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Sew good to help out

Margaret Mitchell’s idea creates masks for the masses through UIW Project

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Margaret Mitchell (left), who spearheaded an effort to create protective faces masks for nonprofits during the pandemic, is in her studio sewing face coverings (right) to be handed out to children as they enter a local hospital. Photos by RB Ornelas

As a nationally recognized costume designer, Margaret Mitchell — a longtime theater professor at the University of the Incarnate Word — creates impressive garments.

Today her work has moved to another stage, namely limiting the spread of COVID-19 by mass-producing protective masks.

The Terrell Hills resident recently mobilized a cast of colleagues for a pandemic-era production – creating thousands of face coverings for nonprofits in San Antonio and beyond. In just a few months, the project has grown to include students, alumni, nuns and friends, and it’s still going strong.

Back in March, when the virus began expanding across the U.S. and face masks were in short supply, Mitchell got wind of a national movement among costume designers. As curtains came down on live shows and campuses suspended in-person classes, some designers and theater professionals sought ways to help others using their skills to research and produce protective coverings.

“I got an email from a colleague at Carnegie Mellon School of Design about making masks, and I thought, ‘OMG! We can do this!’” Mitchell said.

She first contacted the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the university’s sponsoring ministry, checking to see if Christus Foundation could use them for Christus Santa Rosa Hospital, but the medical facility had adequate supplies.   

At the same time, Sister Jean Durel received an urgent plea from Global Response Management, an international relief organization maintaining a refugee-camp field hospital in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville. Some 3,000 asylum-seekers, mostly women and children, desperately needed coverings.

Sophia Hall, a sophomore at the University of the Incarnate Word, is one of the school’s volunteers crafting protective face masks for nonprofits during the COVID-19 outbreak. The effort was started by Margaret Mitchell, a UIW theater professor. Courtesy photo

Sisters at the foundation, realizing Mitchell’s project might be tailor-made to aid the migrants, put Mitchell and Durel in touch.

“The timing was so incredible,” Durel said. “I was just blown away. Margaret is such a wonderfully caring person, and she was so organized. She had a core team of her colleagues and all kinds of students and former students making masks.”

Teri Lopez, director of UIW’s fashion-management department, and Yesi Tafur de Grancharoff, the university’s costume-studio supervisor, became Mitchell’s original “core team.” They contacted students, past and present, and friends — anyone with a sewing machine and a can-do attitude.

Global Response Management supplied several sewing patterns that met Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.

With the campus largely closed, the group made kits for volunteers to assemble masks at home. Each came with materials, designs and clear instructions.

“We started with things we had in the fashion- and theater-department stock, and then ordered batting and other things. We did fiber testing, since they had to be 100% cotton, and washing,” Mitchell said.

She researched prototypes and fabrics, sharing tips with colleagues worldwide. Mitchell can rattle off many, such as: “If you don’t have a polypropylene filter, flannel is really good — the virus doesn’t like fuzzy things.”

De Grancharoff redesigned the original models, reducing manufacturing time.    

“We simplified them and made fittings on different sizes,” de Grancharoff said. “A few of my students have said sewing is not their thing, but these are life skills. The more you know, the better. This semester, one of the first lessons in my class is going to be making your own mask with a filter.”

Lopez said the pandemic project reminded her of the university’s founders, French nuns who made the arduous journey to San Antonio in 1869 to help quell a devastating cholera epidemic.

“We’re not in the medical field, but I can sit at my sewing machine and make masks. It’s the least I can do,” she said. This fall she wants collegians to create decorative masks for a sale or silent auction, supportive of the Cardinals’ Cupboard Food Pantry, a student-assistance program.

Junior Sharlee Krkosa, a UIW theater major and former student of Mitchell’s, loves the venture.

“Honestly, it has been so nice to use the skills I learned in the costume shop to help others,” she said.

In early May, UIW’s Ettling Center for Civic Leadership and Sustainability took on the project to help expand and continue the work. Mitchell and her team, however, continue to help.

“We have more than 70 students, faculty and staff and community members actively engaged now. It’s an unbelievable example of community,” said center director Ricardo Gonzales González. “We have distributed 1,100 masks to the border, 500 to the Children’s Cancer Research Institute, 400 to Christus Santa Rosa, and 200 to CentroMed.”

For the latter, 800 more are in the works.

“We would love to have more people in the community get involved,” he added. “Parents, seniors, young people – anyone with access to a sewing machine. It’s a great way to get involved and help. With a small grant from the San Antonio Area Foundation we can mail the kits out. We have people helping from New York to New Mexico. What Margaret and her friends began is inspiring, and amazing.”

To help, contact González at the Ettling Center, 210-832-3208 or rigonza4@uiwtx.edu.

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