ROCKPORT — Rolling into last weekend, Jennifer Cunha had heard the reports that hospitals were facing critical shortages of protective equipment — particularly surgical masks — in the health war against the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it produces.

Cunha, an accomplished seamstress who teaches sewing out of her Squam Hill Sewing studio, decided to pitch — make that stitch — to her strength. Joined by a dedicated circle of sewing friends, Cunha and company have embarked on a mission to sew surgical masks for donation to area hospitals.

"I just wanted to do something to help," Cunha said Monday.

Sew simple. Sew important.

"Many generous individuals and groups have donated or offered to donate resources and supplies to help protect our health care workers and we are tremendously grateful for the outpouring of support," said Kyle Reilly, spokeswoman for Addison Gilbert Hospital and Beverly Hospital, both part of the Beth Israel Lahey Health system..

The list of items the hospitals are able to accept can be found at bilh.org/donations.

It's no secret people react differently in times of public crisis and immense shared stress, which is exactly where we now find ourselves in the shadow of this lone virus.

Some buy 63 rolls of toilet paper and every pork chop in the land. But others, such as Cunha and her dedicated circle of friends, step beyond the interior light of their own lives to explore a way to be of tangible and unselfish use.

Cunha already had sewed about 10 masks, which she gave to vulnerable friends and neighbors, some of them elderly and others compromised with health conditions.

Now she decided to ramp up production. She reached out to her sew sisters, Laurie Twombly, Liz Guerin and Carrie Arnaud, who quickly signed on.

"We connected, swapped patterns and began sewing," Arnaud said.

"Jen is a genius," Twombly said. "These aren't just a little square of cotton. She is amazing."

Cunha deflected the credit back to her a-sew-ciates and others who are stepping up to lend a needle and thread.

"I know homeschooling moms who are sewing these with their kids," Cunha wrote in a text. "A neighbor who owns a store is sewing them. It's kind of amazing how everybody wants to help out our medical personnel and first responders. I've had people offer me money for supplies and offers to go try to find supplies."

Cunha, 52, located her preferred mask pattern on the craftpassion.com website and set to work sewing the masks that employ a woven cotton outside, a flannel inside and wires around the nose area for snug fit.

The only problem was the elastic elements called for in the design. They've become quite scarce, so Cunha audibled to using elastics found in regular headbands.

Sew smart.

She and her 12-year-old daughter Lilliana — "She's a great sewer," said mom — worked together to produce a 14-minute instructional video for sewing the masks that they posted on YouTube.com. To locate, search for Squam Hill Design.

"We made the video tutorial because some people better in a more visual way," she said.

Cunha said she's halfway through with about 25 masks. When completed, they go to Twombly, who might be the MacGyver of the group.

The ladies wanted to make the best masks possible. They decided they'd provide better protection with some sort of filtering insert between the cotton outside and flannel inside. But what? Twombly, who is home with four kids, researched it and came up with  ... paper vacuum cleaner bags.

Twombly, 50, went to Ace Hardware and spent $100 of her own money on Hoover vacuum cleaner bags. She bleached her kitchen table, donned rubber gloves to keep the masks as sterile as possible and set to sewing.

"In the end, it's just a one-piece insert into Jen's beautiful masks," she said.

As they're completed, Kathy Morrell, a Rockport friend who works as a labor and delivery nurse at Beverly Hospital, will collect the masks and bring them to work for distribution to colleagues.

Arnaud, the finance director for the town of Rockport, estimates she sewed about two dozen masks over the weekend. And how long will she keep working at them?

"For as long as they need them," she said. "It's really a matter of doing a little bit that might make a difference. Power to the people. It's the only way we're all going to get through this." 

How can you not think of them as super heroes? Women behind the masks.

Sew cool.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

HOW TO HELP

If you are interested in donating supplies to be used at one or more of Beth Israel Lahey Health hospitals, including Addison Gilbert and Beverly, a list of items they can currently able to accept may be found atbilh.org/donations. The hospitals' safety and infection control experts need to review information about the items before they can be distributed to any of its sites.

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