Sanchez wears out sewing machine while making 1,500 face coverings

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nicole Sanchez had a closet stuffed with fabric. Now that she’s made and distributed more than 1,500 face coverings, the stash has dwindled dramatically.

Sanchez, Oregon State University Extension Service horticulture professor in Klamath County, has cut, pressed and sewn face coverings and donated them to recipients like food pantries, a library, schools, senior centers, postal workers, farmers and a rural ambulance crew.

She works on her own time and multitasks – she also makes them while listening to work webinars and Zoom meetings. Her sewing machine broke at one point and she has to go to a backup.

Word is spreading. If Sanchez wasn’t such a good seamstress, she’d never be able to keep up with demand.

“Once the word got out, people came out of the woodwork looking for them,” she said. “The school district thanked me on the local news and quietly asked for another 50 to 60. I’m also working to fill requests from local businesses and community groups.”

Sanchez started the project when it became evident that there was community demand. Most face coverings were going to the medical community so she decided to chip in.

“Quilting stores were making masks for hospitals,” she said. “All these other entities were begging for them. From what I saw, it seemed like the medical community was well taken care of, but there were gaps in some other places in the community – especially those who needed them to return to work.”

At first Sanchez put the face coverings in a box in her carport, where people could pick them up and donate money if they could. With those funds, she bought additional elastic and thread and fixed her sewing machine.

Sanchez even personalizes the masks. Coverings for doctors were designed to fit over their N-95 masks to preserve them since they are in short supply. She’s made some in OSU Beaver orange and is in the process of designing more out of 4-H-themed green cloth for youth livestock events later this summer.

Other than when her preferred sewing machine broke, she’s had one hiccup – she ran out of elastic. When she started in April, Sanchez had quite a stockpile.

“I had huge rolls,” said Sanchez, who can make 60 face coverings in a day. “I was sitting on a gold mine of elastic, and it’s all gone. I had three rolls of 200 yards. I could get little packets at the store but I’d go through that in an afternoon.”

Finally, she found a source and ordered rolls of it. Then it was thread she had to find. Stores had thread, but only certain colors.

“It’s really fascinating to see supply chain issues show up in the craft world,” Sanchez said. “I ordered elastic from my usual online sources, but I needed more so I ordered some from China. It was $11 so I decided to take the risk. I haven’t gotten it yet.”

This isn’t the first time Sanchez has used her crafting skills for the community.

Some of her now-gone stash of material was given to her by Klamath Falls residents who were thankful for the many donations of quilts she’s made over the years. In 2006 when she was home with her newborn and her husband was deployed to Iraq, she started the Dolls from Daddy program. Fathers would email her and tell her a bit about their daughters and she would sew a full 30-piece wardrobe for a doll complete with military uniform and sleeping bag. People were appreciative.

“I’d come home and there would be random craft supplies,” Sanchez said. “That’s where I got the rolls of elastic. It’s fitting for me to spread the fabric back out in the community because it was given to me.”

She’s been keeping scraps from the face coverings to make quilts commemorating the COVID-19 pandemic and is open to ideas about how those quilts should be shared in the community.

One connection turned into a partnership. Sanchez just started Garden Gab, an in-person event where people can ask questions and try to “stump the garden guru.” She held them at a coffee shop and as she was discussing putting the program online with the owner, Sanchez offered face coverings for his crew that matched their T-shirts. In exchange, Sanchez was offered a sponsorship to move the program online.

The response from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive and Sanchez has no plans to stop.

“I will go until I run out of fabric not delegated for other projects,” Sanchez said. “If there’s a need, I’ll keep plugging along.”

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