TLDR: Choose any single 100% natural fabric.
Masks aren’t magic. They are one piece in a whole collection of safety tactics that, when combined, make things less-bad. It’s just like how your car has many safety features that work together with your safe driving skills, or your table saw comes with safety features that are in addition to, not instead of, your decision to always know where all your fingers are.
But covering one’s mouth and nose does help. So do that. This is the post where I explain to you the trick of how to cover your face with a fabric that will be relatively more comfortable.
My credentials: I spend a lot of time playing outside in a hot, humid climate.
Now you might live someplace cool and dry. But your mouth and nose are little heat-n-humidity factories. The whole point of wearing a cloth mask is to keep your hot, moist exhalations to yourself. In other words, by masking up you are getting the Southern Summer Experience plastered to your face.
Please. Allow me to guide you on how to take the edge off, because the last thing we want is your desperate panting miserable self to rip off your mask as you let out a primal scream in the Walmart checkout line.
To spare us all, here’s the fabric you need:
- Any single
- natural fiber.
NATURAL means: Cotton, wool, silk, or linen.
You’ll need to get out your reading glasses to read the fine print. Cotton is the most widely used, but any of these can work. You may find tightly-woven silk in the upholstery department. You may find tightly-woven linen in the form of a table cloth or napkin. We’ll talk about wool below.
Yes, I know there are hi-tech wicking fabrics. If you have a garment you find very comfortable in hot sweaty conditions, perhaps an old pair of hi-performance long underwear from your trekking expedition or something, have at it.
But if you must buy new fabric, buy natural because it’s widely available, cheap, and proven. “Wicking” or “breathable” synthetics sometimes are what they promise (more likely so if coming from a reputable purveyor of technical mountaineering gear, just sayin’), and sometimes they are hype. You’ll have to test for yourself, and not everyone has the money to gamble on tests.
Be warned: “Natural” fibers do not include, for this purpose, bamboo or other modern-day recycling projects. Those kinda-natural inventions don’t function the way traditional natural fibers do. Cotton, wool, linen, or silk. Those are the ones you want.
Review Q&A: What does natural mean? It means cotton, wool, linen or silk.
100% means: ONLY the single natural fabric you have chosen, no other material of any other kind.
Your cotton skinny jeans with “just a touch” of spandex are NOT 100%. Your cotton socks are highly unlikely to be only cotton, they probably have some kind of stretchy thing that makes them hold their shape.
Many, many, many natural fabrics used in clothing or sold at fabric stores contain either a poly-blend (looking at you, t-shirts) or a small amount of spandex or lycra to improve fit.
Read the label. Your stash of old t-shirts probably contains both 100% cotton and cotton-poly blend t-shirts. Read every label. Your favorite bandanna might be 100% cotton or might be cotton-poly. Read the label. Your worn-out wool sweater (blazer, skirt, etc.) you could never quite bring yourself to throw away (more below) might be 100% wool or it might be a wool-blend. Read. the. label.
Review Q&A: What does 100% mean? It means that when you read the label, it says 100% of either cotton, silk, linen, or wool, and NOTHING else.
SINGLE means: I don’t trust you with that 100% concept.
Ha! It means this: ONLY cotton, or ONLY wool, or ONLY linen, or ONLY silk.
Linen-cotton blends, for example, are popular for summer shirts and for table linens. This is a trick! Don’t fall for it! Yes, the two fibers are both 100% natural. But when you blend them, you lose the comfort of a single-fiber natural fabric.
Trust me on this. I know.
Other common combos, especially in scarves and luxury fabrics, are wool-and-silk or linen-and-silk.
These will not help you. Do not use these in your homemade or improvised face mask or you will become a sweaty mess. Go for a SINGLE natural fiber in your 100% natural fabric.
Review Q&A: What does single mean? It means that your fabric is composed of only one type of natural fiber.
Readily Available Sources of Single-Fiber 100% Natural Fabric
There’s a good chance you already have something sitting around your house that can be converted into an improvised face covering. Some sources to look for:
- Pillowcases or sheets
- Cloth napkins
- Table cloths
- Mom-jeans, Dad-jeans, and cargo shorts
- Flannel shirts
- Dress shirts
- Tote bags
And yes, sweaters. (See below!) Naturally you aren’t going to cut up a perfectly good garment unless you have no other choice, but you might have something that is stained, pilled, worn through at the knees or elbows, or otherwise ready for re-purposing.
In the average household, your best bets for re-purposing are going to be:
- That ratty old thing your husband won’t quit wearing because he loves it, but seriously, it’s time.
- That awful dress your six-year-old loves, and insists she still wear, but hello it was her favorite when she was TWO and now not only is it permanently ketchup-marked, it is also no longer working even as a shirt.
- The fabulous piece you got on clearance because you love the fabric, but the cut of the garment is horribly unflattering and no amount of belting or cardigans can fix that, and you need to move on.
Find these things, read the labels, and if they are a 100% natural single-fiber fabric, they are perfect for your home-made or improvised face covering.
Finally, let’s talk about wool.
Two things you need to know:
- Usually knitted items are a very loose fabric that won’t help much for keeping your cough to yourself.
- Wool shrinks in the wash.
If you know what you’re doing, you can use this to your advantage. “Felting” is the process of washing and drying a wool fabric until it shrinks up into a tight fabric. When you do this to your gorgeous handmade Christmas sweater, by accident, instead of hand-washing and laying flat to dry, you end up with a doll-sized sweater. Oops.
But fast forward to today, when you are now eyeing up that wool garment you own that is either no longer presentable, or else it never really was suitable for any human to wear anyway, no matter how much the giver meant well when she gave it to you.
You can use this item for mask-making (having confirmed by reading the label that it is indeed 100% natural single-fiber-type wool), but first you need to felt it. Do that by running it through the hot wash and dryer a bunch of times until it quits shrinking.
That’s it. Not complicated. You need to do this not only because you want to tighten-up that weave or knit, but also because it’s no good to have a mask you can’t wash and dry — you’ll just end up making doll masks. Ha.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Okay that’s it for today’s lecture. Remember, if you don’t want to pass out from heatstroke or infect the world in a sweat-crazed rage as you tear your drenched mask-of-misery from your overheated face, make your homemade mask out of fabric that’s:
That’s 100% of or cotton or linen or silk or wool.
Artwork: The Green Mask comic book cover, circa 1940, via Wikimedia, public domain. This is not the right pattern for slowing the spread of respiratory illness. Pretty sure your forehead is not a major vector of contagion.
On the other hand, let’s say it now right now: If you would also wear whatever glasses you have on hand when you must venture out, that, too, would add yet another layer of protection, however minimal.