When Mimi Henley and Steve Johnson added onto the garage and workshop at their home in Elgin, they could not have anticipated that their new space would be transformed almost immediately into an assembly line that has produced close to 4000 cloth masks since the beginning of March.

Elin Kentnor folds a mask front into pleats and then secures the folds with large clips that have eliminated the need for pins. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

“It was Elin’s idea,” Henley said. “What are all those sewing machines doing?” Elin Kentnor asked her, looking at Henley’s four machines that she had brought with her from Washington. Soon the two women began to cut out and sew masks to donate to organizations and individuals throughout Arizona and beyond.

Using a website called deaconess.com, which lists people in need of masks by state, they started by sending 160 masks to visiting nurses and to homeless shelters in Tucson. They also donated masks to migrant shelters in Nogales, Sonora. “We wanted to send masks to people who were not high on the list,” explained Kentnor.

They also distributed masks to local restaurants, the Patagonia Clinic and to Desert Streams Clinic in Sonoita. April Anderson, a nurse at Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales, took 80 masks to the hospital for nurses there. They have sent masks to South Tucson and Nogales for social workers to wear when making home visits, and to census workers in Tucson. 100 masks went to the Tuba City hospital, 1000 masks have gone to the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona and 500 masks were sent to the Hopi Reservation.

Henley and Kentnor make a minimum of 50 masks per day and have made as many as 100 in one day. “We couldn’t have done it without Steve’s innovations,” Kentnor said. In the beginning she was cutting each piece of fabric by hand until Johnson fabricated die cuts for cutting the backing and lining filters. She was also pleating the mask fronts by hand and pinning them before handing the front pieces to Henley to sew. She calculates that she made 9,000 pleats before Steve came up with a pleating template and large clips to eliminate the pinning. He also created a hook to make inserting the elastic into the sides of the mask easier.

Kentnor still cuts the front of the masks by hand. She also serges, or finishes, the raw edges of the pocket that holds the filters that they provide with each mask. Henley does the bulk of the sewing.  “The last thing I sewed before this was when my 47-year-old son was three and I made him a clown costume,” Kentnor said.

After experimenting with materials to fashion the nose piece on the masks, they settled on ‘bell’ wire, an 18-gauge, thin, flexible material used for wiring doorbells.

The filters that they insert in the pocket of each mask are made of melt-blown polypropylene, the same material used for N95 masks. This material proved to be too expensive for the women to purchase. Henley, in researching polypropylene, discovered that cambric is the same material. They have found that the most economical way to buy cambric is to purchase shoe bags on Amazon. Each shoe bag can be cut into 18 filters, and the draw strings from the bags are repurposed into ties for the children’s masks that they produce. 

The fronts of the masks are made from donated fabric. The backs of the masks are cut from men’s cotton or cotton/polyester crew neck undershirts. They get 20 pieces out of one XL shirt.

Mimi Henley sews the backing, cut from men’s tee shirts, to the pleated front piece of a mask. The two women have made as many as 100 masks in a day. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Henley estimates that they have used at least a half mile of elastic on their masks so far, much of which has been donated. When they ran out of elastic, they made fabric ties, which many people find more comfortable to wear for long stretches of time. While it was difficult for a time to find elastic, they now have a good supply. “We are really rich in elastic right now,” Henley said.

Henley and Kentnor give all their masks away but will accept donations, which have come mostly from local people. They have received some from Sierra Vista and Tucson, as well as from family and friends. The Mountain Empire Rotary Club has donated $150 to help defray expenses. “Very generous people have bought elastic and fabric,” Henley said. At this point in time they are in need of white, thin mens’ crew neck tee shirts and broadcloth in neutral colors to use as binding.

We weren’t counting on people donating, but there’s no way we’d still be able to do this without donations,” Kentnor said. Henley agreed, adding, “The outpouring of support is staggering.” They plan to continue production as long as there is a need for the masks. “The whole point is that people wear them,” Henley said.