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Masked marvels

Area sewers stitching up face coverings for people

Valerie Luther sews a face mask Thursday at her Altoona home. Luther has made more than 2,500 masks to distribute to nursing homes and businesses. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

With area proms canceled, professional seamstress Dawn Gardini of Altoona is making 30 cloth masks a day.

She is one of many mask makers seeing an increase in orders following Wednesday’s announcement by state Health Secretary Rachel Levine that essential businesses permitted to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic are required to have their workers — and their customers — wear masks starting at 8 p.m. today.

Now, face masks must be worn by everyone when in public. It’s part of the state’s effort to reduce the spread of the contagious respiratory illness COVID-19.

It takes Gardini about four hours to make 30 masks using a “factory-style” assembly technique, she said. “I like to sew, and since I’m not doing prom gown alterations, I thought this is something I can do. I often stay up until 3 a.m. sewing. It’s my serenity.”

So far, she’s made about 180 masks. Gardini is part of a group called Central PA Face Masks, coordinated by Megan Jones-Steinbugl and Steve Elfelt, both of Altoona. The two met on social media and decided to join their efforts. Elfelt tracks orders and deliveries, and Jones-Steinbugl creates kits of supplies and gets them to a core group of about 10 sewers.

The group has distributed about 1,000 masks, primarily to nurses and workers with different “frontline agencies,” Jones-Steinbugl said. They accept donations to offset the cost of supplies. The group received more than 400 requests since the announcement that masks would be required.

They’ve received orders from as far away as Dauphin County.

“Everything has just exploded. I’ve been posting what we’re doing, but I had to shut my phone off last night to sleep,” Jones-Steinbugl said. “Everyone is so incredibly scared.”

During the past 10 years, she’s worked as a medical sales representative, so many medical offices know her and have heard what she’s doing.

“I’m also a trained volunteer coordinator so organizing comes easily to me,” she said. “I spend a lot of time sourcing the various materials and spend hours each night washing, drying and cutting the material and making up the kits. It’s very therapeutic for me as I suffer from anxiety and depression. I think this is the best thing I can do.”

She places materials the sewers need to make 30 masks into a bag and sanitizes the outside of the bag.

For her organization, she said, finding elastic is the greatest challenge.

Kelly Brennan of Altoona heard about the group and needed masks for her daughter who is a traveling occupational therapist in Texas. She then started to volunteer for the group out of her desire to give back.

“They work as a team. It is amazing that out of this horrible situation in life we’re in that it has brought together the Blair County community,” Brennan said.

Another mask-maker, Valerie Luther, said she hasn’t had any supply issues and has been successful buying elastic on eBay and Etsy while she buys fabric from a local fabric shop. She has been sewing as part of her online business Luther’s Lounge for about 10 years. When the pandemic closed her business, she put her sewing skills to good use and has made 2,504 masks as of Wednesday. Her husband, Jim, helps when he isn’t working for Norfolk Southern or handling the grocery shopping so she can sew.

Luther said she has donated about $1,500 worth of materials and will now accept donations as the demand has increased. She has 15 pages of orders to fill for various area nursing homes, car dealers, day care centers and other businesses.

“It keeps my hands busy and keeps my mind off the pandemic. I won’t have a life for a while, but people really seem to appreciate it,” Luther said.

Luther said area residents have also been very patient as larger orders may take two to three days to complete. Local orders are ar­ranged for pick up, and other orders are shipped to customers in Florida and California.

“Everyone has been very understanding and patient,” she said, joking, “I’m like a one-woman sweatshop since March.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

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