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Not just for plague doctors now: sew your own masks

Jeannie Rosenberg

In the 17th century, some doctors wore bird-like masks to protect themselves from the plague, which was thought to be propagated through ill winds and smells. The beak was stuffed with scented flowers and herbs, to protect the wearer.

“The beak doctor costume worn by plague doctors had a wide-brimmed leather hat to indicate their profession,” Wikipedia says. “They used wooden canes in order to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them. The canes were also used to keep people away, to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them, and to take a patient’s pulse.”

There you have it, the original social distancing.


An engraving circa 1721 shows a plague doctor of Marseilles identified as Dr Schnabel or Dr Beak of Rome The beak like nose case is stuffed with herbs etc to help protect against the plague IMAGE Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Fast forward to 2020, and masks are in style again. Back in March, the word from the experts was that homemade cloth masks were too porous to stop the coronavirus, and therefore of little use, although they did help others more than the actual wearers. But we are learning as we go along, and now they have become de rigueur in some settings. True, they do not filter out the virus, but they are a barrier to aerosols spewed from people’s mouths when they cough, sneeze, sing, speak, and breathe; and it is these aerosols that carry the virus. So while they are not as effective as the N95 mask used in the ICU, they are still “better than nothing,” besides being a fashion statement showing that you are taking the pandemic seriously and want to protect your neighbours.

So I started making masks. Being a quilter, I have a whole trunk full of scraps of cotton fabric, and the pattern was so easy and fun I made a whole bunch, most of which I gave away. If you google “how to make a mask” on the internet, you will find a mass of information, but bear in mind that a pair of shorts pulled over your head is pretty minimal.

It is pretty simple, but I added a couple of tweaks: don’t sew over the slot in the top (through which you turn it right-side out), but leave it open, to insert a piece of coffee filter paper or paper towel, making it much more effective. (Take it out when you wash the mask, and insert a new piece when it is dry). Also, you can sew down the raw edges of the slot and insert a piece of pipe-cleaner to mold over the nose. If you can find some better wire, it might not migrate and twist in the wash ….

I used ties instead of elastic: this is for myself, because the elastic pulls off my hearing aids when I remove the mask. There is already limited space behind my ears with my hearing aids, glasses, and sunglasses. (How lucky we are to live at a time when our waning senses can be mitigated by technology!)
We know a lot more than we did in the terrifying plague times of past centuries. And next year we will know still more. Meanwhile, stay safe! Wearing a mask is only one little piece of protection, but along with all the other advice you are tired of looking at — it all helps.

Jeannie Rosenberg practised medicine in Huntingdon for 38 years.


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Ian G 2020-07-02 at 11:01

Excellent article and history lesson 🙂

Alex B 2020-07-02 at 10:24

Thanks for sharing this article, it’s good to know we can sew on our own face masks, I’m also a quilter and I have at home some cotton fabrics I can use.


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