The folks in the Minnesota Opera’s costume shop usually craft couture gowns with corsets, wondrous costumes in weighty fabrics. Works of art.
“Now we’re sewing rectangles to save lives,” said Corinna Bakken, the opera’s costume director.
With shows on hold, workers in the opera’s shuttered costume and scene shops have turned to a new project: making face masks to protect people. The costumers are sewing masks for patients and others facing shortages of protective gear according to patterns approved by HealthPartners. Scene shop workers are making the deliveries.
“You’ve got all these amazingly talented backstage workers who are creative and technical,” said Ryan Taylor, president and general director of the Minnesota Opera. “Their whole life is about project management. If you needed an army of those people, they’re here in the Twin Cities. And they would do it with so much soul.”
The opera is paying them for their work, Taylor noted. Though it has postponed two major productions, the nonprofit’s goal is to pay its craftspeople through the end of their contracts.
Out-of-work professional sewers have also answered the call. Three costume staffers at the Children’s Theatre Company, who recently learned they’ll be furloughed, have volunteered to sew masks from home. Independent artists, too, are cutting and stitching, making their own deliveries to hospitals and clinics, grocery store workers and friends.
From 6:30 each morning until Allina Health’s drop-off deadline at 1 p.m., Maggie Thompson sews mask after mask after mask.
She’s an artist and the owner of a small knitwear company, Makwa Studio. But this month, she was furloughed by her best-paying gig as a cleaner for Two Bettys Green Cleaning. She’ll be out of work until mid-April, maybe longer.
So when Thompson heard about the need for masks, she grabbed some leftover fabric and started sewing.
“It wasn’t a question for me,” she said. “I know how to sew, and I have extra fabric. This is going to be my job.”
The pattern is fairly simple, with pleats and two layers of cotton. In a week, she crafted more than 100. A fellow artist in her apartment building offered to help, cutting the fabric and leaving the pieces outside Thompson’s door. Thompson has also made masks for a friend undergoing chemotherapy and a friend who works at a grocery store. She transformed her mom’s embroidered tablecloth into a pink-and-blue mask for “another mom in need.”
“When you feel cared for, that gives you extra strength,” she said. “I don’t know the science behind the body, but I’d like to think it makes people stronger.”
There have been questions about the effectiveness of homemade masks, Thompson noted.
“The fact that Allina put out an official call for them speaks to the need,” she said. “A fabric mask is better than no mask.”
While manufacturers step up their production, makers can step in.
As sewers across the country threaded their machines and emptied fabric stores of their elastic, local health care companies began accepting the handmade masks. On March 21, Allina Health put out a statement asking not only for donations of “factory-made N95 and ear loop masks,” but also “hand sewn ear loop masks.” It even offered instructions, with a few tips: “Cotton fabric, a pretty print is best.”
Twin Cities theaters have combed their costume and scene shops for supplies. The Guthrie donated 800 pairs of gloves, 80 face masks and three pairs of safety glasses to Hennepin County. From its costume rental warehouse, it gave Allina Health a bunch of lab coats, scrubs and gowns.
The Children’s Theatre, too, donated scrubs, medical-grade masks and surgical hats.
“Those poofy hats,” said Amy Kitzhaber, costume director. “We had 300 of those from a show we did.”
She also grabbed from the shop fabric and elastic, so that she and two co-workers, newly furloughed, could each sew some 50 masks from home. Being unable to mount the productions the theater had been working on for so long is “heartbreaking,” Kitzhaber said. But working on such a simple, useful project has been satisfying.
“It was really cool online how everyone immediately was trying to solve the problem,” she said. “That is a lot of what we do in theater and the arts — creative problem solving.”
The Minnesota Opera’s shop had been fashioning costumes for the world premiere of “Edward Tulane” since August, 170 of them, most built from scratch. When the company made the call to cancel performances, “we were a day away from loading all the costumes into the theater” for dress rehearsals, said Bakken, the opera’s costume director since 2013.
The opera started an “artist support fund” to help pay its contract workers and guest artists part or all of their fees for “Edward Tulane” and “Don Giovanni,” a spokesman said. Bakken’s staff was contracted through May 1.
“We were going to honor it regardless,” she said. “But now we have something to do.”
Her team is sewing from home, turning old, torn and sanitized hospital gowns into dozens of masks. Bakken is hoping to fold volunteers into her team’s efforts, building an operation that can produce 1,500 masks a week. HealthPartners approved a pair of prototypes, including a polypropylene model with a pipe cleaner at the bridge of the nose. (“Because ... desperate times,” Bakken said.)
“The other thing is, they need to be finished beautifully,” Bakken said. “Because you’re handing it to someone and telling them it’s going to protect them.
“I hope all the love people are pouring into these masks helps them know we all appreciate them.”