Independent studies have shown that non woven DIY blue shop towel masks are taking advantage of what is possibly the best filtering fabric for homemade masks. Now everyone is making masks out of shop towels! I don’t find them comfy next to my skin, however. I still prefer a soft cotton. And I can’t be bothered to locate and stuff in a filter every time I don a mask. So I put the shop towel on the inside where it doesn’t shift, bunch or irritate me.
I have adapted my mask pattern to include an inner layer of blue shop towel for greater filtration. If I’m going to wear a homemade mask, I want it to be comfortable and functional.
Why blue shop towels? To date, the best research I have seen amongst the vast community of “makers” shows that specific brands of blue non-woven “shop towels” are the best at filtration. Independent tests showed them to filter as effectively as hepa vacuum bags and far far better than woven or knit fabrics.
I was impressed when I started working with the recommended towels. They were stretchy, wash well and don’t feel at all like the paper towel versions I usually think of when I hear shop towel. These were more like a fabric, but still not a fabric I want against my face.
The case for homemade masks with blue shop towels
Please don’t hit me with the stats about how homemade masks are not as good as medical grade. These homemade masks are certainly not meant to replace medical masks. But even the CDC has said that homemade masks are better than no masks.
I just want any mask I make to do the BEST job it can, while being comfortable, and reusable. It makes me sad to see people wearing masks made out of stockings and tee shirts. Here’s a fun video explaining just how useless those quickie DIY sock and tee shirt masks are. Those sad old sock masks are barely better than no mask, and they may give people a false sense of security. At best they may protect others from your cough/sneeze droplet. But they won’t protect you from anyone else’s.
Of course no homemade mask is going to be a replacement for an N95 respirator. But we can do far better than a bandana, socks or your old worn out leggings.
Wearing a crappy filter free mask is like wearing sunglasses with no UV rating. You may be making things worse.
My DIY shop towel mask design process & modifications
Here’s a little bit about me that I haven’t shared in a while. I used to be a clothing designer. Specifically, kid’s clothing. I designed and made children’s clothes for over a decade, and I still have a lot of the trim and fabric to show for it. Hundreds of yards of fabric in fact. Spools of coveted elastic. And thanks to a lucky trip to Home Depot, several boxes of the same blue Zep brand shop cloth that was mentioned in a Business Insider article, touting the efficacy of this fabric’s filtration.
The quarantine awoke the clothing designer in me.
I went to work, testing several patterns and finally settling on one that is both simple to sew, comfortable to wear, and adjustable to fit most. Bonus that it works with glasses, and doesn’t fog. Also – no pleats. If I’m going to sew a multilayered mask, I want to avoid dealing with pleats. They are murder on sewing machines.
From my preferred pattern I made some modifications. First I added an inner layer of the blue filter material. I decided against the “pocket” option to insert a filter because I worried that people might not have their own appropriate filter material on hand ready to be inserted, and might just end up going without. Additionally, inserted filters can bunch or slip and don’t cover the entire mask area.
I decided to include a filtering layer within where it will not shift or get lost or left behind. The blue shop cloth filter material (along with the outer layer) is washable, and has held up fine in our washing machine tests.
Secondly I came up with a better solution for the nasal bridge wire nose clamp. Many people are using twist ties and pipe cleaners or soft floral wire for this, but I found that neither provided a great seal, and these other options did not wash well.
I got out some 20 gauge jeweler’s wire and used my plyers to work it into a flat zigzagged piece. This allows the wearer to make the wire piece longer or shorter, by scrunching or stretching. The width and shape also helps the wire form to the nose better and provides a much more effective, and comfy seal along the top edge of the mask.
One other nice thing about this pattern – the elastic is threaded through a channel and can be swapped for ties if desired. I like to use strips of old tshirts for the ties as they are soft and comfy. Elastic can be threaded to go over ear or behind the head. The elastic is the most likely thing to be damaged in the washer/dryer, and it’s nice that the mask can still be used even if the elastic has an issue at some point.
I also had to change the order of assembly for this mask, slightly. Once I had it all figured out I went ahead and cut around 500 masks. I’ve been slowly sewing them, donating some and selling some, as well as donating pre-assembled kits to anyone who wants to help me sew them. Help! I need more people to sew these!
It’s been nice to dig out all my old fabrics and finally use them! I hope these whimsical prints help bring a smile to people’s faces, even you cannot see that smile under the mask.
I’m going to share my sewing process below, as many of the people I am sending the kits to, wanted to see the whole process. There is a facebook live mask tutorial video as well where I demonstrated how to sew these masks.
Steps for making DIY masks with blue shop cloth filter:
1. Stitch the front, center curved edges right sides together. You will do this three times, stitching the two front pieces, the two back pieces and the two blue pieces (these have no right/wrong side.) Now you have a front, back and middle layer for your mask.
2. Open up the pieces you sewed together. Place the patterned fabrics front and back together with their right sides facing in/towards each other. Place the blue liner either on top or bottom of the stack. Note the order. The two outside fabrics, nice side facing each other, the blue on top or beneath. The blue layer will end up in the middle when you turn it but will be on the outside when you first sew it all together.
You can use a clip or hand baste (along the edge) the three layers together in a sandwich to hold the stack in place and avoid shifting when you machine sew. I do not advise pinning as that makes holes in the mask and holes in your filter are not a great thing. We want to avoid them.
3. Stitch across the top edge, right side and bottom edge, about 1/4 inch in. Leave the other side open. I find it easiest if I stop at the “point” in the middle of the top, and each of the corners and make sure everything is still aligned. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It will still work out great when you turn and iron it. I promise.
4. Clip corners, and turn your mask inside out via the open edge. You’ll be putting your thumbs between the two prints and turning it like an inside out sock. The blue layer now ends up on the inside in the middle. Use a crochet hook or chopstick to poke the corners, and press your mask. Get it nice and flat, paying attention to the point and the edges. Press the raw edges under so that when you sew the end closed later, it is a nice clean edge
5. Topstitch close to the edge on the three closed sides that you sewed earlier. Leave the open part alone. This is satisfying because it is really starting to look like a mask now!
6. Stitch a second line along the top edge about 1/3 inch from the topstitch line to create the channel for the wire for the nose bridge. The line should come down a little over 2 inches from the point on both sides. (See photo)
7. Insert a crochet hook or thin pencil into the channel (via the opening you left open) to make sure there are no seams in the way. Then insert some wire, gently wiggling it to shape and fit. I suggest a 20 gauge jewelers wire, but use what you have! Make sure the ends of your wire are looped and not “pokey” so the wire stays in the mask when washed and doesn’t hurt anyone.
8. Push the wire gently out of the way and stitch the ends of the channel so the wire stays in.
9. Fold in the sides about 1/2-3/4 in and stitch along the edge to form the channels for the elastic. You will be closing up the open edge as you do this and going over the top stitching on the other side. Note there is no preordained right or wrong side of the mask. You can fold the flaps to whichever side you prefer. The mask is reversible, and can be worn with either side forward but for the sake of this tutorial we will call the side with the folds the back…
10. Use a crochet hook or bodkin to thread elastic thru in a “u” shape. Knot the ends. Or you could elect to use ties – one threaded thru each side. I suggest cutting two lengths of 16-20 inches for ties.
Don’t forget to trim all the threads and give your creation a final trim.
You can use ties in place of elastic. If you cut a large tshirt into strips you can make enough ties for several masks. Pull on the strips so that the fabric rolls and thread this through the channel. If you are looking for elastic and cannot find flat 1/4 inch elastic, look for soft bungee elastic instead. I actually find this narrower elastic softer and easier to wear.
Although many people wear masks that loop over their ears, this is not all that comfy and you can obtain a better fit with elastic or ties that go around the back of your head. For the best fit and maximum protection/filtration you want to eliminate gaps at the sides of the mask and along the bridge of your nose. Take a moment to press the wire to shape to your nose and adjust the elastic. You will have a better mask wearing experience!
I don’t recommend wearing these masks for vigorous exercise.
DIY shop towel mask cleaning instructions are as follows:
If you won’t be wearing the mask for a few days and it is not visibly soiled, spritz with alcohol or witch hazel and set aside in a paper bag to dry. Touch up with an iron as needed.
Machine wash gentle or hand wash as your would lingerie and delicates. Hang to dry. Touch up with an iron.
Note: My instructions for wear and care are not directed at health care professionals. If you are a health care professional, you probably know better than me how to sanitize your reusable masks. These masks absolutely abcan be washed in hot water, dry ironed on high heat, and can be sprayed with alcohol and/or treated with UV light. Most people who wear them for shopping will not need to sanitize as frequently.