HYDE PARK — Like so many Chicagoans, Hyde Parker Leslie Travis saw people suffering because of coronavirus and felt compelled to help.
Travis drew from her various passions — sewing, sailing and educating — and came to a conclusion: She would make and distribute masks. But she would also hand out mask kits and sewing materials, empowering people to learn how to sew so they could make masks for themselves and others.
Since the onset of the pandemic, she’s distributed thousands of masks through a massive mask-making operation built from her numerous connections, including a sailmaker and quilting guild. Her masks and kits have helped health care providers, food banks, Masks Now Illinois and any neighbor who asks for them.
“I thought that the most effective way I could function is as a kind of transfer point,” Travis said. “If people had fabric that they were not going to use, they could bring it to me and I would get it cut. If they didn’t know how to sew, I would give them a kit which had links to videos that they could watch” with instructions on mask making.
The former Ray Elementary School librarian will give out completed masks to those who ask, but her standard kit is a do-it-yourself affair with the raw materials for sewing a mask.
“I would much rather teach someone how to make ten masks than just give them 10 masks,” Travis said. “If they know how to do it themselves, they can make 100 or 1,000.”
Acquiring fabric and elastics for masks was nearly impossible at the start of the pandemic, Travis said. Manufacturers were redirecting their products to health care services in desperate need, while the coronavirus shutdown closed all sewing and craft supply stores.
In response, fellow sewing enthusiasts like the Hyde Park-based Lakeside Quilting Guild pitched in. In addition to the fabric donated to Travis’ effort, the guild has given nearly 4,000 masks to various hospitals and institutions like Montgomery Place and Hyde Park Union Church.
“Anybody who is a quilter has an excess of fabric,” guild member Linda Degenstein said. “If someone asked for extra thread from me, I say, ‘Sure, how much?’ Spools of thread — I say, ‘Sure, how much?’ … The whole [guild] will hand things out to anybody who asks for something.”
As demand for personal protective equipment continued to grow, cutting eight-foot-long strips of fabric into mask-sized pieces became a burden.
Travis, an avid sailor whose home base is the Jackson Park Yacht Club, reached out to South Loop sailmaker UK Sails. She asked company leaders if they’d repurpose their machinery to cut fabric strips for personal protective equipment.
UK Sails was happy to assist, as the company “didn’t have a whole lot else going on” during the coronavirus shutdown, said Cate Swanson, office manager and the company’s jack-of-all-trades.
For five hours a day, five days a week at the height of the pandemic, Swanson and staffer Kevin Consodine transformed the sail-making operation into a supplier of masks and hospital gowns.
Travis “had a whole network of people donating different materials,” Swanson said. “At first it was fabric, but then fabric stores were closed, so she came up with the next best thing: Bedsheets. We were cutting up bedsheets for a very long amount of time.”
The effort wore down the company’s cutting table, creating new grooves in the surface that the blade would get caught in.
Travis, feeling obligated to help recoup damages stemming from her request for assistance, called on others in her network.
Even though the cutting table was already nearing the end of its service life before the pandemic, she found an anonymous donor to replace it.
No one else reached out to use UK Sails’ cutting machine, which makes sense, Swanson said. People outside of the sailing community likely wouldn’t think to go to a sailmaker with such a request.
But Travis “knows a lot of people,” Swanson said. Through her connections, she was able to tap UK Sails to help make masks, get the sailmaker a new table and redirect masks and gowns made there to essential workers in need.
UK Sails has gradually slowed down its involvement after cutting enough fabric to make 7,000 masks and restarting its sailmaking operation. But if “things worsen again and she’s going to need a big supply of rectangles,” the company will be on hand to assist Travis again.
“I give all the credit to Leslie,” Swanson said. “We were just trying to help in any way we could. It’s your good deeds you do that hopefully … will be done for you in return at some point.”
Travis has been the driving force behind the effort, coordinating distributions, posting to neighborhood Facebook groups and email lists and handing out mask kits from her front porch.
But it’s been a truly collaborative project, she said, and she is happy to see neighbors continue to look out for each other at such “an extremely stressful time.”
“What has particularly touched me is that I have … called people up or appeared at the door of their workshop and said, ‘I need you to do this; will you?” Travis said. “Nobody has said no. There aren’t very many projects where you can get involved with where that’s the case.”
People can request a mask kit, fabric or a sewing machine from Travis by texting her at 773-307-6441.
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