For two months now, Americans have been getting crash courses on how to sew masks. Many cities and states across the country have required mask-wearing in public to help the contain the spread of COVID-19, and people have responded, making masks at home for themselves, for their communities, and for front-line workers. For many people sheltering in place, mask-making is a constructive diversion: sewing groups are issuing challenges, drawing from patterns and instructions that abound on the internet, and both major retailers and individuals on sites like Etsy are selling fabric and elastic. What these crafters may not realize is that they are part of a long history of utilizing feminized skills, such as sewing and knitting, in the face of an emergency.
Indeed, during the Civil War, for instance, women were expected to help supply soldiers with clothing and even bandages. It may sound outlandish now, but bandage-making was an extension of a familiar woman’s job of caring for injured and ill family members. Newspapers offered instructions: For example, a Bangor, ME, newspaper offered a chart of desired dimensions and help sending finished items to soldiers. If they didn’t have new fabric, women were encouraged to repurpose sheets or clothing.
In addition to bandages, women on both sides of the conflict sewed shirts and slippers, knit socks and mittens, and sent sons and husbands to war with homemade quilts. All of this, of course, drew upon deep assumptions of what women should know and do, as well as the type of education girls received. Embracing this gendered division of skill and labor, women called their sewing and knitting needles their “weapons,” and sewing groups in Natchez, MS, named themselves the “Needle Regiments.”
Women continued to use these gendered skills to supply troops in the 20th century. Bandage-making moved out of the home and was organized by the American Red Cross, but remained women’s work. Headquartered in donated space in Hartford, CT, the Red Cross Surgical Dressing efforts sometimes used machinery to stretch and roll “surgical dressings,” but the work was largely organized by, and relied on, women’s volunteer labor. Note that this image of a “children’s branch” consists of all girls. One can only imagine that the boys were elsewhere doing suitably “masculine” jobs.
Even if they were lucky enough to avoid needing bandages, the soldiers were frequently cold. Uniforms did not include hats, sweaters, or mittens, and once again, this gap in military provisions was filled by women. The Red Cross organized knitting drives, providing standardized patterns for balaclavas, socks, “wristlets,” and mittens, and shipped finished work to Europe. Boys were also taught to knit, complicating the idea that this labor was women’s work..
The sewing industry joined the fight, with companies such as the Butterick Sewing Company offering patterns and encouragement. The Butterick magazine, the Delineator, scolded women—“Every hour that you waste, you throw away the life of one of our soldiers”—while acknowledging that sewing and knitting might not seem like very glamorous war work:
When we think of the war work we would like to do, it is in terms of ambulance drivers, aviation pilots, and that strangely moving thing—the Russian Regiment of Death. Yet these roles are for the few, and they alone cannot win the war. Back of them must be a great army of workers, ready to take up the humblest task leading to victory.Delineator, November 1917, 37
This rhetoric and organization were effective: According to historian Anne L. Macdonald, American women sent an estimated 24 million knitted items to the front.
The Red Cross got back to work during World War II. Two galleries at the New-York Historical Society became surgical dressing stations, where hundreds of women produced four million 4″ x 8″ dressings that were boxed, shipped, and sterilized. Knitting also continued furiously, as the War Production Board made the Red Cross responsible for knitted items for troops and gave them priority for receiving wool. As in World War I, the organization supplied patterns, organized civilians, and shipped finished articles to troops. Meanwhile, propaganda posters drew parallels between military service and domestic craft labor.
The relationship between domestic craft labor and the military has changed dramatically today. Individuals send care packages and Girl Scout cookies to troops, but the military no longer asks civilians to augment uniforms or supply bandages. However, the current movement of home sewists creating masks for medical and civilian use bears a striking resemblance to these wartime efforts from the past. While the language no longer implies that mask making is “women’s work,” the instructional videos and patterns on the internet are largely created and explained by women. Multiple patterns designed by female nurses who also identify as quilters or hobby sewists are available online. Numerous individuals and organizations offer instructional videos. I personally know men who are creating masks, but have yet to see one of these videos narrated by a man.
This all resonates with me: I enjoy sewing and wrote a book exploring how the craft is steeped in gendered ideas of education and household labor. For me, mask-making offers a soothingly step-by-step activity with a concrete result, at a time when normal daily routines and expectations have been thrown out the window. I send my masks, using this pattern created by a nurse, to friends and family to help but also to connect to people I care about. I use cheerful fabric, ask whether recipients prefer elastics or ties, and line child-sized masks with a soft knit cut from old crib sheets. I’m now making a batch with my teenage daughter to give to the local hospital and to put in the “take-if-you need, give-if-you-can” cupboard outside a local church. My mother is also finding that mask-making is a good way to spend her enforced solitude, especially while listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.
While I enjoy the mask sewing process, hopefully I won’t need to do this work much longer. But until there is a viable vaccine, home mask makers will continue to do what they can to help during this national crisis.
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History