Seamstresses Stitch Love and Culture into Masks and Clothing
by Kimi Eisele
Growing up, Grace Beltran, who was raised by her grandmother in the City of South Tucson, would look longingly at her Nana’s old Singer sewing machine. She was allowed to look, but not touch.
Until she turned nine, that is. “Then she started letting me use it,” Beltran says. “I just fell in love with it. I had it in my soul. I wanted to start creating my own clothes.”
Since her grandmother couldn’t afford to buy fabric or patterns, Beltran studied her grandmother’s vintage dresses. “I started by experimenting and cutting them down so that they would fit me. I always wore these clothes that were from a different time period, like 1950s skirts with pleats.”
By the fourth grade, she made her first skirt from an old bedsheet, using one of her grandmother’s skirts as a template.
As a teenager, Beltran got a job at a clothing store at the mall and noticed the other employees spent their paychecks on clothes. She needed the money to support afterschool activities and to help out her grandmother. “I would look at the clothing and dream of creating it, paying attention how it was sewn. Then I’d go to the big department stores, Macy’s and Dillard’s and say, ‘Gosh I could make that.’”
Beltran says she was always okay with looking different than everyone else. “Back then everyone was wanting to buy Jordache jeans. First of all, we couldn’t afford 40 dollars for a pair of jeans. And second of all, I just wasn’t into name brands. We’d go to thrift stores and I’d buy baggy pants, tailor them to my size or jeans and sew things on them. Or I’d get my dad’s old jeans and T shirts, and I would make clothing and other things out of them.”
At 20, Grace took her first sewing class at JoAnn Fabrics, lugging the old Singer machine along, and learned how to sew a suit using a pattern. Later, when she joined the Air Force, she made extra cash sewing the insignias onto airmen’s uniforms.
In 2015, Beltran launched her own sewing business, Colores del Corazon, which she operates from her home. “My dream has always been to create clothing, quilts and sewing works of art that are classy but that anyone could wear anywhere. I wanted them to be affordable for my raza on the South side, so people here could afford to have something nice.”
She sews custom orders and creates clothing and items that celebrate Mexican and Mexican American culture. Once a month she opens her doors to neighbors who might not be able to afford tailoring and offers her services free of charge. Some of her creations are available this month through the Tucson Meet Yourself Folk Arts Marketplace, a pilot online market for high-end folk arts.
In March, Beltran started getting calls from people requesting masks. She responded quickly, sewing masks for elderly people, essential workers such as custodians and care providers. She sold them at $2 or $3, just to cover her costs. For masks using special fabrics, she charges $5.
From mid-May through July, “It was just mad–one order after the next,” she says.
Orders came from small businesses wanting to purchase for their employees. “I knew they were losing money because of the closures. I really wanted to help them. If they had their own fabric, I would charge them a $1 per mask for labor and elastic. If they didn’t have their own fabric we would work out a price under $5.”
Word got out and Beltran was sometimes making masks until midnight, charging minimally or not at all. She often donated to customers in need or to Title 1 schools, she says.
While Beltran was serving Tucson’s South side, Merideth Maahs was making masks for local hospitals, a task she signed up for shortly after the shelter-in-place order took effect in Pima county. “If I was going to self-isolate and be here, I just had to do something to help,” she says. “It’s also healthy for me doing that instead of feeling isolated from rest of community.”
Maahs became a volunteer with for Mending Souls, a Tucson-based organization that brings together sewers to make handcrafted items for charitable causes.
“If there’s a soul that needs mending, we do it,” says Michelle Don-Carlos, Mending Souls founder and president.
The group has made surgical caps for children, rehabilitation support pillows, emergency toiletry purse for domestic violence victims, pet rescue beds for rescue animals, baby items, Alzheimer activity mats, and school supplies for pregnant teens or youth on their own. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, local hospitals requested that the organization focus solely on masks and hold off on other items.
Don-Carlos interviewed epidemiologists and created a design based on their safety recommendations.
The “comfort fit mask” makes a pocket “like a fist,” Maahs says, “so your nose doesn’t touch the fabric. It’s a breathable pocket.”
At first, masks were made used autoclavable surgical material, which can be washed and sterilized and withstands high heat. They are now made with cotton.
Once the design was approved, Don-Carlos sprung into action, sent an email, and started hearing right away from volunteer sewers. The response was overwhelming. Soon she had 800 people signed up to sew and 200 more to cut fabric.
For three days she delivered mask kits to volunteers, but then she could not keep up. “I physically could not make it to every single house,” she says. So, she set up a pick-up location in a parking lot.
“I had no time for permission, so I hoped for forgiveness,” she says. “I didn’t know who owned parking lot. At one point, over 120 cars were lined up, blocking traffic. We had to invent a 4-lane system to cut down on wait. The police showed up.”
Eventually Don-Carlos secured permission to operate a drive-through, and for the first two months, Mending Souls operated six of them a week for mask kit pick-ups. As the demand lessened, they whittled those drive-throughs to four then two and now they are down to one.
“I just couldn’t get over this phenomenal army that rose up, saying ‘We’re not going to let this virus spread. We’ve got you covered,’” Don-Carlos says. “We didn’t know anything about coronavirus then. So many people stayed hunkered in their houses. But these volunteers
responded so bravely all because they wanted to protect strangers. They’d say, ‘If one of these masks saves a life, it’s worth it. Keep going.’ So we did.”
And while volunteers were working, Covid was spreading. “It was very real to all of us very fast. We’ve had volunteers who’ve lost family members. We were not just do-gooders. We had real tears and pain being felt by the boots on the ground,” Don-Carlos says.
To date, Mending Souls has sent out over 108,000 masks to over 100 clinics and agencies, including all Tucson hospitals, several schools, nursing homes, and four Arizona tribal nations. They also supplied hotshot fire fighters during the Bighorn Fire in Tucson’s Catalina Mountains.
While volunteers are mostly women, there are some men. “We have three men who bought sewing machines and learned how to sew,” Don-Carlos says. The organization offers instructional videos on their web site.
“We have cutting teams, sewing teams, shipping and delivering teams, knitting and crochet teams, rotary and serger teams, and they all have captains,” Don-Carlos says.
Some sewers make it into the “500 Club,” while others have sewn 1,000 masks. At least one woman has sewn 7,000 masks. Maahs says she has sewn over 900 masks, for Mending Souls and for friends and family.
While sewing, Maahs says she chooses special music and watches her thoughts, directing them toward wellness, a common practice among Mending Souls volunteers. “That’s the word that went out—to remember that what you are thinking about when you’re making the mask goes into the mask,” she says.
Maahs often listens to The Beatles while sewing, and sometimes to video lectures from her astrology teachers. She says she hopes her good energy carries to those who end up wearing them.
For Maahs, sewing has long been about creating beauty and joy for others, since she first started in junior high school. “In the home-ec room, I sat down at sewing machine and I never looked back, even after impaling my finger on a needle the first month.”
Like Beltran, Maahs sewed her own clothes in high school. “It was easy. I mean, miniskirts, you know? You need a yard of fabric zipper and the sewing machine.”
When she became a mother, she sewed clothing for her two children. At least until her daughter was four and “she announced to me that she wanted clothes bought from the store, please.”
But Maahs has continued sewing clothes for her grandchildren, including all of their Halloween costumes. And she occasionally makes quilts for auctions.
She says she enjoys the three dimensionality of sewing, the engineering. “Before I picked up a pencil, I picked up a pair of scissors. I love putting colors and shapes together. The running joke in the family is ‘She’s situating.’ What that means is I’m tending to spaces to bring beauty in.
Maahs believes visual aesthetics matter. “Even people who can’t see that aesthetic can feel it. It contributes to our calmness and our ease. It’s the same reason people seek out nature.”
Maahs has also volunteered at the Mending Souls center helping to prepare the sewing kits, which has enabled her to bring that aesthetic value to masks. “We take all the donated fabric and we sit down at tables and choose the colors that go together. I usually take longer than anyone else, now that I can.”
Maahs says working for others in a time of crisis has been helpful for her personally. “When you make the mask, you’re doing it for yourself, too. This is your time to take a deep breath and feel like, okay, I’m doing something. It’s hard to go through this. It’s isolating and it’s frustrating and you could easily feel helpless and overwhelmed but that’s the beauty of volunteering. You feel part of the solution.”
Both Beltran and Maahs are still masking masks every week.