Quadra Island quilter Terry Phillips is running a small but frenetic manufacturing assembly line in her bucolic rural community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When her sister-in-law Wendy Richardson issued a plea in mid-March for cloth masks to protect front-line social service workers on neighbouring Vancouver Island during the novel coronavirus crisis, Phillips turned to her fellow Quadra Island Quilters.

The group, working in tandem with the Campbell River Friendship Quilters Guild, immediately established a cottage industry, revved up their sewing machines and churned out hundreds of masks for those who needed them most.

“The Campbell River Guild made over 500 masks and we made up the balance of 200 masks, which were then distributed in Campbell River and Courtenay," said Phillips.

The bulk of the cloth masks went to workers and clients at the John Howard Society of the North Island (JHSNI), which serves at-risk youth, homeless adults and vulnerable families on Vancouver Island. Any extras were donated to other agencies serving vulnerable people during the pandemic.

Once word got out that Quadra quilters were making the colourful cloth masks for workers in Campbell River, requests started coming in locally, said Phillips.

“We started getting requests from Quadra home-care workers. But I was worried about their effectiveness if they weren’t used carefully,” she said.

But after conversations with members of the Quadra Emergency Program (QEP), Phillips was satisfied steps would be taken to ensure the cloth masks were carefully distributed.

Betty Doak, with the QEP, agreed to take on distribution duties and make sure recipients who got the masks were advised about their limitations and how to use them properly, said Phillips.

“If we had 40 sewers, we’d all have to do 50 masks each to make 2,000. That’s the magic number to cover all the adults on the island," says Quadra Island quilter Terry Phillips, who with volunteers have sewn hundreds of masks for their community.

Expanding production, the group set up a Facebook page that now has 59 members who are either volunteer sewers, or are involved in collection or distribution, or in sourcing or donating supplies.

To improve efficiency and streamline production with volunteer sewers, Phillips and her team are now producing mask kits as well. The kits contain all the supplies and cut materials volunteer sewers need to make 10 to 20 masks.

As of Wednesday, 800 kits had been assembled and about 500 cloth masks had been made by approximately 30 sewers on the island.

The production of individual masks varies according to the volunteer's time and experience, Phillips said.

“People are doing what they can and there’s certainly no pressure. It takes me an hour to do eight masks and I’m pretty fast,” she said. “I gently crack the whip once a day … because I try to give an update on the Facebook page and try to encourage people.”

Phillips is spending on average 10 hours a day in her quilting studio, making at least a 100 mask kits daily and leaving them in her carport for pickup.

“I think we’re all going to burn out,” Phillips said with a laugh.

Richardson, who issued the initial call for masks and is executive director for JHSNI, said she was blown away by the response from the Quadra and Campbell River quilters.

“I couldn’t believe how amazing it was, and it felt good to have that kind of support, especially at the beginning when things felt quite scary,” said Richardson.

But the society’s front-line workers are more critical than ever with the health crisis underway, she said.

“Our clients are more likely to end up in hospital if we’re not working with them,” she said. “But we need to be here to do the work. If we don’t, it will all collapse, and it was very encouraging to be helped.”

Worried about staff and vulnerable clients, Richardson researched cloth masks after she couldn’t get a hold of surgical masks typically used by health workers.

So, she found a good handmade design and floated it by Phillips and JHSNI addictions counsellor, Kerry Hammell, who is also president of the Campbell River Friendship quilters, for feedback.

“Within a week, we had 700 masks. More than we needed,” said Richardson, adding the surplus was donated to other community agencies in Campbell River.

“So many people have graciously donated, not only their time, but also the supplies,” said Richardson, who lives on Quadra and has sewn 100 masks herself.

Wendy Richardson and Kerry Hammell of the John Howard Society North Island wear cloth masks sewn Quadra Island and Campbell River quilting guilds to protect frontline social workers. Photo: courtesy of Johan Howard Society.

Phillips concurs that islanders’ generosity has fuelled the mask-making project.

At one point, the mask makers were struggling to find enough elastic and a mechanism to make the “bendy bit that fits over the nose,” said Phillips.

Residents stepped up and donated cloth and any elastic they had handy, and Quadra’s Aroma Specialty Coffees Roaster provided heavy-duty twist ties used to seal the coffee bags.

“The ties are fantastic. They were just the ticket to solve that nosepiece problem,” Phillips said.

Despite her obvious zeal for producing cloth masks, Phillips has some serious reservations about their use by the public.

She’s worried people will think wearing a cloth mask means they can ease up on COVID-19 prevention measures.

“It’s not an excuse to stop social distancing. Wearing a mask doesn’t protect you from the virus, but it may help with the spread of droplets to those around you,” Phillips stressed.

“Frankly, I think everybody would be safer staying at home, but if you have to go grocery shopping, the people around you will feel better.”

Each cloth mask made by the Quadra group comes packaged with instructions on how to use and clean the mask, along with a lengthy disclaimer that states it in no way replaces a medical grade mask and a list of its limitations.

Despite that, the cloth masks have been requested and distributed to at-risk seniors, those with underlying health conditions, firefighters and medical staff on the island, said Phillips.

The mask-making group has now covered off the high-priority users and is starting to distribute them outside the island’s grocery stores to the public.

And Phillips has an end goal in mind.

“If we had 40 sewers, we’d all have to do 50 masks each to make 2,000. That’s the magic number to cover all the adults on the island.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative