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Griswold group making masks a priority throughout the pandemic

Back when fabric and elastic were a scarce commodity early in the pandemic, a group of enterprising sewists had to get creative to distribute free masks to an unprepared public.

Janice Steinhagen, founder of Griswold CT Masks for Heroes, likened the shortages to the run on paper goods in the wider community.

“Elastic was the toilet paper of the sewing world,” she said. “Things were pretty dire early on, when the need was so great and the supply was so spotty.”

Volunteers like Barbara Pasteris and Doris Tillinghast, both of Plainfield, found themselves scrounging rubber bands from post offices in the area. A dearth of fabric led others to the bedding department of local stores instead of the sewing section.

“We were buying sheet sets at Ocean State Job Lot and cutting them up, and even cannibalizing the elastic out of fitted sheets when we could,” Steinhagen said.

That was one year ago. Or, to measure time in a different way, it was 16,805 masks in the past.

Now, with the supply chain stabilized and the cloth face coverings a ubiquitous reality, the group of sewers and helpers that started as a way to protect first responders and frontline personnel has evolved to provide masks for a much wider swath of the community.

From a hub in her front yard, Steinhagen acts as the liaison between the volunteers and the people they serve. Sewists can pick up supplies from the bins laid out on her lawn and return them as fully realized masks for organizations and individuals to collect.

Frontline workers

Recipients of the masks and caps include hospitals, nursing homes, schools, fire stations and police departments in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The volunteer-run operation has been bolstered by donations from all over the area, including one stall at the Jewett City Flea Market that helped start it all. Steinhagen said Flo White handed over all the elastic she had in stock back when there was very little of the stuff to be found. Since then, donations have come in the form of metal nose pieces from the Hillery Company in Groton, buttons for scrub caps from US Button Corporation in Putnam, and more elastic from Norbut Manufacturing in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Steinhagen also uses monetary donations to purchase items for the bins.

Sue Collins, of Griswold, started making masks for the group using her late mother’s leftover thread, material and even her sewing machine. She said the service project has helped her remain connected to the memory of the meticulous woman who strove to ensure every sewing project was perfect.

“So I’m a bit of a fanatic about making sure everything is knotted and tied and pressed, because she’s in the back of my mind.” she said.

Collins has made 1,050 masks and scrub caps to date. Her first project was a delivery of 160 black masks to the Norwich Police Department, where her son is an officer.

Hundreds of masks

Pasteris and Tillinghast, who are known as the group’s “Iron Seamstresses,” came to Griswold CT Masks for Heroes having already sewn 1,200 masks as part of New Life Assembly of God in Griswold. Pasteris said the duo stopped keeping track of their ou put when they reached 2,000.

One project that stands out as the most gratifying for many in the group was the 250 green and white masks —with a signature wolverine claw print — created for Griswold High School’s drive-through graduation in the spring of 2020.

Other students in the school system benefited from specialized masks for playing musical instruments and singing — as well as covers for the instruments themselves.

The group also donated upwards of 2,000 masks to Naval Submarine Base New London.

Steinhagen said the need first became apparent when submariners who had been deployed at the time the pandemic hit “suddenly were appearing on shore with no masks.”

The group fashioned the face coverings in those early days from sheets that matched the Navy’s “coyote brown” color requirement on one side, with more fanciful designs on the other. Fabric featuring the likes of Marvel superheroes, Super Mario Brothers, Star Wars, mermaids, pirates and various sea life added “a touch of whimsy” that appeals to the servicemembers and their families, according to Steinhagen.

Giving some purpose

For Pasteris, the service project that consumed eight hours per day before hip surgery slowed down production has given her purpose during the pandemic. A former critical care nurse forced into retirement by a stroke in 2016, she is gratified to be able to help people once again.

“I could not care at the bedside any longer, but I could care at my sewing machine,” she said.

Steinhagen praised the members of Griswold CT Masks for Heroes — with 250 people on the group’s Facebook page and approximately 15 active sewists at any given moment — for helping to keep the community safe one mask at a time.

“It’s inspiring to me to see that kind of spirit of paying it forward in our community,” she said. “It’s given me a lot of hope through a very difficult and trying and sometimes very dark time. To see that kind of hope in action really keeps me going.”

Elizabeth Regan lives in Salem.

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