A group of women handy with a needle and thread gathered on Sunday, May 23, at Dobbs Ferry Waterfront Park for a unique picnic lunch. They were celebrating their accomplishment and meeting one another in person, some for the first time.
The women, many of whom live in Hastings and Dobbs Ferry, are part of an informal volunteer network of approximately 40 who for a year have been sewing protective facemasks — more than 7,600 to date — that have been distributed to The Children’s Village, Native American reservations, women’s shelters, hospitals, prisons, and migrant farmworkers.
“We cast a wide net. There is a lot of need,” Dobbs Ferry resident Nancy Haffner, who manages the group, said at the event. Haffner, a retired actress/producer, took over the supervisory role last June, when Hastings resident Mia de Bethune, a multimedia artist who started the effort in April of 2020, handed over the reins. De Bethune, internship coordinator and adjunct instructor in the NYU Steinhardt School of Education art therapy department, is relocating to Portsmouth, R.I., and pursuing a Ph.D. from Lesley University, a private college in Cambridge, Mass.
Haffner had sewn hundreds of masks for family, friends, and colleagues, and was a natural for the job. She’d learned to sew as a child, practicing on dolls’ clothes, and later she sewed for boutiques. During her New York acting career in the 1970s-80s, she earned a Fashion Institute of Technology certificate, studying draping and patternmaking; she also partnered with another woman in a design business, manufacturing women’s blouses.
The bulk of the masks — 4,373 — went to the Navajo, Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, and other First Nations; all but the Navajo are in Montana. A thank-you card and branded mementos, such as a mouse pad, pens, and other items from the Navajo trading post in Tuba City, Ariz., were on display at the picnic.
The mask-makers use cloth donated by a local crafter, left in bins outside de Bethune’s studio at 465 Broadway (the La Barranca building), or bought new. Masks were also made from curtains.
The 600 masks for The Children’s Village, a residential treatment facility, mostly for boys, needed to be customized, not only in size (adult and child), but also in choice of material.
“Children’s Village wanted ‘boyish’ fabric, not flowers or teddy bears,” Haffner said, and exhibited examples of the latter two patterns. Instead, CV’s masks were made in solid colors and dark plaid.
De Bethune, sharing why she initiated mask-making shortly after lockdown began, said, “We were all in such crisis. There was a great need to do something. …It felt like war, and I stepped up to the war.”
Haffner prioritized sending masks to the reservations. As a child, her family was peripatetic; her father’s mining work took them to California, Idaho, Washington, and Utah. Decades later, her children, Abby and Nate Blum, now adults, attended The Masters School four years apart, and each participated in a service project that took them to reservations in Montana. Haffner’s affinity for the West prompted her to investigate the school’s contacts with the Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet, and she also zeroed in on Tuba City, a chapter of the Navajo nation, as an appropriate place to send masks.
“When this whole crisis started, masks were not so readily available everywhere,” she explained. “Even if they were, accessibility is not the same. We’re talking about people who are really poor.”
Need comes in waves, she noted. The group has delivered their last batch of masks to CV, but will make more if CV needs them.
Even when there’s no need for masks at all, the sewing circle won’t be forgotten. Dobbs Ferry’s Roxane Orgill, an author who studies archiving at the Long Island University School of Library Science, also volunteers at the Westchester Historical Society in Elmsford. She has created an archive of the women’s work: a box containing 20 pages of significant emails, requests for masks, thank-you letters from hospitals and tribes, and mask samples, including a colorful one, and a white one, the kind made for the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. The box is available for viewing at the Historical Society.
Haffner commented that sewing the masks was a type of therapy and created a sense of community, even among those who didn’t know one another. The women cherish the letters from those who received the masks.
“What they were grateful for was not only the physical something that helped protect their lives, but also it was the fact that people who didn’t know them were spending their time and energy making something for them,” Haffner stated. “For communities that feel forgotten, this was a way of acknowledging them, a two-way street: we felt very appreciated, and the people who take the masks realize that people across the country feel that strangers are thinking about them and caring about them.”