Ralph Gardner Jr: The Mask Makers Of Columbia County | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: The Mask Makers Of Columbia County

Aug 29, 2020

If the pandemic has taught us anything at all it’s this: it’s really hard to look good in a mask. Doesn’t matter how attractive you are, if half your face is obscured behind fabric, you’re probably not improving your appearance.

Having said that I’m feeling pretty good about myself, and especially about my mask these days. I’ve gone through several masks since the start of this nightmare back in March. I started the odyssey with the ubiquitous 3-ply non-medical disposable face masks, the kind that are white on one side and blue on the other. I still haven’t figured out which side is which or whether it even matters. But they’re light and convenient even if they offer only limited protection.

Then there are the ones my wife, like many others who found themselves with free time and a talent for sewing, started making as the virus began to flourish in April and May and it became clear the government wasn’t coming to the rescue. Hers were quite creative: I commandeered the flannel one with hunting scenes on a red background. It reminded me of the lining of my summer camp sleeping bag. But the masks were a bit confining and besides they were one-offs.

A friend in the medical profession recently managed to score us legitimate hospital grade 3M N95 surgical masks. While I was extremely grateful to her they have a certain unfortunate Hannibal Lecter quality.

But I recently found a mask that does it all. In an appealing Black Watch pattern – it looks like the masks LL Bean would make if they made face masks, and for all I know they do now– they’re said to be even more effective than N95 masks at keeping your air passages Covid-free. It was a sample of the skills behind the work of the Mighty Masketeers of Columbia County, a volunteer organization.

“One of the things that makes our masks unique,” explained Dan Barufaldi, who heads up the group’s logistics, “is we found MERV 13. It filters down to three microns. This is the filter they use to filter the air in operating rooms.”

While The Mighty Masketeers of Columbia County might conjure visions of Darlene, Bobby, Tommy and Annette donning mouse ears and singing The Mickey Mouse Club theme song, they’re actually a group of talented local makers who came together, starting in April, to create free masks for front line workers at food banks, homeless shelters, grocery stores and police departments.

I happened to visit their operation on a recent weekend morning. You could feel the excitement in the air, at least what passes for excitement in the middle of a pandemic; particularly if your goal is to provide the community with state-of-the-art masks. Thus far, the group of forty or more volunteers working out of their own homes on their own sewing machines, have made and distributed over 4,000 masks.

Among the recipients has been the Hudson Youth Center, Black Lives Matter rallies in Troy and Chatham, Albany’s Trinity Alliance community service organization, and the Taconic and Bedford Hills Correctional facilities. The masks can also be found at the New Lebanon, NY Sunday farmers market.

The reason for the excitement is that the group had just received an industrial-size roll of the precious MERV 13 filter fabric. “We were buying it in small rolls,” explained Dan, a retired health care and marketing executive. He and Deena Pewtherer, a theater professional with a background in costume design and a way with a pair of scissors, were standing in Deena’s kitchen in Hudson, NY cutting the fabric into sheets to be delivered to sewers around the Hudson Valley. “Our supplier said, ‘We have to stop selling it to you,’” Dan went on. “’So many other places need it.’ So we said, ‘What if we bought the whole roll?’”

So they did. At 900 feet the roll cost $2,000 and should be able to make an estimated 50,000 masks. Most of the volunteers are of modest means so they’ve created a Gofundme site where they’ve raised $5,700 towards their $10,000 goal.

Carol Frederick, another founding volunteer and a former theater wardrobe mistress as well as a talented seamstress herself, is in charge of matching the masks with those in greatest need. “How meaningful it is,” she told me, “to do something useful instead of watching TV and fretting.”

Local stores have also risen to the challenge donating fabric to the group. They include JOANN fabric and craft store in Hudson and Fahari Bazaar, a marketplace for handmade African goods in Chatham.

“I love batik,” Carol said. “I splurge in using nice fabrics.”

“How about masks with your personal monogram?” I suggested.

“Lovely idea,” Carol said without sounding at all patronizing.

Now, if only I can figure out how to wear my mask without having it fog up my glasses.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.