Jen Iapalucci has made over 350 homemade masks since April 1. Iapalucci has taken skills she would typically use in her day job as a costume designer for Wilmington’s community theatre scene and applied them to helping those in need within New Hanover and Brunswick counties. And she’s doing it for free.
“It’s very repetitive,” Iapalucci describes. “Usually, I’m designing an entire show, but most of the shows I’m working on right now have been or will be canceled, so I have a huge quantity of fabrics on hand. At first, I thought about making masks for myself, my family and friends. Then my son said, ‘Ma, you should make these for everyone! You could save the world!’”
Iapalucci enlists the help of her kids, too, who cut fabrics and pack envelopes, as their mom sews. They have managed to put together 50 a day, with each mask taking anywhere from 10-15 minutes to complete.
After posting about them on Instagram (@sartordesigns), Iapalucci started getting messages from people in the Wilmington area, and from folks as far away as Florida, California and Wisconsin. Though supplies have been in demand, often with elastic running low in town, Iapalucci has been able to find materials needed to keep her output high.
“I use really breathable fabric, nothing that’s too loosely woven,” she explains. “The first couple I made, I was trying to be super protective, and I actually made a couple you just couldn’t breathe through. Cotton is really the best option.”
Iapalucci is not the only costumer in town utilizing her skills for the greater good. Debbie Scheu has joined the call too. Scheu is best known as a dressmaker for the Cape Fear Gardening Club Azalea Belles. “It’s definitely a fun, internal competition between the stitchers in town,” she says of the mask-making. “We’ve got to do something with our time. We’re obviously not doing what we normally do—nobody is.”
Scheu has been sewing nonstop—to the point she won’t even answer texts. She prefers phone calls to keep up with family and friends so she can keep her hands free. “I’ve got to sew all the time because it’s urgent; this is really serious,” she says.
Scheu started the mask project so she could send them to her family in New Jersey—close to the epicenter of COVID-19 in New York. She has sent a half-dozen masks to folks from Connecticut to Wilmington. She also has supplied masks to the entire kitchen staff at the Country Club of Landfall where her son-in-law works. Sometimes, she customizes them, as seen with a Star Wars mask one worker requested.
“I have a lot of fabric already,” Scheu says. “The Star Wars fabric was from a pair of pajamas I made my grandson for Christmas. It almost slows me down to have to think about what I’m making the mask out of, so I try to cut for a long time and have a big stack of fabric, and then start to sew it together.”
“Debbie and I coordinated together to make neonatal quilts for the hospital, and we have all kinds of fun kids’ fabric,” says Lynne Adams, one of Scheu’s close friends, who is also sewing masks from various fabrics. “Right now, we’re working on one that’s got all the M&Ms’ faces, and I’ve got a Boston Red Sox line, chocolate chip cookies, Minnie Mouse—you name it. To me, you’ve got to have fun—anything to lighten the mood during all this.”
The ladies have been using a mask design as recommended by Deaconess Health System in Evansville, IN. Adams has enlisted the help of one of her daughters, Kaitlyn, too. Together, they’ve created over 130 masks, averaging around 18 a day. With Adams’ husband, Chip, working as an EMT in New Hanover and her other daughter, Whitney, working as a paramedic in Brunswick, the masks help extend the lifespan of the N95s needed for healthcare workers. Since her husband answers up to six calls a day, he can switch out the top layer mask each time he’s in an ambulance to help maintain the longevity of the N95.
The Adams family has a pick-up box outside their front door for friends and others in need. They also have been sending masks to medical workers across the country.
While fabric masks help protect the general public and high-risk patients, at Eugene Ashley High School, a group of students and teachers are working together to create 3D-printed face shields for first responders. The idea came from Jonathan Brezinski, a technical education student at Ashley, who saw the rising need for masks locally firsthand. His father, Dr. Damian Brezinski, runs Island Cardiology on Carolina Beach. When Jonathan took notice of the 3D printers in his house and at school, the idea to create face shields was born. With help from Idaho-based Intermountain 3D, Jonathan designed a prototype mask. The family then reached out to county commissioner Jonathan Barfield, deputy superintendent LaChawn Smith and Ashley principal Patrick McCarty for help. The team, including the Brezinski family and staffers from the Career and Technical Education department at Ashley, were able to amass all of the 3D printers in New Hanover County’s school system.
“By Friday night, we had anywhere between 25 and 35 functioning printers at Ashley off and running,” Dr. Brezinski says. “We were printing as many as a couple hundred to a couple thousand face shields and masks in a couple days.”
The prototypes consist of green N95 masks and plastic shields with red or gold trim. The crew is able to produce about 40 masks a day, taking anywhere from 7-18 hours to complete. All of the COVID respirators are 100% compliant with OSHA specs, with the CAD programming and testing that can be seen at Intermountain 3D’s website.
In order to observe social distancing, the group is only six people strong, consisting of teachers Floyd Benfield, Daniel Glauber and Daniel Scullion, and the Brezinski team of Dr. Damien and sons Jonathan and David. Because they are still running on materials granted by the school system—elastic bands, transparent sheets, all of the 3D printers—the masks are currently free for those who need them, with a potential future cost of $1 to $4 (a notable discount from the $25 that the shields cost online) for the public once production ramps up. The Ashley High School team are working closely with New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) for distribution to their staff for free.
NHRMC also is accepting mask donations from the public, but to ensure the utmost safety of their staff, the masks must meet certain specifications. A 5-page PDF with step-by-step instructions on how to make these masks can be found on the NHRMC website alongside drop-off times at the hospital’s business center.