Masks, Gowns, and Shields: Heroes of Corvallis Sewing Brigade

American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  

Ever since there was an anticipated shortage of Personal Protective Equipment or PPE for healthcare professionals, over 1300 Corvallis residents have teamed up to make high quality, home-crafted items. Within just one month, the Corvallis Sewing Brigade grew from an idea expressed in the Corvallis People Facebook group to a highly organized team of individual and small business volunteers.   

So far, the Brigade has made and donated over 8,000 masks, and are now crafting surgical gowns and plastic face shields. While it isn’t clear exactly how many of the members actively volunteer, the group crafted over 2043 face masks over Easter Weekend alone.   

How It All Started  

Members credit Mike La Vella with getting the ball rolling.   

“My wife, Erika, is a physician at the hospital,” he said. “When the virus began to feel closer to home, my instincts, like everyone who supports people within healthcare, were to protect my family, however I could.”  

“Healthcare workers, Emergency responders, and public servants don’t have the comfort of choice and ability to shelter in place,” he continued.  

La Vella posted a call for help on Facebook Group Corvallis People on March 19, seeking volunteers to sew face masks 290 people commented. Two days later, La Vella and other volunteers started the Corvallis Sewing Brigade Facebook Group.  

He then went to JOANN’s Fabric and arranged to meet volunteers in the Bi-Mart parking lot to hand out the first batch of mask-making materials.  

Around the same time, local facilities like Samaritan Health put out a public request for items like face masks to serve as backup in case they were not able to purchase enough N95 surgical masks during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Facebook for Community Mobilization 

Since its founding, the Corvallis Sewing Brigade has created a database, delivery network, training materials, and partnerships with local businesses and agencies. A team of nine administrators coordinate through Facebook messenger and regular Zoom meetings.   

Group volunteer and administrator Matt MacClary designed a database system to centralize the group’s requests. “It is almost like a novel plot, that humble sewing machines and people’s stored stacks of cotton project fabric have now become urgently needed for creating personal protection equipment.”  

The Brigade organized a centralized location where volunteers pick up and drop off supplies. Volunteer drivers Misty Jensen and Julie Williams pick up masks from volunteers’ homes and deliver completed items to the facilities.   

Jensen confided that her daughter is a CNA. In addition to delivering items, she’s made over 80 masks herself and is feeling grateful and proud to be part of the Brigade. 

Face Masks for Essential Workers 

The Brigade has donated masks and gowns to over 21 facilities in Benton, Linn, Lincoln, and even Clackamas counties. Group administrators said they donated home-crafted PPE to hospitals, senior living facilities, youth shelters, wildlife centers, and other human services workers. However, demand isn’t slowing down, as they still receive orders ranging from 6 to 600 masks.  

Administrator Elizabeth Wyatt learned about the group word of mouth and joined on the very first day. She is involved with coordinating the group’s mask making and facial shield assembly parties.   

“It’s amazing, seamstresses are some of my favorite people in the world,” she said. “They are full of ideas and they are doers.” She describes her greatest reward as “Organizing (over) 900 creative people with millions of ideas – getting them to all paddle in the same direction with just a few patterns.”  

Wyatt also works as an event planner for the Corvallis School District. Since her job includes public outreach, she is able to devote full-time hours to the Brigade.  

The Brigade’s patterns were approved by Samaritan Health Services and the Benton County Emergency Operations Center. Samaritan requested a design that has pockets for a removable filter – masks that can be worn over a fitted N95 surgical mask and possibly under a plastic face shield.   

Vicki Guenther, who also volunteers as a costumer for the Corvallis High School theatre, created tutorials for Brigade volunteers who range from newbie sewers to professionals. She said she especially enjoys watching members’ skills grow, recounting one instance where a beginner posted for sewing tips and technical help. The volunteer was soon able to make her first mask and to post a photo to the group.  

“Her perseverance was amazing!” Guenther exclaimed.   

Survey Response  

Thirty-two members answered a survey by The Corvallis Advocate; Respondents reported everything from learning to make their first mask to having completed well over 100.  

Respondents noted a range of reasons they help. Most said they enjoy sewing, they wanted to be a service to the community, and they wanted help fight the outbreak. Several noted that they enjoyed the interactions within the group, and one member who is new to Corvallis commented that she now feels more part of the community.  

Members who answered said the majority of their friends, family, and acquaintances expressed appreciation and interest in what they are doing. Some said others were skeptical about whether the masks would ever be used.  

Mask Utility   

“Samaritan has received generous donations of masks, and we are very thankful to our communities,” said Ian Rollins, Samaritan Health Services Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Benton County.   

“All staff must be fit tested for N95 masks before they can be used effectively for infection prevention, as it’s not one size fits all. In settings where (N95) facemasks are not available, the CDC does allow for healthcare professionals to use other masks, including homemade masks, for care of patients with COVID-19, as a last resort.”  

Rollins explained that the masks will be sterilized before they are placed in patient care settings.   

“Samaritan’s strategy is to use standard PPE first, as it offers the best protection for our vital health care professionals. Other masks will be used if standard PPE supplies are depleted or would potentially be used in care settings not requiring as stringent PPE use, to free up available supplies in COVID-19 treatment areas.”   

Wyatt and Guenther mentioned that Corvallis Sewing Brigade is also closely liaising with emergency response agencies.  

“The masks produced by the brigade donors are a great example of the community coming together to support critical services during an emergency,” said Gabe Gurule, Training Lieutenant of the Corvallis Fire Department.   

Gurule explained that Medical-grade healthcare equipment, like N95 masks, are still essential for healthcare workers. “We still need protective equipment for non-healthcare workers such as police officers, sanitation workers, senior support service workers, and other essential jobs. These masks will go a long way toward meeting that need. And if the situation in our community gets worse, essential workers may have the option of using these masks as a last resort based on guidance from the CDC.”  

Get Involved 

“My dream is that everyone in Corvallis would have masks, but we need more sewers to do that,” said Wyatt.   

Potential volunteers may visit the Corvallis Sewing Brigade Website or join their Facebook group. Wyatt said the group also needs donations including: pieces of 100 percent tight weave cotton fabric, 30 inch by 35 inch or larger; and plastic for masks and gowns in the widths ⅛ inch, ¼ inch, ¾ inch, and 1 inch.  

The group prioritizes the needs of healthcare workers and other essential workers, however, they are branching out for other vulnerable populations. Submit any requests through the Benton County Recovers website. 

Protective Surgical Gowns 

Beyond masks, healthcare workers and first responders need protective gowns to wear over their uniforms.  

“The gowns that the brigade volunteers are producing are actually more of an urgent need than masks and gloves right now,” said Gurule. “Supplies of gowns are low and we’re having trouble finding suppliers to fill our orders. We were able to purchase a large quantity of commercial wrapping material (Tyvek) which we were able to provide to the brigade volunteers so they can produce reusable gowns.”  

Vicki Guenther is coordinating the Corvallis Sewing Brigade project of making gowns for area first responders. The spin-off Facebook group Corvallis PPE Gowns and Gear Brigade focuses on the gowns and other gear.   

The gowns are made from a vapor barrier material such as a Housewrap or Tyvek, and the Brigade distributes kits to the volunteers who assemble them at home. Guenther developed a tutorial – using a batch assembly method, she can make ten gowns in three and a half hours.  

Brigade volunteers have so far made and donated more than 66 gowns.  

Intermediate to advanced sewers who have access to sergers, overlock machines, or regular sewing machines with lock stitch capability are currently needed. To get involved, join the Corvallis PPE Gowns and Gear Brigade Facebook group or visit the Corvallis Sewing Brigade website. 

Plastic Facial Shields 

The Brigade’s latest project is assembling plastic facial shields for health care workers and first responders.  

Tim Luke of RecreTec and Willamette Powder Fab reached out to the Corvallis Sewing Brigade to find volunteers willing to help assemble facial masks. He was able to negotiate at-cost prices from suppliers he knew.   

“I got involved because my daughter asked me if I could cut plastic to make shields,” Luke explained. “She had friends who were nurses in Seattle and Tacoma working unprotected or very short on N95 masks, so she found out shields were not only the next best protection but would increase life and safety of the overused masks they had to ration.  

“When your little girl asks for help… you just help.”   

Luke connected with Brigade Administrator Alissa Loberg who designed the shield, and the Brigade launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for materials. Two other Philomath businesses, Corbin Cabinets and West Coast Innovations, offered the use of their equipment including a CNC Router.   

“I partnered with the sewing brigade which has been monumental in resources, from money raised, to Alissa Loberg and Dale Allen working tirelessly on a perfected design,” Luke said.  

Wyatt explained that the volunteers assemble the face shields during socially distanced work parties, since they need to use specific equipment like the Laser cutter and CNC machine. The Adair Fire Department cut the first round of the forehead foam pieces. Other volunteers, spaced 10 feet apart in all directions, cut out the plastic for the shields and helped assemble them. Using this method, the Brigade makes shields at an expense of around $1 each.   

“It’s kind of like making plastic paper dolls,” said Wyatt. So far, the group has made 800 and are set to assemble 2000 facial shields by the end of the first week.  

Other groups like the Corvallis-Benton County Library are also helping with face shields. Library Director Ashlee Chavez said that on March 25 they started using their five 3D printers to help meet local PPE needs. These medical shields are clear plastic face-plates held around the forehead by a 3D printed band. Materials cost around $1 per mask, funded by the Friends of the Library, according to Chavez.   

“We pride ourselves on being flexible and adaptable in all circumstances for the benefit of our community,” said Chavez. “While we cannot deliver our normal services in the ways we would like to, our staff remains committed to finding ways to serve the needs of the community using the resources available to us.”  

Get Involved 

Volunteer for the Corvallis Sewing Brigade work party or contribute to their GoFundMe campaign.  

Corvallis Custom and several of the business organizations teamed up to sell apparel as a fundraiser to help The Corvallis Sewing Brigade craft face masks for restaurant workers and other front line workers.   

The administrators of the Corvallis Sewing Brigade extend a shout out to some small businesses who’ve supported them with donations, materials, volunteers, or other assistance: Port Plastics, Woods Creek Custom, LLC, Meticulous Detail Manufacturing, Corbin Cabinetry, genesis3d, Dale Allen drafting tech, West Coast Innovations, RecreTec, and Willamette Powder Fab.   

Other community members involved in crafting masks include SoftStar Shoes in Philomath and members of the Modern Quilters and Mary’s Rivers Quilting Guild.  

By Samantha Sied