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Making masks for HFS staff

Hannah Sheil, RPB student leader, sewing masks at The MILL's makerspace‚Äč

Following up on the HFS makerspace project to use 3-D printers to fabricate parts for protective masks, over the past week, The MILL—a high- and low-tech environment offering students access to such equipment as 3-D printers, a laser cutter and other tools—has been the site for sewing cloth masks for HFS staff. With masks in short supply and hard to procure through a burdened supply chain, the in-house masks are currently being delivered to HFS staff working on campus. 

Full-time staff from Facilities Services and Residential Life as well as HFS student staff, DXArts (Digital Arts & Experimental Media) grad students have been working on a mask-making assembly line. Most of the work has been occurring during business hours with additional shifts in the evenings and on weekends. As of Friday, April 17, the fabricators produced about 60 to70 masks per weekday for a total of 205 masks with more on the way (as in a total of 900 plus).

A close up of the step-by-step process

Here’s how the mask need was met. Assistant Director for Custodial Services Kate Flowers wondered if the makerspace concept could be a resource to make washable and reusable masks for custodial staff. At the same time, Facilities Manager, Maintenance Operations Nick Osborne had been sewing masks at home based on a pattern from a YouTube video. Instructional Technician for The MILL Derrick Van Kirk and his team reviewed that design as well as others and decided on a reusable model that could be fabricated quickly in an efficient series of steps making it easier for more people (even those lacking a sewing background) to participate. 

Another feature was important. “The design we chose combined a few different ideas. Most importantly it uses cloth for the straps,” said Derrick. “This was an essential to the project as elastic is unavailable for purchase.” The idea was to do to avoid purchasing any materials and minimize the using up of the limited thread and fabric on hand. 


Quality control by Alyssa Hall, Residence Education Specialist for West Campus Operations

Creativity reigned. Thread, fabric and pipe cleaners (for nosepieces) have all come from resources on hand in our spaces or were donated from within HFS, DXARTS, or community members. Kate located (clean) bed sheets from Haggett Hall to provide a great fabric supply. Rotary cutter blades for cutting materials are the only purchased equipment for this particular project. 

Day staff manage the quality control. After a trial period, the team found a way to cut shorter dimensions to make the process even easier. Derrick mentioned that consistent training (as in how to do cross stitching and double lock stitching) and good communication help ensure a consistent and reliable product. 

Derrick also pointed out that Area 01, The MILL and McMahon 8 had been closed since March 16. “Rather than have those spaces sit idle, it was important for us to find a way to activate and use those spaces for the COVID-19 response,” he said.  First, the 3-D printers were able to print PPE for UW Med. Making the  sewing machines available to help produce masks for HFS staff was a timely next logical step. 

“Since the MILL has a large area with most furniture on wheels, I was able to set up an assembly line with workstations that would accommodate social distancing,” added Derrick.  The team also brought over sewing machines and equipment from Area 01 and McMahon 8 to set up a pattern cutting area, pressing area, and nine sewing stations dedicated to various parts of the fabrication process. 

Finished masks ready for distribution

Finished masks ready for distribution

The success of the project depended on the efforts of a truly cross-functional team that includes Residential Life, Facilities, and DXARTS. In a real-life scenario, the quickly developed approach demonstrates the flexibility of the HFS Perks & Recreation spaces. Add a resourceful and nimble group of people and the result is a large-scale project that directly impacts the health and safety of HFS staff during a time of
challenge and problem solving. 

Cloth masks, manufactured at The MILL and from some staff home, are being provided as a courtesy for staff working on site to help prevent transmission of the coronavirus. (Surgical masks are available to staff who work in close proximity to others or in areas of potential exposure from another individual.)

All photos by Dennis Wise, Visual Media Producer/UMAC