• Kat Zimmermann

How to Make my Favorite Face Masks

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

The best face mask is one that fits comfortably, stays in place, and stops your airborne particles within a few inches of your face.


At this point, I've made quite a few masks , playing with different styles to find the right version. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to make your own best-fit face mask!


If you're here to check out the bridal mask in the cover photo or from Instagram, scroll to the bottom.


A quick note: This post is pretty long because of all the FAQs and details included to help you find your best fit. Now is a great time to refill your coffee/tea/beverage of choice!


Another quick note: Sorry the videos are a little shaky, the table vibrates when the machine goes at a medium speed. Also, please don't judge me for the poor state of my nail polish.

 

Before we Begin


Q: Who should wear fabric face masks?

A: Fabric face masks should be worn by anyone over the age of 2 in a place with other people. Rule of thumb: if you might have to come within 10 feet of another person, you should wear a face mask. If you have COVID symptoms, you should wear a MEDICAL face mask, like a surgical mask (the blue ones) or an N-95 mask to provide extra protection to those around you.


Q: Why do I need a face mask if I can social distance?

A: Infection is a tricky thing and every measure we take provides some protection against it. Wearing a face mask prevents your own airborne particles from getting too far away from your body and can help filter the air around you. Social distancing helps keep the airborne particles from others away from you. Each provides some measure of protection, combining them makes the overall protection stronger than they would be on their own. A great comparison to this is the safety features included in cars: in a crash, you're safest if you wear a seat belt AND have effective airbags.


Q: How hard is it to make a face mask?

A: Not hard at all! The most common tri-fold rectangular style, like this one from Deaconess, is a great style to try for total beginners. The one I'll show you how to make in this post is a little more difficult because of the curves, but suitable for anyone who can stitch around a curve.


Q: How long does it take to make a mask?

A: Once you know what you're doing, about 15 minutes per mask. Your first mask will take longer. Adding embellishments or decorations will also add to the time (the bridal mask in the cover photo took over 2 hours!).


More FAQs are included throughout the post below!


 

(Step 1) Assemble your materials


Start by drafting your face mask pattern. I love this video from Savi's Fashion Studio because you can create the pattern on any medium (personally, I like cardboard so I can trace easily) and you don't need a printer!




You can re-size the pattern to make extra-small masks by measuring in 1/4" from the top, bottom, and curved sides (leave the straight edge alone).


Once you have your pattern, you'll need to figure out the right size. The best way to do this is by making a mask and checking the fit, but you can use the guide below to get started:


Large - fits most adult men

Medium - fits most adult women

Small - fits most tweens/teens

Extra-small - fits most children ages 3 - 10 (estimated)


Next, assemble your materials. You will need:

Face mask pattern in the right size(s)

Cotton fabric

Pins

Fabric scissors

Chalk / fabric markers / pencil

Pattern weights (optional)

Turning tool for ironing (optional)

Hem gauge or ruler

Corded or 1/4" elastic or twill/garment tape

(16" of elastic or 1 1/2 yd tape/ribbon per mask)

Decoration/embellishment (optional)




Q: What kind of fabric is best?

A: The research so far shows a couple of options, but by far the most accessible choice with the most pattern options is 100% quilters cotton. A medium weight cotton with a tight weave (think high thread count) is best. Always choose a woven cotton, don't use knits as those fabrics have more holes in them.


Q: How much fabric do I need to buy?

A: The amount needed for each mask varies with size. To check, put the nose of your mask pattern so it's straight up and down, then measure top to bottom and left to right like shown in the picture. For the medium mask, it's about 7" in height and 7" across. Since the mask is cut on the fold, it's actually double the width, so 14". This means I'll be able to fit 6 mask pieces for every 14" of fabric if the fabric is 44" wide or 8 masks for every 14" of fabric if the fabric is 60" wide.


The math here is (Fabric width) / (pattern height) = (number of mask pieces per width).


Once you have that number, you can figure out your yardage:

(Pattern width * 2) * (total number of masks / number of mask pieces per width) * 2 = total yardage


Example: I want to make 30 medium masks and the fabric I've picked is 44" wide. I measured the pattern to be 7" high and 7" across.

44 / 7 = 6 mask pieces per width (round down)

(7 * 2) * (30 / 6) * 2= (14) * (5) * 2= 140" of fabric --> this rounds to about 4 yards. So to make my 30 masks, I'll order 4 yards at the cutting counter.


Why do we do that last x2? Because you need two pieces per mask.


Q: That's a lot of math.....

A: No worries! Ballpark numbers will get you pretty close:

44" wide fabric --> 1/2 yd will make about 3 masks (6 pieces total)

60" wide fabric --> 1/2 yard will make about 4 masks (8 pieces total)


Q: What if I want to make a bunch of masks that all look different?

A: Cool, me too! I like to write out a list for each person with a description of the two pieces for each mask. For example, rockets + navy means I want one piece cut from the rocket fabric and one cut of navy. When I've got my whole list, I'll make a separate cut list sorted by fabric that tells me how many to cut of each size in each color/pattern. This is my favorite method for batching masks and really helps me keep track of where I am.


Q: Do I need to pre-wash and iron my fabric?

A: YES. This is always best practice, but especially important with cottons as they tend to shrink in the wash and you'll be washing your face masks regularly. Pressing the fabric will help keep the fabric flat while you work to mark and cut the pieces.


 

(Step 2) Cut your fabric


Start by laying out your fabric on the straight grain, then create a fold on one size. Align your pattern so the nose is on the fold. We want to keep the fold here instead of making two separate pieces because it puts most of the mask on the bias which means it will be more comfortable, especially along the nose.


Trace around the pattern using chalk, a fabric marker, or just a plain old pencil. Pin the center of the mask pattern (use a few pins if you're a beginner).


Continue to trace the pattern in this way until you have the number you need (in the image to the left, the outline of 3 mask pieces are ready to cut while a fourth sits at the top of the column waiting to be traced with the pattern).


When all your pieces are ready to go, use your fabric scissors to cut them out.


(Step 3) Sort and prep for sewing

If you're only making one mask, skip this step.


Stack your pieces so they're sitting with their "buddy piece." From my cut list example above, the rockets and navy pieces are stacked.


Then, separate your pile by thread color for easiest batching. I like to just use black or white, but will sometimes bust out another color for fun.



 

(Step 4) Sew & trim the front curve

Use a sewing machine to stitch down the front curve of the mask, removing the pin when you've finished the seam. If hand stitching, I'd recommend a backstitch or running backstitch.


Remember to backstitch at the beginning and end of the seam!


If you're using the pattern I suggested, we're working with a 1/4" seam allowance.


Once the seam is finished, clip & trim or pink the seam to help it lie flat later. If you're feeling it, best practice is to press the seams open.



(Step 5) Pin the inner and outer mask pieces together

If you're making a whole batch, this is why I recommended stacking the matched pieces earlier.


Flip the pieces so their seams are down the middle, then put them together so the right sides are facing one another and the seams are facing out.


I find it's easiest to start with the points at the nose, then align the bottoms at the seams. Then I sort of fuss with the fabric so it lies flat along the sides and pin once at each "cheek" of the mask.



(Step 6) Sew the inner and outer mask pieces together

When you do this, you'll need to leave a hole for turning. I like to make the hole at the bottom / chin of the mask since it's a flat piece so I start stitching about an inch below the front curve seam line, go all the way around the mask, then stop about an inch above the front curve seam line.




(Step 7) Clip the corners and curves and trim the seams

Yes, you need to do this. If you skip clipping the corners and curves, the mask won't lie flat when you turn it right side out. I like to use pinking shears to do it all at once, but you can also use snips to make little notches along the curves (clipping the curves) and snips or regular scissors to trim the rest of the seams.



(Step 8) Turn & press

Using the hole we left earlier, turn the mask right sides out. Really get into those corners and the nose point. I use a little turning tool (the white plastic thing shaped like a really long tear drop in in the image to the right), but a pointed hem gauge or capped pen, even just a pencil, can help.


I find it easiest to press from cheek to center, then flip and do the other half of the mask. Don't try to press the whole thing flat, it won't work with the structure we've built in.


When you press the bottom of the mask, you'll need to tuck in the seam allowances from the hole we used to turn. You can measure the 1/4" if you want, but I find eyeballing the measure works just fine. Tuck in the seam allowance and press to keep the folds. Pin or clip in place so it stays put until sewing.





(Step 9) Topstitch around

Topstitch around the mask with the outside layer facing up. I like to go around twice for strength, about 3/8" in from the edge, give or take a little bit. Usually with topstitching, you'd want to be as close to the edge as possible, but I like to give a little wiggle room here to account for the bottom fold and make sure the hole stays shut.


Take your time going around the curves and remember to lift the foot when you turn a corner (in the video, I'm using a mix of lifting the presser foot by hand and with a leg press).



(Step 10) Press the channels

Back to the ironing board! Fold over the straight edge of the mask 1/2" and press to form the channels. I'm using a hem gauge in the picture, but a regular ruler works just fine. Pin or clip in place.








(Step 11) Stitch the channels

Stitch the channels directly on top of the topstitching. Remember that this will create a line of stitching on the outside of the mask.


Be sure to stitch at the edge of the channel closest to the nose to create a little tube (aka the channel).





 

(Step 12) Add the Ties or Elastic

If you're using ties, cut 1 1/2 yard segments. I like a medium weight twill tape from the Ribbon Factory (made in PA!), but any sort of tape or ribbon will work. You can even use shoe laces in a pinch!


If using twill or garment tape, fold the end over twice and stitch down to prevent fraying later.


If using grosgrain ribbon, use a lighter or candle to carefully melt the ends to prevent fraying.


For elastic, I find an 8" piece to be about right. Remember to cut 2 per mask!



Push, pull, or wiggle the ties or elastic through the channels on each side. I like to use a bodkin or a Tunisian crochet hook; safety pins will also do the trick.


For twill tape/ribbon, you want the ends at the top of the mask and a loop at the bottom; the loop will go around the back of your neck. This way you only have to tie one knot to wear the mask.


For elastic, pull through, then tie a knot with the ends of the elastic. Rotate so the knot is hidden in the channel. This way you'll be able to adjust later, especially if the elastic shrinks in the wash (hint: it probably will).


Congrats, you're done!




Q: Which is better, elastic or ties?

A: It's really about personal preference. Many people find that elastic can irritate their skin over time, so ties make more sense for long-term wear (i.e. working a full shift). I've also found that ties tend to hold the mask in place a bit better, but you can adjust the elastic for a correct fit as well. Try both, fitted properly, and see which you like better!


Q: What about for children who need to wear the mask all day at school?

A: Ties will probably stay in place longer and be less irritating to skin, but tying the knot can be an issue for young children. Try using t-shirt yarn or cutting strips of stretchy fabric to use as ties. Then you can tie the knot for your child so the mask fits properly, but the child should be able to slide the mask on and off without adjusting the knot.


Q: Now that my mask is finished, how do I launder it?

A: Wash your mask according to the directions for the fabric you chose. If you used 100% cotton, you should be able to machine wash cool and tumble dry low. For masks with embellishments (see below), you may need to hand wash the mask and line dry. Remember, it's the soap that does the work of cleaning the mask. I also recommend using a laundry bag or a pillow case tied shut with a hair elastic to keep the masks from getting tangled with the rest of the wash.


 

Wearing your mask

If you made a mask with elastic, simply slip the elastics over each ear. Open and close your mouth a few times to check the fit. If the mask slides down, pull the knots out of the channels and tighten the elastic. Repeat as needed until the mask fits securely. Remember that you may need to repeat this process after washing the mask as the elastic may shrink.



If you made a mask with ties, slip the loop around your neck to sit at the base of your skull while the mask sits in the front. If you wear glasses, take them off until your mask is secure. Place the mask so the point is just below the bridge of your nose and pull on the ends of the ties so the mask is snug across your face and the loop is snug (but comfortable) around the base of your skull. Tie a bow or knot behind your head so the ties are over your ears. If you wear glasses, put them back on so that the nose bridge holds the mask in place at your nose. This should keep them from fogging up.


Open and close your mouth a few times to check the fit. If the mask slides down or has significant gaps at the sides or bottom, untie the knot and try again for a snugger fit. If you can't open and close your mouth, untie the knot and try again for a looser fit.



Double checking the fit

No matter what kind of mask you make, it's important to make sure the mask fits well over your mouth and nose, otherwise it won't be effective. I like to use the candle test. Remember, the point of a face mask is to keep your own particles to yourself. Face masks don't do a lot of protect you from the particles of others which is why it's important for everyone to wear one!

For the candle test, simply put on your mask, light a candle (or just a lighter), and try to blow it out. If you can blow out the candle when it's 1 foot or farther from your face, something is wrong with your mask. First, check the fit and try again. If the mask is fitting correctly (no gaps, able to speak easily while wearing), you might have a problem with the fabric you chose.


If you can't blow out the candle when it's 1 foot away from your face, your mask has passed the candle test!



 

Optional step: Adding a metal nose piece


I typically don't add the nose piece because I find that my glasses hold the mask in place well enough. However, if you need to wear the mask for a long period of time, a metal nose piece is a great addition. I have two suggestions for adding this piece:

  1. Finish the mask, then simply tack down along the top of the nose. Not the prettiest solution,but probably the easiest.

  2. After you turn and press the mask but before topstitching, insert the metal nose piece into the inside of the mask and hand stitch in place. This would be between steps 8 and 9. When you go to topstitch, be very careful around the nose piece, making sure to work around it to avoid breaking your needle!

If you add the nose piece, remember to use a metal that will not corrode in the washing machine (like stainless steel).



Optional step: Adding embellishments or decorations

Embellishment or decoration is a great way to make your masks unique and express yourself. I find it's easiest to add these details after the mask is finished but before adding the elastic or ties.


Some examples include ribbon, lace, buttons, and appliques.


The hardest bit is making sure you don't lose the 3D nature of this particular mask. In the image to the right, I've put the mask around the end of my tailor's sausage to keep the curve in place while I pin the lace applique in place. The lace was then hand stitched in place using a felling/whip stitch (total time to applique the lace was something like 2 1/2 hours).


A white face mask with elastic in the channels. The front of the mask has an overlay of detailed, beaded white lace.

This particular mask is for a COVID bride unable to reschedule the wedding due to a family member's illness. An artifact of the current times if there was one.







You may also notice how the mask holds its shape - no, the really isn't anything holding it up in these photos. Why is that?


The mask itself is made of 3 layers of a thin, tight-woven, white cotton with a slight sheen (the extra layer was added because of the weight). When the lace was appliqued on, I worked the fabric over my fingers to create shape and ease the lace to fit where I wanted it. When the lace was stitched this way, it also shaped the layers of cotton underneath. This same technique is why bespoke garment collars tend to keep their shape (see more information in this great video on pad stitching from Bernadette Banner with guest Barbara - an actual tailor).




 

Tips for First Time Face Mask Makers

  • Use two layers of regular quilters cotton in a solid color. The cotton will have a lot of friction, helping keep the pieces in place while you work. Solid colors make it easier to see the stitching.

  • Go slowly around the curves, remembering to put the needle down and lift the foot to turn.

  • Don't skip the ironing! Pressing can be annoying, but it makes a huge difference in keeping things where you want them to be. Use the cotton setting (high but not the highest temperature) on your iron with medium to high steam.

  • Start with ties. Elastic can be finicky to work with, but twill or garment tape has lots of friction and is easier to manipulate. Stay away from grosgrain until you feel more comfortable (it's quite slippery!).

  • Need more help? Check the Glossary for definitions of terms or leave a comment with questions!

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