In 31 years as ISU Theatre’s costume shop supervisor, Doris Nash only remembers one time when the shop had to sew a face mask.
“Once, years and years ago, we needed a doctor’s smock and mask,” she recalled. “The designer wanted them to match. We made them hospital green with the white ties.”
Now, protective face masks are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an important way to limit the spread of COVID-19, and ISU Theatre is stepping up to play its part during the pandemic. Since March, the ISU Theatre costume shop’s faculty, staff and student assistants have sewn more than 600 face masks to send to hospitals and nonprofits across the country, from New York to California.
A new form of citizen artistry
Nash came up with the idea when Iowa State classes moved online in March. With productions paused and the costume shop shuttered, she was concerned about student shop assistants losing their employment. She considered having them sew at home to restock shop items that are always in need, such as accessory bags or petticoats.
Then she found a project that was a perfect fit for both Iowa State’s land grant mission of service and outreach and for ISU Theatre’s mission of citizen artistry.
"Being a citizen artist is a big part of ISU Theatre. How do we serve our community and how do we draw from our community and also give back?"
In partnership with Sew The Curve Flat, university theatre costume shops around the country started sewing face masks this spring. Sew The Curve Flat is a national network that matches volunteers who want to sew with hospitals and community organizations in need of supplemental personal protective equipment.
Nash got the green light from Iowa State for the shop’s student assistants to participate, and a new form of Iowa State citizen artistry was born.
“Being a citizen artist is a big part of ISU Theatre,” Kelly Schaefer, associate teaching professor of theatre, said. “How do we serve our community and how do we draw from our community and also give back? This was something beyond performing a show, though not to diminish that. This was something different to help our community.”
Nash created simple grab-and-go kits by recycling extra cotton fabric remnants in the shop. Each plastic gallon bag contained enough cut fabric rectangles and elastic to sew 30 masks at home. The masks were simple to make without any technical supervision.
“It was easy for someone to leave their finished kit and pick up a new one,” Nash said. “We tried to make it as simple as possible so they didn’t feel like they were in the shop longer than they needed to be.”
Mali Bilstad (‘22 integrated studio arts) and Grace Olson (‘20 apparel merchandising and design) have both participated in sewing, along with Nash, Schaefer and Natalie Hining, ISU Theatre specialist.
Once classes moved online, Olson figured her job at the costume shop was over. Then she learned she could use her skills to support healthcare and nonprofit workers.
“This project has been great because making masks is important if you have those sewing skills,” she said. “It feels good to be doing something with my talents to help people who are using their talents. It’s really rewarding.”
Acts of caring
Nash recently sewed 30 masks with clear vinyl window inserts at the request of a performing arts alumna who works with Iowans who are deaf or hard of hearing. The clear inserts are essential when people need to read the lips of someone wearing a mask. Nash has also been asked about custom-fit masks for campus community members with specific needs.
As another act of caring for their students, ISU Theatre also plans to sew face masks for their student community this fall.
The sewing is simpler than the silvery wings Nash constructed for a climactic fight scene in last fall’s “Anon(ymous).” The planning is less complicated than the multiple spreadsheets Schaefer prepared for “9 to 5.”
The purpose, though, is just as powerful.
Playing their part
One of Schaefer's own favorite masks is made from fabric used for the costume she wore when playing Antonio in ISU Theatre’s “The Tempest.”
“It is green and a has a Fleur de Lis pattern,” she said. “I wanted a mask out of that leftover fabric because it represents time and creativity to me.”
Time and creativity — two qualities the ISU Theatre costume shop continues to share as it plays a part in fighting COVID-19.
If you’re interested in sewing face masks, ISU Theatre uses this simple pattern shared by Sew The Curve Flat and the Deaconess Health System.