There are a lot of designs for homemade masks making many people wonder: What cloth homemade face mask is best?
This isn’t an entirely easy question to answer because there are several variables. For the purpose of this blog post I’ve tried out several different methods and I’ll share what I feel are the pros and cons. We’ll also look at some of the science behind it and whether or not face masks actually help.
I also want to stress that here at the Making Life we are not medical or scientific experts. We’re simply showing what research is available at the moment about face masks. Additionally, this guide is mainly for ordinary people wearing masks when they go out in public as opposed to medical-grade masks, which is another topic.
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Do Homemade DIY Cloth Face Masks Work?
I’ll be honest, when people first started sending me links to making homemade facemasks I was skeptical. First, we were originally told not to wear masks. I think a big portion of this was because people were concerned that medical people would not have enough access to the masks they needed.
They were also concerned that people would touch the front of their masks to readjust them causing a bigger exposure to the virus.
Now the CDC recommends that you wear a cloth face mask “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
Here’s what we do know about face mask guidelines:
- Essential employees (especially those who work in medical) need N-95 respirators. These are the masks that do the best job protecting medical staff and patents from sharing or contracting Covid-19 (as well as other airborne diseases).
- The CDC recommends cloth masks instead of N-95 masks for individual people and families so people who need medical-grade ones have access to them.
So are homemade cloth masks effective at all?
From my research about homemade face masks, I’ve come across several different viewpoints.
- On April 9, 2020, NewScientist wrote an article that leaned towards saying that facemasks may have some benefit in slowing the spread of Covid-19, but research is fairly limited. It also said that the degree of protection is low and masks that don’t fit well would lead to even lower protection.
- NPR wrote an article on April 3, 2020, that broke down the reasons that the CDC now recommends all people wear cloth face masks when going in public. The primary reason is many people may have little to no symptoms and still be positive for and spread Covid-19. They reiterated the point that medical-grade masks should be reserved for people on the front lines. They also stated that wearing a mask is more about protecting others than it is about protecting yourself.
Here’s a quote from NPR, “The primary benefit of covering your nose and mouth is that you protect others. While there is still much to be learned about the novel coronavirus, it appears that many people who are infected are shedding the virus – through coughs, sneezes and other respiratory droplets – for 48 hours before they start feeling sick.”
- ABC News wrote an article on April 6, 2020, that echoed the idea that cloth masks do less to protect you, and more to protect others.
- Business Insider wrote an article on April 3, 2020, saying that scientists are mixed about the effectiveness of homemade masks. Here’s a long quote from that article that shares several reasons why they’re unsure of the effectiveness.
“One 2015 study found that cloth masks only blocked 3% of particles, compared with medical masks (which stopped 56% of particles) and N95s (protective against 99.9% of particles, the study found). Healthcare workers wearing cloth masks were significantly more likely to be infected with flu-like illness, the study found. A 2013 study found that cloth masks made from cotton T-shirts, pillowcases, or tea towels should be used only as a last resort — they only filtered out a third of the aerosols blocked by a surgical mask — though it was found to be ‘better than no protection.'”
They went on to say, quoting Ben Cowling a professor of epidemiology, “‘The argument … about everybody wearing a mask is not that it will prevent everyone from getting infected — it’s that it will slow down transmission in the community a bit,” Cowling previously told Business Insider. ‘That’s already useful. Just to have even a small effect is useful.'”
A friend of mine shared this video with me that helped tip my view about cloth face masks.
It seems as though the ongoing discussion is:
A. We don’t have enough data to know for certain if it is effective.
B. It does more to protect others than it does to protect yourself.
C. It could also help decrease the chance of catching COVID if it is worn and removed properly.
D. Many experts think “it’s better than nothing.”
E. The better it fits, the less likely you are to touch it to readjust when you’re out.
F. Your mask needs to be breathable or you will touch it a lot or it won’t be effective because you will breathe out the top and sides of your mask.
We live in Pennsylvania and many stores and doctors’ offices ask that people wear masks before entering.
I know this can be a point of frustration for a lot of people. If you don’t agree with wearing a mask or think it’s more harmful than helpful, that’s OK. This is simply meant to be a resource for people wanting to make homemade cloth face masks for themselves and their friends and families.
What is the Best Material for Homemade Face Masks?
I did some research about what the best material is for homemade face masks and there are some really interesting answers. From the perspective of a maker, I am geeking out a bit about materials and designs. I’ve rounded up some of the studies that people have done so you can make a more informed decision about making yours.
- Science Daily shared a study from the American Chemical Society that said, “Researchers report that a combination of cotton with natural silk or chiffon can effectively filter out aerosol particles — if the fit is good.”
Here’s more about what their test results were:
One layer of a tightly woven cotton sheet combined with two layers of polyester-spandex chiffon — a sheer fabric often used in evening gowns — filtered out the most aerosol particles (80-99%, depending on particle size), with performance close to that of an N95 mask material. Substituting the chiffon with natural silk or flannel, or simply using a cotton quilt with cotton-polyester batting, produced similar results.
- A study conducted by a doctor named Scott Segal in collaboration with Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine discovered that not all cloth mask coverings work as well as others. Dr. Segal stated that high-quality cotton fabric works best.
NBC News covering the story reported, “The best masks were constructed of two layers of heavyweight “quilters cotton” with a thread count of at least 180, and had thicker and tighter weave. Lesser quality fabrics also worked well, as long as they had an internal layer of flannel.”
- The U.S. Army’s Chemical Biological Center did a series of test to determine the best fabric for homemade face masks. Military.com shared the study and the results. Here’s what they found:
After running about 300 tests, the team found that one of the best readily available materials to use in a homemade face covering is four-ply microfiber cloth, which is popular for cleaning and polishing surfaces, according to the release.
They went on to say,
Testers also found that ‘even a polyester bandana can be reasonably effective if it is used in layers, according to the release, which adds that it will filter out “40 percent of suspended particles.’
- Here’s a pretty cool video by Sewstine that shares the effectiveness of a material called Halyard which is breathable and effective. The Youtuber from Sewstine is also a medical doctor and was able to test mask designs with this material at the hospital. You can watch her video here:
- For more information about face mask materials, Smart Air did a series of tests to see which materials are most effective at blocking particles. What was particularly interesting about this study is they not only discovered which materials blocked tiny particles, but they also talked about breathability with is another important factor in the homemade face mask design.
The determined that best filtration and breathability fabrics are:
- 100% cotton bed sheets (thread count 80-120)
- paper towels for drying hands
One thing many experts suggest when choosing fabric is to hold it up to a light. If you can see light very easily through the fabric or if you can see the fibers easily, it’s not a good material for your homemade cloth face mask. Material that doesn’t let light pass through easily is a better choice.
Which Homemade Face Mask is Best?
Alright, let’s get down to it. What homemade face mask is best?
First of all, I want to take a moment to say that the makers that came up with these designs are incredible. None of these designs are mine and I take no credit for them. Also, each of the designs has its strengths, but I will pick which ones I think work best. These are my personal opinions and it would never be my intention to degrade another maker. I’m simply sharing my opinion about the different designs. You may find you have a very different opinion if you choose to make them.
With that said, I’ll share my personal tests below:
Homemade DIY Cloth Mask #1 “CDC Design”
The CDC has a page that offers some information about homemade cloth face masks. They also share a very simple pattern so you can sew your own mask.
Pros to the CDC Hand Made Face Mask
- Extremely easy to make even for a beginner sewer.
- Doesn’t require a lot of material.
- Can use two different types of fabric to keep which side is the front.
Cons to the CDC Hand Made Face Mask
- Not the most comfortable fit and gaps at the top near the eyes. (This may not be the case for everyone who wears it). A piece of metal can be sewn into the top to make a more custom fit around the nose.
- Doesn’t include anywhere to put a filter and doesn’t have an extra layer between the two layers of fabric. However, an additional piece of fabric could easily be added during the sewing process.
- From a sewing perspective, not nicest design.
- Frays after washing.
OVERALL GRADE: B-
BEST QUALITY: EASY TO MAKE
Homemade DIY Cloth Mask #2 “Rectangle + Pleats I”
This was the first homemade cloth face mask that I made. I can’t seem to locate the original design, but it has quite a few pros and a few cons (in my opinion).
One factor for the effectiveness of a face mask is how well it fits your face. The big deal here is everyone has a different face. What fits mine may not fit yours and so on. The first trial run of this mask did not fit my face or Ned’s. It was too wide at the sides and the elastic was too long.
We ended up gathering the sides of the mask together and added some extra stitching. We also shortened the elastic by folding a small portion of it and sewing it to the mask.
Pros to the Rectangle + Pleats I Face Mask
- Fairly easy to sew (even for beginners)
- Three layers of materials for extra protection.
Cons to the Rectangle + Pleats I Face Mask
- Had to make adjustments for fit. The side of the mask was too wide for both of our faces (male and female). Would have benefitted from an extra pleat.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
BEST QUALITY: MULTIPLE LAYERS
Homemade DIY Cloth Mask #3 “Rectangle + Pleats II”
This is another design with rectangle cloth sewn together and pleated. The design was made by Dana from the blog Made Every Day and it’s one of my favorite designs. It’s easy enough to sew, you can add an extra layer for filtration, or you can leave a pocket so you can insert filters.
She gives several different choices for how to attach it to your head. There’s the elastic behind the ears method, the elastic behind the head method, and ties made from knit fabric. The nice thing about this is you can change based on what supplies you have and by preference. I personally like the elastic behind the head method because the elastic behind the ears can be painful after a time. That being said, it uses a lot more elastic and it can be difficult to find elastic at the moment.
In that case, the ties can be a really great choice.
Here’s a video of her showing how to make this fabric DIY face mask with knit ties.
Pros to the Rectangle + Pleats II Face Mask
- Fairly easy to sew (even for beginners)
- Can add extra layers for protection or leave an open spot for a filter.
- Variety of attachment choices
- More of a one-sized fit all size
Cons to the Rectangle + Pleats II Hand Made Face Mask
- A good fit, but not my favorite fit. The rectangle masks tend to be a little bit bigger on the face and not as custom fit as some designs.
OVERALL GRADE: A-
BEST QUALITY: CUSTOMIZABLE
Homemade DIY Cloth Mask #4 “Rectangle + Pleats III”
Yes, there are a lot of rectangle/pleats face mask designs, but I’m coming in hot with another one.
This one is from Sarah from the blog Sarah Maker. She calls it a “Surgical Face Mask for Hospitals”
As an aside, if you haven’t already checked out her blog I would do so now. As a freelance writer by trade I can’t say enough good things about her ABOVE AND BEYOND blog post about making face masks. She shows how to make her face mask in three ways —video, pictures, and graphic instructions — so people can choose their best learning style. She also shares science, research, and different ideas about fabric and filters. Just so much great information.
OK, so back to the design aspect.
Overall this is a great design and fairly easy to sew. I would say it can be sewn easily by a beginner/intermediate sewer, but wouldn’t be the easiest to sew if you’re 100% new to sewing. It requires a couple of extra steps from the other rectangle/pleat designs that make it a little bit trickier. Still, definitely not a difficult design.
As far as fit goes, the measurements provided were too big for my face, but they fit Ned pretty well. These can be adjusted to fit a smaller face fairly easily, but that would require some extra figuring.
Pros to the Rectangle + Pleats III Face Mask
- Perfect spot for adding a filter
- Clean finished look that washes well.
Cons to the Rectangle + Pleats III Face Mask
- A little harder to make for brand new beginners
- May have to be adjusted for fit
- Same color for both sides (some people recommend a different color on the interior so you know which side goes towards the face)
OVERALL GRADE: A-
BEST QUALITY: EASY ACCESS FILTER POCKET + NICE FINISHED PRODUCT
Homemade DIY Cloth Mask #4 “Countoured Mask”
The last cloth face mask design I’ll be sharing is one from Craft Passion. The face mask design was originally posted in 2013 but has had a resurgence since the pandemic.
Of all the designs, this one takes a bit more sewing skill and time. It’s not quite as quick to make up as the rectangle designs — at least not the first time you make it. You have to cut out four curved pieces and there are extra sewing steps as well.
Another thing to note about this design is it requires a bit more customization. There are several sizes offered for this one, but you may need to size up or down depending on the person. If you get the sizing wrong it’s really not a “one size fits all adults” kind of design. I also found that I had to play around with the elastic to get the right kind of tightness on the face.
ALL THAT BEING SAID.
I think this design/this type of design is the best for fit. It contours around the eyes making it easier to see, and it doesn’t leave a big gap at the top or bottom for airflow to escape easily. Ned said this design helped reduce fogging with his eyeglasses.
Also bears to mention that I found the pattern before Craft Passion updated some of the design. She now has a filter pocket included which was not in the original design when I made ours. You can watch the video for the design update here:
Some upgrades to consider for this design:
- I added an extra layer between fabrics for added protection.
- Use elastic behind the head instead of the ears for extra comfort.
- Include a pipe cleaner in the nose section for an even better fit.
Pros to the Countoured Face Mask
- Best fit for the shape of a human face
- Clean finished look — good design from a sewing standpoint.
Cons to the Countoured Face Mask
- Probably the most difficult design to sew on the list
- Has to be fitted for each face
OVERALL GRADE: A
BEST QUALITY: BEST FIT & VERY COMFORTABLE ON THE FACE
Basic Tips for How to Make a Homemade DIY Cloth Face Masks
I wanted to include an extra section of tips and tricks to help you with your face mask making. These are ideas that will help your face mask making time work out more smoothly.
Tip #1: Wash Your Fabric
It’s almost always a good idea to wash your fabric before you sew something. One exception I can think of would be double gauze fabric which can sometimes be sewn without washing. I’m sure there are other examples, but when you’re making your face masks I would recommend washing and drying the fabric on high heat at least one time. It may even be helpful to wash it twice before sewing.
The reason to wash it is you don’t want to sew a face mask that fits great only to have it shrink after the first wash.
Tip #2: Sew the Elastic in the Right Way
With the rectangle style face masks, you have to sew your elastic or ties on the inside of the fabric. Don’t do what I did and mistakenly sew them on the outside of the fabric — which I think I did at least two times.
Here’s a picture of how NOT to sew on the elastic. It should be on the inside.
Tip #3: Use Your Iron
This is another general sewing tip, but it’s a lot easier to sew these designs when you’re using your iron. Before you start sewing, iron all your fabric so it’s smooth and wrinkle-free. Then, use your hot iron to sew creases and edges to make the sewing process easier.
Tip #4: Sewing Clips Work Better Than Pins
The rectangle+pleats designs require sandwiching the elastic or ties between several layers of fabric. It’s a LOT easier to keep these layers together with sewing clips than it is with pins.
Here’s how I used the materials I already had for a similar solution 🙂
Tip #5: Use a Heavy Duty Sewing Machine
This tip is especially for sewing heavy pleats such as with the rectangle+ pleats designs. When you’re sewing over multiple layers of fabric (especially when bunched) sometimes a lightweight sewing machine struggles to sew through it.
I personally use the Singer Heavy Duty 4423 which has done a really good job through the years sewing through thick or layered fabric. It’s also one of the more affordable options on the list.
Other sewing machines that get good reviews for heavy-duty sewing needs are:
Sewing machines have been a bit hard to come by, so here’s a link to the Amazon results for heavy-duty sewing machines so you can check what’s actually in stock.
Tip #6: Choosing Your Elastic (UPDATE)
So I’ve given a lot of thought to elastic now that I’ve seen our masks in action. Our kids have to wear masks to school every day so I really get to see how well they last. So far the masks have held up fairly well both from wear and from the washer and dryer. A few masks could use a touch up where the elastic pulls at the threads, but generally, they are doing OK.
Thoughts about elastic behind the ears: Elastic behind the ears is much easier for putting on and removing than elastic that goes behind the head. It also requires less elastic (especially helpful for the beginning of the pandemic when elastic was so hard to come by). The downfall of elastic behind the ears is it can begin to hurt when wearing them for longer periods of time. One trip to the grocery store can be enough to make the ears sore (let alone all day at school or work.) Elastic behind the ear can also be difficult to fit. From child to child they need different tightness for the ears. Too loose and the mask hangs about their face, too tight and it’s uncomfortable and pulls at the ears.
So there’s definitely pros and cons here.
Thoughts about elastic behind the head: Originally I thought using elastic behind the ears was the best solution. While it does save the ears, and it’s easier to size, it can be a nuisance to take on and put on. You also have to touch the mask a lot more when you put it on or remove it. It also require a good bit more elastic than the alternative.
What’s the best kind of elastic to use?
I’ve tried out a lot of different kinds of elastic. The 1/4 inch elastic tends to hold up best in the laundry but is probably a little harder on the ears. Recently I’ve been buying elastic by the yard at JoAnn fabrics. On the last trip, I bought a very soft 1/8 inch elastic (it looked more like 1/4 inch elastic). I loved the feeling of the elastic, but it does not hold up well during wear and washing and drying.
I found an elastic alternative that I think will work a lot better than the elastic I’ve picked up at JoAnn’s. A friend of the family made my parents a couple of masks and they gave them to me because we were going on a vacation. I love the masks she made and the elastic around the ears has been the best I’ve found so far.
Here’s a picture of what it looks like:
I really like this elastic because it holds up well during a wash cycle. It’s also the most comfortable I’ve worn. I ordered this elastic today so I’ll let you know if I have any additional reviews of it in the future.
Tip #7 Make The Mask a Little Big
I’ve noticed that the face masks tend to shrink over time when they go through the washer and dryer a bunch of times. I would always suggest washing your fabric first (maybe a few times), but it might also be a good idea to make the masks just a *tad* bigger than you’d normally make it. Think of it like when you buy a cotton t-shirt at the store. You might fit a small off the rack, but there’s a good chance it’s going to shrink after a few washes. The same is true (in my experience) with the face masks.
How to Care For Your Homemade DIY FaceMask
Another important part of Homemade DIY face masks is caring for them after you make them. The main question is how to wash them and how often to wash them.
Here’s what the research suggests:
- To reduce exposure to the virus, you’re supposed to treat your face mask like it has the virus on the front. This is an exposed surface that can collect germs, bacteria, and viruses. When you remove the mask, be careful to remove it from the elastic or ties. If you do touch the front of your mask, wash your hands as soon as possible.
- Some people have recommended microwaving your face masks when you get home. It isn’t clear if this way is effective, but it can be dangerous to microwave them if you or someone else has inserted anything metal (like pipe cleaners used for a better fit)
- The best method for caring for your face mask is to put it through a normal wash and dry cycle with your laundry.
A Time For Makers to Step Up
From a maker’s perspective, I feel amazed that crafters are being called to step up and serve. Sewing machines are flying off the shelves and people who have never sewn before are learning how.
This is a pretty cool plug for the maker’s movement as people with 3D Printers and Laser Cutters are also helping to create PPE for medical staff and individual people. I know a lot of people are making “ear savers” on their 3D printers and laser cutters — small pieces of plastic that relieve a person’s ears from the elastic of a cloth face mask.
If you’re part of the movement finding ways to serve people during lockdowns we want to hear about it. What have you made to help those in your community? Who do you know who is making homemade face masks or plastic shields for their local medical staff?
We need more of these good stories. We need more good news of people working together and helping each other out.
And finally, what’s your favorite cloth face mask design? What have you been using with your family?
Find us on Facebook or Instagram to send us pictures of your work, and leave us comments below. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.