Considering all the important innovations and scientific research being done during the COVID-19 crisis, some were taken by surprise when a not-so-trendy item suddenly became essential: the home sewing machine.

When the need for fabric facial masks grew, sewing machines came out of dusty closet storage to be rethreaded, plugged in, and put into action. Overnight, people were searching online for mask patterns and the quite elusive 1/8-inch elastic. Home sewing became fashionable again.

For some of us, sewing has always been part of our lives. I began hand sewing doll clothes when I was a child and loved taking sewing classes in junior high so I could learn how to properly read a pattern and use a machine.

My personal sewing machine has been a workhorse since I received it in 1975 from my parents. I am proud of my Singer Fashion Mate Model 258. Quilts, curtains, dresses, dolls, bears, pillows, tote bags; you name it, I probably made it.

Before the invention of sewing machines, women spent much of their time making their family’s clothing by hand. Hours and days were needed to construct and repair the family’s clothes. An experienced seamstress would spend 10 hours hand-sewing a woman’s dress and 14 hours making a man’s dress shirt. As ladies struggled to keep up with their household sewing requirements, sewing became one of the few careers available to women, and skilled seamstresses were in high demand.

The first electric sewing machine was developed by Singer Sewing Company and introduced in 1889. By the end of World War I, sewing machines were available to everyone. As prices became affordable, nearly every home had one. It now took only one-two hours to make a man’s shirt or a woman’s dress.

My machine is always set up, ready to go. I heard about the need for fabric masks and decided to try making some.

Being a quilter and fabric collector, I had plenty of material already here at home. I found patterns online and began stitching, experimenting with elastic lengths and fabric pleats until I found the right combination. I set up a little assembly line with my iron and machine and got busy.

I read about the Illinois Valley Mask Initiative on Facebook and joined them. A month ago, this amazing group had produced over 7,500 masks, donating them to nursing homes, schools, hospitals, groups, and individuals. Some ladies have sewn hundreds of masks. These sewing angels trade tips, fabric, and elastic online and continue to produce masks from home.

And we are not the only ones. Thousands of people across the country are sewing masks for donation and for profit.

Masks are not a cure, but they are effective in slowing the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask in public says that we care about others and don’t want to spread potentially infectious respiratory droplets. Yes, it takes a little time to adjust to wearing them, and fogged up glasses is annoying, but if it keeps us healthy, then we should just do it.

Next, I’m working on ear savers that attach at the back of the head and keep the elastic bands from rubbing on ears.

The humble sewing machine is back in style.

Some of us never doubted it.

• Karen Roth is a semi-retired librarian/educator living in Ottawa. To reach her, email

For more local news, visit News Tribune at