Healthcare cook stitches one-of-a-kind masks for customers at Pittsburgh hospital during coronavirus pandemic

While American culture may take some time getting used to seeing and wearing face masks while out in public, it’s becoming more and more commonplace as the country anxiously tries to outlast COVID-19. Sewing masks has become a way for many people to do something to help others when it’s hard to know what exactly to do.

And just as people will customize just about anything from license plates to cell phone cases, masks are one way to show individual style and spread some cheer with cool designs during an uncertain time.

Sheila Shepherd, a cook with Cura (a member of the Elior North America family of companies) at St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh, is from a long line of skilled seamstresses. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother sewed every Halloween costume and prom dress in the family, she says: “We always had one of a kind.”

Now, she’s sewing one-of-a-kind protective face masks during a time when all the high school proms have been canceled. So far, she’s sewn more than 350 masks and counting for dining team members, hospital staff, family and friends. She charges $1.50, the cost of material, and donates her time. Her sister and nieces help with the project.

Shepherd looked into mask patterns and began sewing for her sister, Michelle Sieman, who is a cancer survivor and in a high-risk category. “I wanted her to be best protected,” she says.

Shepherd uses a surgical mask pattern with a non-woven fabric to filter the mask. “I started looking online and adapted my mask with a built-in interface (a stiffener for the fabric), which provides additional protection for a filter placed inside,” she says. The pockets are designed so elastic can be removed or replaced with another material.

Customers can choose a fabric, and so far the most popular designs are Marvel Comics, “Star Wars,” Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins and sugar skulls.

“I’m doing this to keep the people I serve and work with safe, and most of all, my sister, who is my inspiration for continuing our one-of-a-kind family tradition,” Shepherd says.