Sewing hope during hardship

In Barrington and beyond, volunteers making face masks

By Josh Bickford
Posted 4/13/20

Barrington resident Celeste Bremer learned to sew when she was about 11 or 12 years old.

She said her mother was an exceptional seamstress, having graduated from a Japanese sewing college. She …

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Sewing hope during hardship

In Barrington and beyond, volunteers making face masks

Posted

Barrington resident Celeste Bremer learned to sew when she was about 11 or 12 years old.

She said her mother was an exceptional seamstress, having graduated from a Japanese sewing college. She made all of Celeste's formal dresses, and even her wedding dress.

"I wouldn't consider myself very skilled," said Ms. Bremer, "but I know the basics and I have a machine and I have time. I also like to think that 'someday' I'll make something, so when I find fabric I like, I buy a few yards with the intention of making something."

It turns out that "someday" is now.

Ms. Bremer recently began sewing dozens of cloth face masks — she donated some of the masks to a local hospital, and others she gave to people who needed them. The masks have filled an important role as officials work hard to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

"I initially sewed them for friends who were working in hospitals or had family members working in hospitals," she said. "Now that N95 and surgical masks are more readily available, I've been sewing them for friends and really anyone who needs one now that we are encouraged to wear them whenever we leave our home and go into the public."

All across Barrington and beyond people have reunited with their sewing machines and churned hundreds and hundreds, even thousands, of masks.

"I figure I can provide these for everyday people so the other masks can go to those who need it," Ms. Bremer said.

Ms. Bremer said she has received some important help while sewing face masks.

Her daughters, ages 12 and 8, have been great.

"While the masks are a little above their ability, they have helped by sewing a basic stitch around the liners that I put inside the masks. They have also contributed by doing dishes and cleaning so I can focus on sewing when needed," she said.

"I think that hardship can bring out the best in people and I have learned a lot of about my family, my friends, and our community in ways that you normally wouldn't when times are good. While not everyone rises to their best selves, I've been impressed by how much most of us try to help each other and offer more compassion and understanding. I've connected with people in ways that are unexpected but rewarding that would never have happened without this experience."

Hospice volunteer now making masks

Erin Hazlett volunteered her time with Hospice, but when the organization canceled volunteer visits, she decided to find a new way to help. The Barrington resident started sewing face masks — some she has donated to Hospice and others she has made for friends and hospital workers.

"I am glad to be helping," Ms. Hazlett said. "In a sense, caring is easy and while it's hard to know what to do in challenging moments, I think by stepping up and relying on each other’s strengths and talents, we grow better and stronger as individuals and communities.

"Unfortunately, sometimes strength arrives on the heals of hardship."

Ms. Hazlett said she learned to sew in junior high school home economics class. She returned to sewing about seven years ago, after she left her teaching job to be home with her three children. She started a small business called The Violet Orange, where she sells linens, bags and accessories. Her studio is in her home.

Most of the materials she uses to make items for her store also worked well for making face masks. For example, the small napkins are about the same size as masks.

"Because I have materials already prepped … I can make about 100 masks a day—depending on the needs of my family, which, like the rest of the world, are now in constant flux," Ms. Hazlett said. "I’ve become efficient at setting up my materials to maximize my time and my husband is helping me when he can."

Ms. Hazlett said her friend is an emergency room doctor, and she chatted with him on Zoom — he offered measurements for the N95 masks, which she used to design her face masks. She also checked out other designs online.

Ms. Hazlett said she has grown more efficient over time.

"Now I am sewing them in batches of 50-100," she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted Ms. Hazlett's business, as it has most other small businesses. To minimize the impact, she has focused on mask making.

"Deciding to turn my business over to mask making was a struggle for me because I really wanted to just make and give them away, but I couldn’t walk away from the income my business provides for my family," she said. "So, I decided in an effort to help as many people as possible, I would prioritize masks for those in hospitals first (I’m making some for police officers and grocery store clerks, as well), then to the general population. I am donating at least 10 percent of my sales every month to charities that are helping people during this time."

Ms. Hazlett said her husband has been delivering the masks to local addresses, and people have asked her to put their shipping fee toward their donation.

"It has been so heartwarming. I think everyone is doing whatever they can to care for others right now," she said, adding that her business is donating to The Rhode Island Community Food Bank this month.

"In a time when we all feel a loss of control to some extent, I’m glad to be able to contribute because I happen to know a useful skill," she said. "It anchors me in my day, even if it comes with moments of tears and breaking down when I think about situations that friends on the front line are in."

Sewing Hope

Barrington resident Kimberly Durkin is well-known around town for creating beautiful costumes used in Arts Alive! productions. She is also an accomplished costumer supervisor in the film and television industry.

These days, however, she is focused on a different pursuit: Ms. Durkin is the East Bay co-coordinator for SewHopeSNE — an organization that brings together talented seamstresses who are making face masks.

SewHopeSNE is making masks for Lifespan, which in turn provides the materials for the masks. The group also has volunteers sewing masks for people who live and work at nursing homes, cancer centers, Care New England and the company Edesia.

"We have groups from all over Rhode Island sewing," Ms. Durkin said.

Ms. Durkin has also done some sewing, but spends more of her time coordinating the effort. There are currently more than 150 people in the East Bay alone who are sewing masks for SewHopeSNE. She said there are groups from Arts Alive!, the Barrington Yacht Club, and the local store Knit One, Quilt Too.

Ms. Durkin said Rachelle Cambria shares coordinating duties for the East Bay with her. She added that there are more than a dozen area coordinators across the state.

"The entire SewHope group from the state of Rhode Island turned in 3,508 masks to Lifespan just last week," Ms. Durkin said. "Over 5,000 to date."

Recently, the SewHopeSNE group made cotton masks for Edesia, a company that makes high quality meals for people in need. That allowed Edesia to donate its N95 masks to people working on the front lines.

Ms. Durkin said her organization is also having kids sew for them — "There’s a group who has taken sewing lessons and they are also making masks for organizations and Lifespan," she said.

Jeanelle deJager-Paul started the SewHopeSNE Facebook group, which served as the roots for the organization.

"I had been doing some googling on the coronavirus in March and saw that there could potentially be a shortage of face masks," she said. "I posted on my personal Facebook page if anyone was interested in sewing masks with me - maybe 5 or 6 said they would."

Ms. deJager-Paul and her friend Dawn Kerr built a prototype mask and met with Lifespan officials.

"On my way home from that meeting I thought 'Wow, I'm probably going to need more people if we're going to sew for Lifespan,'" she said.

The volunteers followed — hundreds of them. Ms. deJager-Paul praised the work of all those who have stepped up, including Ms. Durkin.

"Kimberly has done a fabulous job running the East Bay network for Lifespan and some other groups. She is amazing and we are so lucky to have her on our team," she said.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.