Mask makers create much-needed supplies

Rafaela Benson sews a face mask. She has been working with her grandmother Andra Benson to make masks for Racker, nurses at Hospicare, farmworkers and others.
Rafaela Benson sews a face mask. She has been working with her grandmother Andra Benson to make masks for Racker, nurses at Hospicare, farmworkers and others.
Photo by Andra Benson

On April 12, New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that face coverings be worn in public, transforming the Lansing residents busily sewing facemasks from “good to have” to “must have” people.

Lansing resident Lisa Campbell has been at the center of the local effort - she began by seeking mask-makers to help local essential business, seniors and the high-risk population.

“As I did so, I would learn about individuals sewing for others,” Campbell said. “They all said the same thing, that when they got done with what they had committed to, they would help sew for my requests.”

The effort has been “catch as catch can,” according to Campbell.

“I had a request to provide masks for the Food Pantry and then learned that someone had already made them,” Campbell said. “I was able to donate what I had to a local business. I’m working with five sewers to provide masks to essentials, seniors, vulnerable and eventually our general community.”

Nora Balfour began by sewing masks for her partner’s staff at her parole department in Syracuse several weeks before the governor made them mandatory.

“I tried six different patterns, made many prototypes, tested them all out on different-sized friends, talked to health care friends and did copious online research to arrive at two good patterns that both protect the wearer and those around them when worn correctly and fit everyone with minimal modifications,” she said.

Balfour said her masks are made with two layers of HTC cotton, a washable spun polyester filter liner and a nose wire for best fit.

“They are able to be sterilized in the oven or hand washed,” she said. “I’ve sewn and donated over 250 masks at this point, to high-risk families and the nonprofit ‘The Village at Ithaca.’ Generous people who donated money have also received masks; I’ve been able to donate over $1,700 so far.”

Balfour said her kids are doing much of the fabric cutting, making nose wires and sterilizing the masks.

“They are also doing the bulk of the cleaning and cooking while I sew,” she said. “We all like to do deliveries. Being the ‘Mask Fairy’ is a rewarding job.”

The essentials, Campbell said, seem to be covered pretty well.

“We are now focusing on our seniors and vulnerable community members,” Campbell said. “Another two to three sewers will join in as they can. Eventually, we hope to have enough masks to put them out for Lansing at large – maybe on ‘mask trees’ or baskets throughout the community.”

She noted that the Lansing Community Council has agreed to reimburse sewers for materials going into masks for Lansing residents.

Linda Petak is working off a table in her dining room.

“I am a nurse, so I know that trying to get masks is a big problem,” she said. “I saw a notice at Cayuga Medical Center about mask-making and I thought ‘how can I do this at home?’”

Petak has used the free materials available at JoAnn Fabrics to make about 45 masks so far. She can make about one per hour.

“I looked online and saw a couple of different patterns,” she said. “The one that they said hospitals like best has three layers like the paper ones but with cotton cloth. There is no elastic, so we use straps – it’s easier on the ears. I am using blue shop cloth for the filters.”

Petak is staying with the Hautaniemi family and has made masks for all of them. She also shipped some to friends in Texas and Nevada and distributed the remainder around town to friends and friends of friends.

“Two of the sewers I work with sew for our greater community as well,” Campbell said. “They are contributing to our medical teams by sewing for Cornell. One of them sent masks to Cornell with Andra Benson.”

Benson is using a pattern that CMC put out many weeks ago.

“Of course, these are not for medical workers but are washable ones for the rest of us," Benson said. "I really lost count, but probably 80 to 100 have been made by me and my grandkids. I set up a ‘piece meal factory line’ for the four of us.”

Benson has sent masks to The Racker Center, nurses at Hospicare, Blue Box, farmworkers, friends and family.

Campbell tried to list all of the sewers that she could: Denise Moore and her 94-year-old mom at Woodsedge; the Lansing Senior Citizens Club and other senior citizens; Ann Bement and her sister; Diane Beckwith, Pat Costantini; Linda Pasto; Lynn Greene; Diane Withiam; Katrina Binkewicz; Tracy McLellan with the Quilt Makers; multiple hubs of the “Sensational Sewers;” Amy Firth; Laura Alexander and the Lansing United Methodist Church’s “Cover to Care” sewing team; and the Lansing Girl Scouts.

“This is an incredible, awe-inspiring effort,” Campbell said. “Individuals providing community members with these heartfelt, homespun layers of protection is something that I will never forget.”

How to Get Involved

The Health Department is seeking volunteers who have sewing experience (though it will need additional volunteers for cutting materials), can provide a sewing machine to the effort for use at the production facility (not required) and have not been in close contact with an individual tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

Volunteers will be contacted by a Tompkins County official and will be invited to assist in mask production efforts.

If you are able to volunteer in this mask-making effort, please email:

More information is available at the “Tompkins Mask Makers” ( and “So Sew Many” ( websites.

If you are an essential business or organization and need masks for your employees, you can request them using the form here -

You can show your appreciation for this dedicated group of volunteers by making a donation of $10 (one lunch), $20 (two lunches), $200 (covering lunch for a whole day) - or an amount that works for you. Any gift you give can help contribute directly to this important initiative.

Your gift has double the impact because you’re helping patronize local businesses who need these lunch orders to help manage this economic crisis.

This effort is being coordinated by Tompkins County Health Department and the Tompkins Chamber Foundation. Visit


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