It's the symbol of our time - the whole crushing chaos of COVID distilled into a few thin layers of cotton. Overnight, fashion sprang on this new social canvas; because fashion is all about manufacturing identity, and what signifier is more in your face than a mask? But what, I am wondering, does it signify?. Is It a social firewall or a thoughtful gesture?
Depends on why you wear it, says Liz Bucar quoted in the Washington Post. If you are wearing a mask to protect yourself from others, you are forming a habit of fear. Every time you put a mask on, every time you see someone else wearing one, you will reinforce this fear.
But if you are wearing the mask to protect others, wearing it will create a feeling of connection to those in your community, she says. You’ll see others wearing masks as a sartorial sign that they are willing to sacrifice some freedom and comfort for the common good.* It's true, I think. I meet others' eyes in the grocery, over masks and peppers, and see an affinity there, a shared awkwardness, a humility, even.
When the corona virus began to shut down the work of the artisan groups we know well, face masks were the first life-saving rope we reached for. We began to explore with each group - well, that's too tidy of a term; we didn't have time to explore - rather, we designed by default overnight, face masks to be made with whatever skills and fabrics the groups had available to them. There wasn't time to ship cloth and elastic - we had to make do with limited resources on the other end.
- In Pakistan, women had just made a bodacious dress for Ibu - we quickly adapted it to a mask. Their hand-embroidery flew over them, each woman working from home; then leaders covertly collected them despite a strict quarantine.
- In Turkey, the women were forbidden by the government to make masks. Later, when the powers relented out of necessity, we again adapted their recent Ibu dress with ancient Ottoman motif (looking a lot like lips) and so of course embroidered the çintamani smack dab in the lip center on the mask (for the saucy ones of you). The Ibu Foundation then paid them to make many more so that the people in their community could also have masks.
- In El Salvador, women took to their hand looms, weaving subtly striped cotton and sewed up masks in profusion, which we ordered in multiple for a restaurant staff and local spa as well as our allies.
- In Kenya, bright cotton prints flew into production, but only after necessary white ones were made for hospital workers there.
- In Cambodia, women made silk masks for the Ibu Foundation from their handwoven finery - a way of saying thanks for the aid they received during shutdown.
- In India, the kantha running stitch found good play on masks, making one of our most popular padded coverings.
In every case, the artisans' work flow had stopped. This stop-gap is getting them through, aided by the fact that Hannah Blatt and the Ibu Foundation set up a Covid Relief Fund so that monies could help women feed their families during the shutdown.
When I look at the textile languages written in the face masks for Ibu, I see the fashion of the world, one culture at a time, reminding me how global this pandemic really is. A little swatch of cloth covering the lips with which we kiss, and breathe, and speak - is a statement indeed.
It's our choice, really. To slip one on, not as a barrier to others, but as a connection, a common bond, a kindness signifying respect. Surely that is a language we all understand.
Stay well and keep the hope,
Susan Hull Walker.
*Washington Post, May 5, 2020, by Robin Givhan "Masks are here to Stay"