which wouldn’t be a home project anyway. 

Nevertheless, we will focus on two styles: Olson and Surgical. These two styles are very common, easy to make and most everybody knows them when they see them. Other styles such as neckerchief and bandana are easy enough for people to DIY themselves and bikers already have their own supplies of higher quality masks, so it’s best to focus on the area you can make a difference in.

Also, these two main styles complement each other nicely. Many people who have problems with one are often much more comfortable with the other and vice-versa.


These are the form fitting masks which go over the nose, mouth and chin and snugly follow the contours of the face. Typically they come with a bendable nose piece and heavier elastic straps on the sides. A larger Olson mask will cover the upper bridge of the nose and go well over the chin. Smaller ones might only cover the tip of the nose. And if you are wearing one that is slightly large for your face shape, you might think it’s covering too much, but if it is comfortable, allows breathing and does not have gaps around the edges, it is just fine. 

By that same token, if you are wearing an Olson mask that feels too small, it might simply be that it’s intended to only cover the minimum area of your breathing surfaces. Some people prefer a mask which goes further in either direction while others prefer something that only covers as much as is needed. For your soon-to-be-growing mask supply, feel free to have a variety of sizes in case your recipients express a desire for one over the other, but keep in mind the fact that if a mask is doing its job, it’s doing its job. 

There are more details about Olson masks later, but for now, let’s look at the other style:


Also known as “pleated” masks, these are the ones that you may see TV doctors wearing. These are rectangular in shape, with pleats that go lengthwise (left to right) and typically are fitted with tie straps as opposed to elastic bands, although both are seen quite often. 

Surgical masks have the advantage of being able to fit the contour of one’s face due to the pleats which open up upon fitting. Another advantage is the fact that they pull down from the bridge of the nose and allow for “natural” form fitting of the face. 

Whether you have tie straps or elastic really is an independent decision from the style of mask. Tie straps allow for more of a variety of head shapes and sizes, but they also tend to get stuck in hair. Elastic bands don’t impinge upon hair, but they can arguably pull on one’s ears and irritate. Some people alternate between the two styles when choosing what to wear while others stick to one style or the other.

Again, it will be useful to have a variety of tie methods for each style of mask in your collection.


Picking the material for your masks is perhaps the biggest sticking point for DIY makers. In the early weeks of mask making, much was said about various fabrics. At one point, very specific blends were being bandied about as the optimal mask material, but in the end you cannot go wrong with something we all have lying around: cotton.

Cotton t-shirts, cotton bed sheets and fitted sheets, cotton pillow cases… just make sure it is well-laundered and not threadbare. One measure of a fabric’s suitability for masks has been the “hold it up to the light” test. This test still holds water! If you hold a material up to a light and you can easily see through it, perhaps you should choose a denser cotton. This is a very subjective test, however. You are not striving for zero translucence. Be fair in your assessment of the fabric. And consider the fact that you will have two layers (the outer fabric and the backing fabric), so the combined 2-ply is what you essentially want to be testing.

As an alternative to cotton, you can use cotton-poly blend, denim or chiffon, but an exhaustive list would be pointless since you probably have plenty of cotton at hand. Additionally, the outer layer and the backing layer can be of either material, so feel free to experiment with combinations that are pleasing to you and (most likely) your recipients.


Just like cooking and computing, let’s leave this to the experts! A quick search of the internet will yield any number of well-reviewed mask patterns, instructions and how-tos. Here are just a couple to get you started. I recommend you follow them to a T before you start down your own road of variety and exploration.

Olson style:

Surgical style:


Pocketed masks add an even greater level of protection to the apparatus, but they extend the construction time as much as three-fold. Basically, they allow for the user to insert a filter material in between the outer and inner layers of the mask’s fabric. This filtering material is typically a finer mesh than the cotton and the idea is that this layer will collect the brunt of the particles coming in or out. These are not necessarily disease or infectious particles, but simply those airborne particles we all exhale and inhale which cause masks to build up and soil. With the introduction of a removable filtering layer, your mask has a longer life between washings because you can just dispose of the filter.

Common filter materials include:  Hepa filters, vacuum bag and furnace lining, carbon filters, paper towels, coffee filters and shop towels. However, since the whole point is to make the filter bear the brunt, it would make sense to focus on easily replaceable materials. In tests, coffee filters and paper towels were just as effective as vacuum liners and expensive Hepas, so there’s no reason to go ripping your appliances apart!


Finally, where do you want to offer your generously hand-made masks? Just like we started at the beginning, focus on yourself first. Make a mask that you enjoy looking at, are happy to wear and will proudly don in public. The most important thing is to get the word out that it is ok and, in fact, important to wear face coverings while the spread of Covid-19 is still in full effect. If you are the last one at your grocery store wearing one (apart from the workers, let’s hope!), then I’d say “mission accomplished!”

After you have one or two for yourself, make sure loved ones are well-stocked. Look into your local service groups or churches, if you have connections there, and also assisted living facilities in the area. Additionally, there are many medical facilities which are still looking for donations. Please be aware, however, that there are guidelines that need to be followed for any masks you donate to these facilities. And finally, make a point to look into areas of the community which are hard hit and who do not have an infrastructure that readily lends itself to sewing and outreach. There are numerous regions, many perhaps not local to you, that are in need of masks even if your immediate area is not.

Below are a number of websites currently asking for mask donations, but you can also do your own homework and search Google for reputable organizations accepting mask donations. 

Whatever you do, do it with love, and do it from a place of generosity. If you feel that you are not of a mind to accept payment, then don’t. But if you get repeated requests to donate supplies or give to a fund, consider doing that on occasion. It is entirely possible to get so focussed on a selfless act that you don’t even realize you have worked yourself to the bone and are, in fact, losing money you didn’t realize. It would be a shame to find yourself regretting all your hard work when an offer of a few dollars for supplies is exactly the way in which your mask-recipient wants to say “thanks.”

Happy mask making!