(And why that’s so important)
DISCLAIMER: Opinions are divided on the wearing of face masks. If you want to hear more about this topic, you should just head on over to my last blog post, where I discuss the politics and efficacy of mask-wearing in excruciating detail. Today’s article isn’t about any of that; it’s about finding the mask that feels, looks, and works best you if you’ve decided to give them a whirl.
So I saw this lovely lady at the grocery store. She must have been an accomplished seamstress, because she was wearing this stunning lavender and leaf-green spring outfit, complete with a face mask made from the same fabric. Her jacket and trousers fit her perfectly; I couldn’t have done any better (and I am a professional seamstress and designer).
Her mask, however, was a whole other story.
It looked fine from the front. She probably couldn’t see anything wrong in the mirror. But from the sides, the mask gaped open. Really, really gaped. If she’d owned a few poodles, say, they would have had zero difficulty in covering her nose with doggy kisses, provided they were coming at her from the sides.
This is my attempt to recreate that mask fit, made somewhat easier by the fact that I recognized the pattern she probably used. It’s one of the more common DIY face mask patterns out there.
Note the enormous spaces around the side edges. This is not a good look if you’re trying to contain your coughed-out drops, or to not scoop up someone else’s sneeze spatters. Here’s the moral lesson: not all masks are created equal, and what’s great on someone else might be a massive fail on you.
Is good fit really all that important?
As some of you already know, your Old Aunty Kitty is a stickler for things that fit. I’ve gone on at length about good fit in shirts before (it might seem trivial to some, but if you squeeze your G-cup chest into an off-the-rack blouse, you’re a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen!). But what happens if your face mask doesn’t fit properly in the time of Coronavirus?
Well, maybe absolutely nothing. Or maybe you keep fiddling with your mask because it won’t stop sliding down your face, and give yourself an accidental COVID-19 nose enema. More likely, you’ll just find it too annoying to keep wearing, and decide to take your chances with a naked face (and if you sneeze, people had better just be far enough away).
What makes a face mask good (or bad)?
A good mask is breathable, non-abrasive, face-hugging, as comfortable as a face mask can be. You might not enjoy wearing it, especially as the weather turns warm, but you should be able to more or less forget about it for most of your day. It must sit securely enough so you don’t need to keep touching your face to adjust it; however, it must not painfully pull on or squeeze anything, even after hours of wear.
A bad mask might be bad for any number of reasons. It might be scratchy, block your breathing, gape at the edges, press on your nose, ride up or down when you talk, or be so uncomfortable that you just want to rip it off and burn it at the earliest opportunity. Kind of like a bad bra, if you wear bras. Any mask that makes you touch your face is a bad mask.
How can you tell if a particular face mask is right for you?
In the end, the very best mask for you is the one that you’re willing to tolerate. You have to be able to stand it resting on the sensitive bridge of your nose, covering your all your breathing and talking holes. ALL. DAY. LONG. Or as long as you’re outside, anyway.
The edges of the mask should contact your face all around, enough so if you were to cough, no actual droplets will escape. Ideally, it will be made from a colour and material that suits your style, because a pandemic is no reason to let your standards lapse.
Seriously, though, a statement mask can give the world a much-needed cheering-up. Somehow, we humans find a kitten-print or Harry Potter-themed mask (e.g., Magical Masks for Muggles) less grim than those scary surgical masks. We’ve actually donated colourful masks to health care professionals who wear them OVER their actual medical masks, because their patients find it more reassuring! Remember that you’re wearing a mask in large part as a public service, so this is worth keeping in mind.
So what are you mask style options?
Remember, I have only my own experiences to draw upon, plus a few testers’. Yours may be totally different. You’ll need to read between the lines and guess what might work best for you. Also, the following only covers some of the most common fabric mask types, because I don’t want this to be 28 pages long.
The basic flat rectangle
The most basic style of face mask is a just a rectangle (or some other flat shape) some ties or elastic attached. A lot of super-simple, even no-sew, DIY mask projects fall into this general category.
PROS: It’s easy to make or improvise, if you want to go that route, as long as you have the appropriate materials. Maybe free. That’s about the only nice thing to say about it.
CONS: Your face is not flat, especially where your nose sticks out of your face. If you try to cover something NOT flat with something flat, it’s just not going to work. The edges of the mask will probably be one giant rippling gap. Your nose will feel squished. I wouldn’t even bother with this one.
The pleated rectangle
This is what it says on the tin, a rectangle with a few pleats in it, so it accordions over your nose, like my gold version here. The pleats open up to make space for your nose and 3-D facial bits.
PROS: This is the most easily available style in disposable masks. Just a guess, but this might be because it’s the quickest and cheapest style to make. When I was testing patterns, this by far the simplest 3-D mask to cut and sew, since it’s made entirely of straight lines. There was almost no wasted fabric, which would be a huge deal if you’re a mass producer.
If this shape works for you, it’s a fine option (although it may be best for people with narrow jawlines, fairly low cheekbones, and flatter mouths; see my experiences under the “Cons”). If you’re a novice at sewing and want to make a mask, this will likely be a much easier project than one with lots of curved shapes.
CONS: I personally found this mask to be the too fiddly and uncomfortable, and I’m not the only one. Other people commented that talking can make it ride up or down (I think the pleats catch on some mouth shapes, especially really full lips ), so they needed to touch the mask to adjust it. This is a HUGE safety no-no.
It gaped open in front of my ears (I think the straightness of the bottom edge didn’t accommodate the width of my jaw) and pressed painfully on the top of my nose (the straight top edge had no way to stretch over my wide, high cheekbones). This is the style that woman I talked about in the beginning had worn, so clearly others have this gaping problem too.
The contoured mask
This is the kind of mask that’s made from at least two pieces of fabric cut in a curved shape, so they make a little dome over your nose and mouth when stitched together. There are many variations on this theme out there, far too many to go over individually, so I’m generalizing here. If a contoured fabric mask fits you very well, it should look like this — but beware that not all of them do.
PROS: This is the only kind of mask I can personally tolerate. For a lot of people, this type digs in less at the nose bridge. There are no pleats to catch your mouth when you talk. The cupped shape locks the mask over your nose, and makes it much less likely to ride up or down. Think of it like putting a fitted tea cozy on your teapot (if your nose were a teapot) instead of just throwing a towel over it; the former is much less likely to slide around than the latter.
If — but ONLY if — the bottom edge is angled correctly, it pretty much eliminates gaping at the sides. The built-in curve of the top edge means it forms better over different cheekbone heights and widths, so it hugs your face quite well, even in the tricky bits around the nose
CONS: This style of mask is harder to mass-produce, so is less available to buy. It’s relatively difficult for a novice to sew, because curved shapes mean that some of the edges are on the bias, meaning the pieces will stretch out during construction if you’re not careful (and stretching can mean gaping!). If you use the wrong kind of lining, it can seriously impede your breathing, because (unlike in the pleated rectangle styles) the lining isn’t held together with the outer fabric by the pleating process.
Now I may be biased, since this is the only kind of mask I can wear without wanting to claw off my face, but I’m really having trouble thinking of other cons. Oh, wait, you can get pretty bad side gaps if the pattern isn’t angled correctly at the bottom edges. Then it could do this:
Masks with special filtering materials
You know, those masks made with vacuum bags and HEPA filters and Gore-tex and so forth. I’m referring to the kind you make yourself by sewing with these materials, not actual medical-grade masks.
PROS: These materials are generally more of a barrier to viruses than regular fabric, if the very few applicable studies are anything to go by. If you can find a way to seal the edges of the mask to your face, this should provide you with relatively superior protection against infection (if you’re wondering why I sound so lukewarm, I go into it more here. But like any other mask, they should work just fine to protect the world from your coughs and sneezes if they fit reasonably well.
CONS: The biggest problem here is that a lot of these are uncomfortable to wear and/or very hard to breathe through, especially with exertion. Some people even report getting panicky from restricted airflow. Many of these materials have not been safety-tested for use in masks. For example, many distributors of Gore-tex warn that you should not wear this material over your airways.
Also, depending on the design of the masks, a lot of filtering materials are too stiff to conform well to the bumps and curves of your face, leading to a lot of gaps around the edges of the mask, which might offset the effectiveness of the material itself. I personally feel claustrophobic even in some regular masks, so I’m not a good candidate for these puppies.
Should you try making your own masks?
If you’re handy with a sewing machine, have access to the right kind of materials, and are willing to spend a few hours doing some facial fitting, you could certainly make a face mask. There are loads of tutorials out there, complete with free patterns, so I’m not going to go into details here. Just be warned that some designs fit (much) better than others.
I personally did not find any that worked well enough for me, which is why I chose to draft my own pattern with lots and lots of trial and error. In fairness, I have a very wide, flat-planed face with a nonexistent nose bridge, and can never find glasses to fit my face either. So the problem is probably with me, not the patterns.
This does mean I can’t really speak as to which patterns are better for you, but I do have some tips to offer. First, make sure you choose fabrics and linings that will withstand hot water washing and heat drying, and pre-shrink both before cutting. Pick a close-woven (or tight-knit) fabric without decorative details that feature any punctures or open weave, like eyelet embroidery or lace patterns.
Stick to breathable materials, or it will be too uncomfortable to wear for a long time. If you decide to make the contoured style of mask, make sure your lining material has enough body so you don’t suck it onto your nose when you breathe in, or secure it to the outer fabric with a few stitches.
Make sure your elastic is the soft kind that won’t rub or pinch your ears, and be prepared to replace it often, since heat and washing will degrade it faster than your fabric. If you have sensitive ears (say, if your ears tend to get sore after wearing glasses for a while), you might have to go with ties or elastics that go behind your head, not around your ears. If your pattern only comes with instructions for ear elastic, I have a tutorial here for how to change them into other styles.
Or you could just “Put on A Good Face”….
If all that sewing, preshrinking, and fitting seems like too much work, you could just buy your mask from us, or from someone else whose work looks good to you. Realistically, it will possibly cost you less money and definitely less time, and you might even be helping others (since for each mask you do buy from us, we donate one to someone in need).
Keep in mind that you will likely want more than one, because correct mask use dictates that you MUST clean and dry your mask between every wearing, and should change it if it becomes soiled or damp. If this is news to you, or even if it’s not, it may behoove you to read through the safe use and sanitizing guidelines.
What kind are Felix and Kitty’s masks?
Our masks are a special variation on the contoured style. When I was fine-tuning the mask design for donating and selling to others, I was aiming for the following:
- Maximum comfort, for a mask you could wear for hours without feeling claustrophobic, itchy, or any need to fiddle with it. So that meant soft breathable materials, a 3-dimensional shape that creates breathing space over the nose and mouth, and anatomically correct angles that match the angles on your actual face (which minimizes slippage issues).
- Minimal side gap. Almost all the masks I saw tended to have gaps at the same spot, right in front of the ears. It drove me nuts, until I figured out why this happens (it had to do with the height at which the human ear attaches to the head relative to the level of the lower jaw). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to fix this problem, but on the plus side, my new masks really do hug your face all the way around now.
- Different masks for different face shapes. To my own surprise, almost everyone can fit within just three adult sizes based on the structure of your mid-face area (see here for an explanation of different face shapes for mask fitting purposes). I had to draft some pretty gnarly S-bends into some of my pattern pieces, with the result that all of the edges end up being cut partially on the bias. This essentially means that the perimeter of the mask can magically stretch or compress (within reason, of course) to accommodate facial variations. No more digging into the bridge of your nose!
- Reasonably low cost, low enough that we could produce a goodly number of masks to donate to essential workers who must interact with people in the course of their jobs, like pharmacists and grocery store workers, or people in need who can’t afford them (such as people in women’s or homeless shelters).
And that just about covers it. Good luck in the hunt for your elusive perfect mask, check out our attempt at it, and thanks to every one of you who is taking the time and effort to curb the community spread of COVID-19 by covering your face!