NJ Theaters & Organizations Create Fabric Masks to Combat COVID-19 Spread

Theater costumers and local grassroots organizations unite sewing buffs in a movement to help healthcare workers and the greater community.

fabric masks
Face coverings by the Mercer Mask Project and Sarah Romagnoli of McCarter Theatre Center donning one of her fabric masks.

On Friday, April 3, the CDC announced a new guideline for the public to help slow the spread of COVID-19—wear a face covering, such as a cloth mask, when in public settings where social distancing is difficult. New Jersey’s stay-at-home orders are still in effect, except for when people need essential goods and services.

Weeks before this recommendation, theater wardrobe departments and community stitchers had the same idea. With sewing machines, extra material and a desire to counteract medical mask shortages, seamstresses got to work.

Cindy Rosen, a Robbinsville resident and real estate broker, is involved with the organization Project Linus, which makes blankets for children in need. In mid-March, when she saw that people were creating homemade masks, Rosen posted about her stash of material on Facebook. “I basically said, ‘Does anyone need fabric? Come get it off my porch,'” she says.

Soon after, Rosen and four other community members decided to launch their own initiative: the Mercer Mask Project, a collective of sewers several dozen strong, with Brittany Cole of Princeton Junction serving as lead sewer. To date, the group has created 2,000 masks that have been donated to hospitals, pharmacies, health care professionals, first responders, non-profits, elder care facilities, supermarkets, correctional facilities and more.

In addition to recruiting stitchers and collecting fabric donations, the organization began requesting gift cards to fabric stores like Joann Fabric and Craft.

“The need just exceeded all the donated materials,” says Rosen. Now, the group has a GoFundMe page for monetary donations.

Courtesy of McCarter Theatre Center

Beyond masks, the need for gowns is also growing. The Mercer Mask Project is currently fulfilling two requests for 100 gowns for an elder care facility and for Capital Health Hospitals.

Hamilton Washery Laundromat is cleaning sheets and fabric, and Printworx in Hamilton is printing sewing patterns for free.

“The community has really stepped up to the plate on this,” says Rosen.

Also among those lending a hand to the Mercer Mask Project is the ten-person costume shop team at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.

For one McCarter worker, Sarah Romagnoli, creating these masks has personal significance. Her sister, who is a military doctor in Louisville, Kentucky, told Romagnoli that mask stockpiles would run out. “So I video-conferenced with her about what she thought the ideal mask would be,” said Romagnoli in a press release. “[She] wanted extra-large washable masks to fit over her medical mask.”

Clockwise from left: Fabric masks by American Repertory Ballet’s Janessa Cornell Urwin, face coverings by George Street Playhouse’s costume shop manager Joleen Addleman Loyd and masks by McCarter Theater Center’s costume shop workers. Center’s costume shop workers.

Similarly, a few weeks ago Janessa Cornell Urwin, wardrobe supervisor for the New Brunswick–based American Repertory Ballet, heard from her stepsister who works in a large health clinic outside Boston. Masks and other supplies were becoming scarce, and she asked Cornell Urwin if she had any extra reserves. Instead, Cornell Urwin said, “Well, I could make them.”

“I wasn’t sure if cotton masks would be useful for medical professionals at first,” she says. When her stepsister explained that washable fabric masks can be placed over N95 medical masks, Cornell Urwin scrounged through her fabric supply and began sewing. Since, she’s made more for her family and friends. “I’ll make as many as I have fabric for,” she says.

Although pitching in is gratifying, the American Repertory Ballet—and all other performance groups and venues that are temporarily shut down—are also battling their own effects of the coronavirus pandemic. As of March 16, Governor Phil Murphy suspended operation of indoor shopping malls, casinos, racetracks, gyms, fitness centers, movie theaters, performing arts centers, nightclubs and other concert and entertainment centers.

Cornell Urwin and her small wardrobe team are still working on some costumes for American Repertory Ballet and the Princeton Ballet School. “We’re lucky to still be busy,” she says, “but we would have been really, really busy.”

Others keeping busy include Jim Vagias, producing artistic director for the South Orange–based American Theatre Group.

Vagias knew he wanted to create fabric masks but didn’t know how. He also had never used a sewing machine. His friend directed him to a sewing pattern she saw in the New York Times, and his wife taught him how to use her machine.

“With all that’s going on, I felt this need to do something to contribute,” he says.

He started with what he already had: fabric with a patriotic pattern of stars and stripes. When he needed more material, he donned one of his homemade coverings and headed to the local fabric store.

Vagias plans to donate his small pile of masks—he estimates he has 12–15 currently, but hopes to finish 20—to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, or another local hospital.

The Two River Theater costume shop used fabrics from past shows to make masks. Here, the same cherry-print fabric used for this actor’s costume was made into a mask. Courtesy of Two River Theater

Small-scale efforts are not insignificant.

George Street Playhouse’s costume shop manager Joleen Addleman Loyd crafted masks for a friend who is a nurse at Robert Wood Johnson.

Centenary Stage Company‘s resident costume designer Meghan Reeves is teaching all costume design students how to make masks to support Heath Village Retirement Community.

Gayle Stahlhuth, artistic director for East Lynne Theater Company in Cape May, is personally sewing and donating masks.

Two River Theater in Red Bank donated gloves and N95 masks they had on hand for their set construction team to Riverview Medical Center, and delivered masks made by their costume shop to CareOne at King James in Atlantic Highlands. They used fabric from past shows, including cherry-printed material from Joe Iconis’s Love in Hate Nation.

Just this week, the Arts Council of Princeton launched the Sew Many Masks initiative. Community members can cut fabric into patterns for masks or sew the fabric into masks themselves. The completed masks can be picked up (no charge) by those who need them.

“It’s our way to show support for people on the frontlines,” says Vagias, speaking for all participating in grassroots mask-making efforts.

“What I’m doing is minuscule,” he adds. “Healthcare workers, those are the people that are the heroes [to whom] we owe an enormous debt.”

How you can help:

The Mercer Mask Project is seeking sewers, fabric donations and monetary contributions. To get involved, visit their Facebook page or website. The group holds Zoom meetings each day for anyone who needs assistance creating the masks or has other questions.

Cornell Urwin suggests joining Facebook groups such as Sew the Curve Flat (a national group of stitchers), or consulting the Indiana-based Deaconess Health System’s website to find sewn-mask instructions or search the donation database.

The CDC has also provided basic instructions for making masks here.

Beyond homemade supplies, personal protective equipment (P.P.E) and other medical supplies can be donated to the state through this form.

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