My nook workshop

Because not knowing can cost you your life.

Buying a facemask is not like buying a new shirt – your life and the lives of those you love, and even strangers’ lives depend on you getting it right. As a mask-maker, I take the responsibility to make the best mask possible, very seriously – I did not get into this to get rich, I started out making masks so everyone who needs one, would have one. I spend a lot of time studying research on the performance of various mask designs and fabrics, resulting in many improvements over the past few months.  My goal is to provide the best possible cloth mask, not only to protect others (as we are told is the primary reason to wear a mask) but to also protect you – since, after all, you are the one responsible enough to wear a mask.

It didn’t take long for big business, using cheap labor, cheap materials and paying no attention to effectiveness, to jump on the masks bandwagon, with only one goal – turn our fear into profit. More than half of the ads on my Facebook and online news reports are for masks – mostly from overseas. As part of my research, I click on all of them, which probably explains why so many ads for facemasks pop up on my screen. I look for details beyond the hype because in this case, the details can make the difference between life and death.

Not one of these mass-produced facemasks tells you the thread count of the fabric. Many do not even have nose wires, and those that do, tout that it will prevent your glasses from fogging up, never mentioning the necessity of a good fit. Many are made with synthetic fabrics that do not breathe and are not absorbent – both factors that have proven to be very relevant to the efficacy and comfort of a mask.

Very few masks come in more than one size, ignoring the fact that human heads come in many shapes and sizes, as I learned when I took the time to see how the masks I make fit my customers. Even kids’ masks need to be in at least two sizes.

I am going to explain here some of the things you need to consider when choosing a mask, including filters, thread-count, breathability, absorbency and fit. Please make the time to read this, and pass it on, because it is important.

Let’s start with the mask filters

Some masks offer a place to insert a filter which is often made of multiple layers of synthetic, non-woven fibers and even an activated carbon filter. They recommend that you replace these inserts every time you wear your mask, at a cost of $1 each. If you have several people in your family, you could be spending over $100 every month on filters that don’t breathe and that may have dangerous microfibers or toxins, that you are inhaling. And they end up where? Right – in the trash and then in our landfills or our oceans where we really don’t need any more non-biodegradable crap that’s infested with a deadly virus. I also wonder how much CO2 is produced to create those billions of charcoal layers, because, after we survive this virus, we still have to deal with climate change.

The filter makers imply these make their sub-par masks more effective. This reminds me of the dirt-cheap ink-jet printers with voracious appetites for expensive, environmentally horrible replacement ink cartridges. Even if these filters were effective at blocking virus-laden particles, both entering and exiting the mask (which they clearly refute on their websites, stating: This product makes no claims of antimicrobial protection, antiviral protection, particulate filtration, or infection prevention or reduction), they make it difficult to breathe. All of those non-woven layers make it more difficult to suck in the oxygen you need to stay alive, and expel carbon dioxide from your mask.  

It may seem counterintuitive to want a mask to be breathable, when you are trying to block viruses from getting into your nose and mouth, but here is what happens if you block the passage of air from your nose and mouth – you force the air to come in (on your inhale) and go out (on your exhale) through the gaps in the sides and bottom of the mask, where there is no filter at all! This is why those N95 masks made for workers in environments that have dust or irritants in the air, have those exhalation valves (which, by the way, make them useless in preventing you from exhaling coronavirus into the air). Not only are you uncomfortable and inclined to rip off your mask the first chance you get, but the mask isn’t really protecting you or those you encounter.

And look at the shape of those filters – they are rectangular and do not go up to your nose or down to your chin – again – the air isn’t going to fight to get through it – it’s going to go around it.

A Science Daily report on the best and worst materials for masks, states:

“…there are two ‘intuitive ways’ that masks filter larger aerosols: mechanical interception and inertial impaction.

“The denser the fibers of a material, the better it is at filtering. That’s why higher thread counts lead to higher efficacy. There’s just more to block the virus,” she said. “But some masks (such as those made from silk) also have electrostatic properties, which can attract smaller particles and keep them from passing through the mask as well.”

Our Chrysalis mask comes with a re-usable, double-layer, raw silk insert that we’ve shaped to fill the mask area. Silk has been proven, due to its electrostatic properties, to snag particles and hold onto them. If coronavirus is hiding in those particles or droplets that make their way through the mask’s cotton layer, they are unlikely to get into your nose or mouth, or out into the community, because they are going to stay in the insert. When you get home, you carefully remove the insert and wash it in the bathroom sink with warm soapy water while you are washing your hands. You hang up the insert to dry and it will be ready to play Catch-the-Virus the next time you put it into your mask. It is important not to use detergents or very hot water on the silk because you want to protect its electrostatic properties. But, hey, you are going to wash your hands anyway – so wash your insert at the same time! Nothing goes into the landfill, and no daily dollar is going to the filter mongers’ bank account.

But wait, there’s more! (to steal a phrase from late night advertising) Natural silk breathes!

Why your mask needs to breathe

Natural fibers, such as cotton and silk, have always been valued because of their breathability (air permeability). However, if cotton and silk “breathe”, won’t they allow virus-laden particles to slip through? Is there a tradeoff between comfort and efficacy? I asked the same question when I designed the Chrysalis mask.  We use two layers of high-thread-count cotton with a double-layer natural silk insert in-between. The natural fibers make it easier for people to wear their mask for long periods and still feel comfortable. However, is a breathable mask as effective as synthetics in blocking virus particles? Yes! In fact, more so if there are multiple layers. Tests prove that multiple-layer cotton masks can be as effective in preventing particles from getting into your airways, or out into the air, as surgical masks! There are several reasons why. First – as I explained earlier, if air can’t get through your mask, it’s going to come in and go out from around your mask. That is where the multiple layers are important – if the particles slip through the weave of the first layer, they lose velocity and won’t make it through the second, third or fourth – especially if two of those layers have the electrostatic properties of raw silk or chiffon. (We opted against chiffon because it does not breathe and it is awful to sew.)

I don’t want to be as tightly woven as my mask should be.

Studies show that cotton fabric with a high thread count is an effective particle blocker. So, what is a high thread count? The weave of cloth is measured by the threads-per-inch (TPI) which is the number of threads in a lengthwise (warp) inch plus the number of threads in the vertical (weft) inch. For example, the cotton prints we use for the exterior of our Chrysalis masks have warp 68, weft 60 = 128 TPI. This offers good blockage. Our black and cream Pimatex masks are even better with 200 TPI! One test showed that 600 TPI cotton blocks almost as well as an N95 filter – but then you get into the breathability issue discussed earlier. So, I think the Chrysalis mask is a good middle ground, especially because we use a 200 TPI cotton broadcloth for the mask inside, in addition to the double-layer silk insert. In any case, I have not seen a single mask ad that provides the thread count, and as best as I can tell, they are made with flimsy 60 TPI polyester or poly/cotton blends. The openings in those weaves must look like the Lincoln Tunnel to a virus.

While talking about virus tunnels, let’s look at the reason I designed the Chrysalis mask to use a pleat down the center, rather than the cone shape achieved by stitching two curved pieces of fabric together. I don’t think it is a good idea to put a seam down the center of the mask – the gap in the seam plus the punctures in the fabric made by sewing the seam… well you might as well put a virus freeway right through the center of your mask! The center pleat gives you the same room for your nose, whatever size it may be, while preserving the integrity of the outside and inside layers of the mask.

Oh, those exquisite Mexican embroidered masks

I know this is a sensitive subject. Those embroidered masks sold by street vendors and online are so artistic and lovely, who can resist them? Please resist them! Even if you choose to ignore the slave wages paid to the women who make them, you cannot ignore the punctures made in the fabric when they are embroidered. The beautiful embroidery hides the flimsy fabric – because you cannot sell a mask for less than $5 without cutting every corner possible. If you want embroidery, buy a blouse, but do not use it for a mask.

Which brings us to gaiters

A lot of people like the comfort and style of the stretchy T-shirt material used in neck or face gaiters. Just think about it – knits stretch! And when they stretch, the openings between the fibers get bigger! But if the lunacy of that logic escapes you, here’s something more scientific from an August 7, 2020 paper in Science Advances   states:

We noticed that speaking through some masks (particularly the neck fleece) seemed to disperse the largest droplets into a multitude of smaller droplets (see Supplementary Fig. S5), which explains the apparent increase in droplet count relative to no mask in that case. Considering that smaller particles are airborne longer than large droplets (larger droplets sink faster), the use of such a mask might be counterproductive.

Emphasis is mine. To put it bluntly – neck gaiters are cool but useless in blocking virus particles.

Why is cotton better than synthetics in mask protection?

My first inclination was to make our Chrysalis masks with cotton because it is so comfortable. To steal a quote – the best mask is the one you will wear (except in the case of neck gaiters). Not only does cotton breathe, it is also absorbent. And that’s really critical when it comes to comfort. Case in point – when we were recently considering making a bandana version of our Chrysalis mask, I tried putting our Safety Silk Insert inside a polyester bandana I happened to have. It was a warm day here in San Diego and in less than a half hour I had to take off the bandana. I was sweaty, sticky, and uncomfortable. We eventually came up with a bandana mask worthy of the Chrysalis name that I will tell you about later. That polyester bandana simply was not absorbent and it is the absorbency of cotton that makes it comfortable. Surprisingly, it also makes it a more effective barrier. When a droplet soaks into a fiber, the fiber expands, thus increasing the blocking properties of the fabric – up to a point. A soaking wet mask is neither comfortable nor effective. But within reason, the absorbency of cotton, in addition to breathability and comfort, makes it a better choice for a mask – especially for the layer closest to your skin.

If the mask fits, the virus must quit

OK – that was corny. Even the best mask in the world isn’t going to protect you or those around you if it doesn’t fit snug against your face. As I explained earlier, if the air you exhale can’t go through your mask, it’s going to exit through the path of least resistance – and that could be anywhere that the mask meets (or should I say, doesn’t meet) your face. But what about the aerosolized particles that shoot toward you when a person coughs or sneezes?  It’s easy to visualize particles being shot in a straight line through the air toward your face and assuming that as long as your nose and mouth are covered with a mask, you’re cool. But you would be wrong.

I realized this a few weeks ago when I had to make an emergency visit to the dentist. While she was using a high-pitched tool to clean out a tooth that had lost its crown, (would you call that a dethroned tooth?) I could see in the bright light she had poised above me, thousands of tiny particles dancing around. They were not all swooshing in one direction – to magically disappear before reaching the 6-foot safe zone. No, they were lazily meandering and making a slow multi-directional decent. Because it turns out, that is what particles do. Think about a time that a ray of sunlight came into your room and within that sunbeam you saw all of this dust floating around. My first thought is always, Damn! There is a lot of dust in my house! Yeah – that’s how particles roll!

So while you are standing around, social distancing, wearing your mask, feeling righteous… those particles are floating into and under and over your mask. And that’s why fit is so important – along with a nose wire that bends both back and down, so it conforms to the shape of your nose as well as your cheeks. In addition, your mask needs to be the right length and width to cover your face and go under your chin, and fit snug at the sides. The Chrysalis masks comes in five sizes. You can use the measuring guide on the website to determine which size is best for you. We now have adjustable ear loops so you can get the perfect fit, and you can add a neck ribbon that pulls the bottom of the sides back, which is important if you have a narrow face. Alternatively, you can choose the elastic that goes over your head and around your neck. We offer all of these options because the better your mask fits your face, the more effective it will be.

Your values are reflected in the little choices you make

This pandemic is ripe with opportunity. Some see the opportunities to make money and continue the old way of doing things. They are offering mass-market masks without regard to the wellbeing of the rest of us. Some tell heartwarming stories about saving their business by changing their operations to make masks. The problem is, in some cases, they haven’t changed their profit-driven business model. The masks they are selling are not designed to be the most effective barrier to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to re-think what we want normal to be. People are starting cottage industries in spare bedrooms and garages, and even, as is my case, in a nook in the living room. People are going into business for different reasons. Sure, we’d like to make enough money to pay the bills, but we also want to go back to a time when America moved a little slower, and we made stuff, and we made it with pride and integrity. There is an opportunity here for success – but it is a different kind of success – tempered with old-fashioned values.

I’m getting enough orders now to bring my neighbor into the effort and we are having so much fun working together! Moreover, we take a lot of care to send our customers a product that is carefully crafted and safe. We wipe down everything with disinfectant and keep fabric and elastic in plastic. With 20 fabric options, 5 sizes and 3 loop styles to choose from, we can’t make masks ahead of time. So every mask is made to order. We are now offering a 100% cotton, USA-made bandana with a snap-in Safety Silk Insert with a nose wire that provides every bit as much protection as the Chrysalis mask. We steam press each mask just before sealing them in a plastic envelope so they come to you ready to wear.

You can still name your price for a mask on the website, paying as little as what it costs to make it if that is all you can afford – because it is in everyone’s best interest for all of us to have the best mask possible. Nevertheless, most people pay more, and after their first purchase, they return to buy more.

We just added a flannel mask with a pouch for kids, so they won’t lose their mask when they take it off. Flannel fabric tested very high in blocking particles and we wanted to give kids a mask that is as comforting as their favorite stuffed animal or blankie.

I like to think that we are part of the vanguard for a new economic model – one that takes care of people and is not greed-driven. Let’s not rush to go back to normal. Let’s take a little time to rethink what we want normal to look like. Thank you for being a part of this process.

Find out more:

Visualizing the effectiveness of face masks in obstructing respiratory jets

Physics of Fluids, Volume 32, Issue 6 , 10.1063/5.0016018

Performance of Fabrics for Home-Made Masks Against the Spread of Respiratory Infections Through Droplets: A Quantitative Mechanistic Study

Med RXiv, Posted July 8, 2020

2 Thoughts on “Everything you need to know about facemasks”

  • My friend Carol Huntsman told me about you. I would like ro get a purple mask from you. My measurements: bridge of nose to chin is 6 1/4 inches, from bridge around the head is 22 inches. I would like the elastic straps to be around the head, not around the ears. I am happy to pay you market rate. Thank you.

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