Ottawa

Sewing volunteers right on the button for health-care workers

An army of sewers is mustering its thread, needle, bobbins and especially buttons to join the fight against COVID-19. Its troops will fashion skull caps, scrub hats, headbands and non-medical masks out of fabric, using centuries-old skills that are suddenly in demand in a modern pandemic.

Fabric headbands, scrub hats, skull caps make masks more bearable

Ottawa health-care workers show off their crowd-sourced buttoned headbands made by Sewing for Ottawa volunteers. Their masks are held on with elastics which normally put pressure on the sensitive area behind the ears. The buttons help alleviate that pressure. (Submitted by Jordana McIlhenney )

An army of sewers is mustering its thread, needle, bobbins and especially buttons to join the fight against COVID-19. 

Its troops will fashion skull caps, scrub hats, headbands and non-medical masks out of fabric, using centuries-old skills that are suddenly in demand in a modern pandemic.

Here are two Ottawa initiatives that are helping answer the call.

EcoEquitable

Anouk Bertner is executive director of EcoEquitable, an Ottawa charity and social enterprise that provides temporary work and training for immigrant and underemployed women.

Because it's not deemed an essential service, the organization was one of many that shut down in March.

And we thought, oh my gosh, we can do that.- Anouk Bertner, EcoEquitable

Bertner reached out to The Ottawa Hospital to see if her battalion of skilled sewers could help with the scarcity of personal protective equipment. She was directed to the province's procurement website, where she discovered EcoEquitable was not equipped to make medical-grade equipment.

"They all had these really, really high requirements in terms of flammability and blood permeability. So I took a step back and I said, OK, we're not gonna do masks."

But then an industrial designer reached out via email and shared a picture of a U.S. nurse wearing a headband with buttons. 

Because the elastic bands that secure medical-grade masks put pressure on the back of the wearer's ears, nurses and doctors have been sewing buttons onto headbands to hold the masks in place.

"And we thought, oh my gosh, we can do that," Bertner said.

A prototype is currently being field-tested by a nurse at the Queensway Carleton Hospital. The initial design got mixed reviews, according to Bertner. "She said, 'I love the stretching. I love the fabric. But the buttons are just a little bit high.' So we're going to make a few changes." 

EcoEquitable is launching an Indigogo campaign on Friday to raise money to commission its workers to sew a buttoned-headband "for every nurse in Ottawa to start off with. And then every nurse in Ontario and then eventually all of Canada, if we get that kind of public support," Bertner said.

Sewing for Ottawa

A Facebook group called Sewing for Ottawa is also joining the fight after its creator and organizer, Jordana McIlhenney, noticed nurses reaching out on social media, looking to purchase headbands or scrub hats with buttons to hook their masks onto.

"I thought, they shouldn't be paying for these things. They are front-line workers and we should be helping them," McIlhenney said.

She tapped into her network of skilled artisans to sew headbands with buttons, using donated materials or textiles purchased at cost through Ottawa's Mimi Fabrics. Buy Nothing groups across Ottawa also put out a call for fabric and buttons, and donations poured in.

It's just incredible. I am so proud of our city.- Jordana McIlhenney, Sewing for Ottawa

"We have over 180 sewers working on these requests. We have over 100 requests from various hospital units across the city. It's just incredible. I am so proud of our city," McIlhenney said.

Health-care workers who are using the finished products call McIlhenney and her crew of sewers "angels."

"They're so happy that we're saving their ears. I've had people come back and … make another request because now 'my nursing friend at this unit is interested,' and it's great that they're loving it."

And in the giving back, there is receiving. "I was moping around my house feeling helpless," McIlhenney said. "Now I feel like I'm actually helping and fighting this virus and doing something positive. A lot of our sewers feel the same way." 

People can donate money, fabric or buttons here, or order finished headbands or scrub caps via email info@ottawahandmade.com or on Facebook here

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