SEW USEFUL: Retired Aurora seamstress cranking out virus masks

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AURORA | An Aurora grandmother and retired seamstress has become a one-woman mask factory in the midst of the pandemic.

Hiemi Haines said her 83-year-old mother, north Aurora fixture Jessica Kim, has dusted off old sewing machines and boxes of fabrics to crank out about 600 masks and donate them across the country. She’s planning to make thousands more to donate to Aurora city government for hospitals and homeless shelters.

Health authorities aren’t recommending that healthcare workers, or the general public, wear homemade masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says homemade masks should be a “last resort” for healthcare workers also wearing a large plastic shield – like a welder’s mask – for more reliable protection.

But the Colorado Department of Health and Environment is accepting homemade masks.

People can go to Helpcoloradonow.com to make donations, a department spokesperson said. There would be ample testing to see whether the masks are effective enough to protect first responders and healthcare workers.

Industry-standard masks built for use in hospitals are in short supply after the pandemic sparked a run on materials. Those government-regulated masks, called N95s, are considered the standard for protecting healthcare workers from bacteria and viruses like COVID-19. Volunteers across the country and world are hoping to meet the need by crafting their own homemade masks, but hospitals and health departments so far are making different decisions about whether to accept them.

Kim and her family are aiming for that industry standard, they say. And they think they may have the experience to do it.

Kim brought her family to Colorado from South Korea and, over the decades, built several sewing businesses on East Colfax Avenue in what has now become the Aurora Cultural Arts District. Kim and her husband Samuel own the building near East Colfax Avenue and Elmira Street housing Baba & Pop’s Pierogi, Third Culture bakery and the forthcoming Lady Justice brewery.

Haines said her mother closed her old sewing business, Fashion Wear, in 2013. Since then, she stubbornly refused to get rid of sewing machines and boxes upon boxes of materials when she retired.

Now, they’re coming in handy.

“She’s very grateful for having this opportunity,” Haines said of her mother Monday. “She had the materials she had saved – or hoarded – all these years…. She almost feels like it was meant to be that she had all this material.”

The plan began because Kim’s granddaughter is a doctor in Philadelphia. Kim said she was worried the hospital might not have enough masks.

Haines got started hand-sewing a few masks of her own until her mother, a master seamstress, got wind.

“’Oh, you’re too slow,’” Haines said her mother told her. “She can look at something and, at home, make any pattern.”

Incredibly, Haines said she opened the first box among heaps holding old sewing materials and found a solid substitute for industrially-made masks: nine-inch-wide cotton fabric to cover the mouth, and two-inch-side elastic bands to hook the mask behind the ears. Kim rapidly sews these two parts together in her home, where she lives with her 88-year-old husband.

The family shipped their first homemade masks to Kim’s granddaughter and her friends also working in hospitals.

Outside of hospitals, the best defense against the novel coronavirus is avoiding close interaction with people and staying home, according to health authorities. The CDC isn’t recommending that the general public wear masks at all.

Haines knows her masks aren’t the real thing.  She hopes industrial mask manufacturers will ramp up production and donate masks to struggling hospitals, to protect health care workers.

For now, Kim and Haines are working together to crank out out 100 masks a day. They plan to donate those for use in Aurora hospitals and shelters. Haines has reached out to area hospitals asking how, and if, they can make the masks to regulation.