Can You Sew? Make Face Masks for Local Hospitals with Sew Hope SNE

The grassroots effort was launched by a Lincoln mom of five.

A collection of 434 masks made by volunteers in the Providence area. Photo by Dawn Grattan Kerr.

In less than two weeks, Sew Hope Southern New England launched out of thin air, accumulated a mass of volunteers and sewed more than 2,600 face masks for area hospitals, nursing homes and nonprofit organizations. And their handiwork has only just begun.

Earlier this month, Jeanelle DeJager-Paul, a mother of five from Lincoln who works as an analyst for Lifespan, had been reading up on the face mask shortage for health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. A hobby sewist, she wondered how she could help, so she put out a call on Facebook; seven people, including friend Dawn Grattan Kerr, responded.

Grattan Kerr, a mom of six and a regular on the pirate living-history circuit, created a prototype that DeJager-Paul brought to her contacts at Lifespan. (She operates SewHopeSNE in her spare time and of her own volition.) The hospital system, which includes Rhode Island Hospital, Miriam Hospital, Newport Hospital, Bradley Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital, was onboard, requesting a specific mask pattern and latex-free elastic for the mask ties. Lifespan also donated operating room sheets for mask material. The original crew of volunteers helped spread the word via Facebook and they all got to work.

“Now, it’s exploded,” says DeJager-Paul in a conference call with Grattan Kerr and Rhode Island Monthly on Sunday. In the first weekend, seven volunteers sewed 371 masks for Lifespan. And in the week since, the Facebook group expanded exponentially. Their output did, too: Volunteers sewed 1,604 more masks for Lifespan, which will be delivered today, March 30.

Mask By Voluteer Rhonda Bishop With Donated Fabric From Lou Lou’s Decor And Elastic By Newport Yacht Interiors.

Mask by volunteer Rhonda Bishop with donated fabric from Lou Lou’s Decor and elastic by Newport Yacht Interiors.

DeJager-Paul has since enlisted the aid of area coordinators, who deliver Ziploc bags of materials prepped by DeJager-Paul to volunteers in all corners of the state. Individual sewers are also using their own materials — including tight-woven cotton fabric and hard-to-find elastic — for face masks for nursing homes and nonprofit organizations. If that wasn’t enough, Sew Hope Southern New England has also agreed to make masks for Care New England facilities, including Butler Hospital, Kent Hospital and Women and Infants Hospital.

Volunteers range from hobbyists with sewing machines to textile professionals with their own studios. And DeJager-Paul — who is also working full-time from home alongside her husband, children and one very happy dog — is looking for more sewists to chip in.

“If you’re someone who sews and is comfortable with a machine, we would gladly welcome you,” DeJager-Paul says. “It’s not the time for someone to say, ‘Oh I’d like to learn how to sew.’ People on the group have been helping each other, which is wonderful, but they’re not saying, ‘How do you know what a quarter of a seam is?’ ”

Grattan Kerr suggests those less comfortable with sewing could donate materials, and mentions one woman who offered up a new sewing machine for volunteer use.

Interest in the face masks has grown, too. DeJager-Paul says the group has fielded requests from organizations outside of New England. But, for now, she says they’re prioritizing places in southern New England; they’re currently sewing for fifteen organizations, including Lifespan, Crossroads, RI Coalition for the Homeless, the Providence Center and the Brown Physician Group.

DeJager-Paul is careful not to assume how facilities are using the masks, either.

“We’re not saying what these masks can or cannot prevent, but these are the requests that are coming in, and we’re doing the best to meet them,” she says. (To be 91127510 10157314297973666 5954278926707589120 Nclear: Cotton face masks are no match for the N95 respirators our health care workers desperately need to filter aerosols that carry COVID-19. If you or someone you know has a supply of N95s, contact your local hospital.)

DeJager-Paul is also mindful of Governor Gina Raimondo’s social distancing policy and guides volunteers to stay six feet apart when dropping off or picking up masks. She has a box on her own porch for no-contact drop-offs.

“We also don’t want twenty people showing up at a nursing home with masks,” she says. “We’re trying to help people stay healthy, not make it more difficult. That’s really why we’re trying to channel things as much as possible.”

Instead of high-fives at drop-offs, group members cheer each other on virtually, offering sewing hacks and comments about seeing masks in their sleep. They’re modern-day Rosies, wielding sewing needles instead of rivets and staying home instead of going to the factory. We salute them.

If you’re interested in volunteering, request to join the SewHopeSNE Facebook group or email