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Lessons and Limits

As it turns out that if one is not well trained in endurance sewing, a good recipe for burnout is making 100 cloth face masks and driving twelve hours to deliver them in one week. My Le Mans effort was 42 masks in 24 hours, when I’d become efficient enough to make one every twenty minutes (not including prep). Then I drove north for three hours to deliver them to someone who distributed them to those who ordered them (thank you for that, if you’re reading this).

As always, burnout is a good teacher.

while sewing I think of the sweat shops in third world countries that produce our cheapest clothing. How in any version of humanity do we countenance that kind of labour? A lifetime behind a sewing machine, hour after hour, week after week. I’m relatively strong, but my soft privileged body can barely walk after one long day of it.

as I wind two more bobbins with black thread I muse about social media and online shopping. How trained we are by Amazon and the like to expect our purchases to arrive the next day. How little we think about what it took to make them, package them, move them, deliver. For nothing.

Emails come in from last weeks orders demanding to updates on delivery times. The bobbin is winding at maximum speed, the orders I’m working on are two weeks old. I’ve been eating food I can get at drive throughs to save time. I can go no faster than this.

I think about how many thousands of times I’ve participated in a transaction – say, ten dollars for a tool – without even the whiff of a thought about the person who designed and made it. Who they are, how they think, if they have a dog or enjoy spaghetti or soccer. The person from whence it came disappears in my need for the ten dollar thing.

I feel lucky to find such a bargain if it’s a tool I use every day, and eventually, as time passes I might forget what I paid for it. It might become part of my person, valued as I value myself – a good tool, a sturdy extension of my need to do. If it wears out, I look for something similar to what I purchased and happily pay $20. Or $100. Then I want to know about the person, or people who have made this thing. I’m inclined to like them.

These masks were designed by an artist and her medical professional partner, who then posted pattern and instructions online (along with a great deal of excellent research into non-medical cloth face masks). Their pattern was then made better by a whole raft of American women, where the pandemic is currently raging. Here’s the link if you want to give it a try:

A honeybee lands on my windshield as I pull out of the parking lot for the second trip north. Without bees there would be no cotton, no Cotton Factory. I thank the bee.

I sew with my right foot bare, so I can feel the torque of the machine with my big toe. I wonder if everyone does.

I have a pile of shapes from each piece of fabric I’ve ironed, folded and cut mask patterns from. Many of them look like leaves and in my mind I’m sewing a tree make from cloth face mask leavings, with leaves of every colour.

A blanket out of the scraps from pandemic mask production. This feels more than appropriate. When we get through this.

On the way back from the second delivery of 42 masks I realize I have reached the limits of my order-taking capacity. My boundaries are wearing thin with the demands for updates and delivery times, some of them toxic with passive aggressive anxiety. I’m out of ribbon and the elastic I’ve ordered from China will take some weeks to get here.

I need to stop eating take out food. My stories are calling for further edits, for music, for illustration, for video. Satisfying as this has been, I have other work to do and it’s important.

So fifty more orders left to fulfil, and then I take a breather.

This mask making will continue, but not on social media and in a more sustainable, helpful way. Stay tuned.