Costuming class creates masks for healthcare workers

Published April 2, 2020
Eckerd College Theatre Professor Jessica Thonen holds a mask

Theatre Professor Jessica Thonen shows off the type of mask she and her students are creating for the community.

It all began with an “embarrassing fabric stash” and the desire to help the community as the world grappled with the challenges of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

When Eckerd College Theatre Professor Jessica Thonen heard of neighbors and community members sewing masks to supplement the low supply of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, she realized she had found her niche. A group formed, Hope for Tampa Bay, with friends Kelly Thompson and Hope Griffin. They found patterns and set to work. In no time, the women had created a website encouraging others to join the effort. And people did.

Thonen extended a membership invitation to her Technical Theatre group—costuming students who work for additional credit—and three students took her up on the offer. The class usually covers pattern making and construction, two skills that making masks from found fabrics will put to the test. Hannah Hockman, who would have spent this week frantically preparing to launch her directorial debut, Heathers: The Musical, decided to join in the cause.

“It’s so easy,” said the junior theatre student from St. Petersburg. “It took me like 10 minutes to make my first one, and now that I know what I’m doing, it will be even faster.”

Hannah visits the hospital often for iron infusions, so she said she understands the desperate situation healthcare workers could be in without necessary equipment.

Thonen said that the many hands enlisted to make this work light are making do with what they have in the circumstances. She’s using her own fabrics, T-shirts and materials donated to the Eckerd College Costume Shop that aren’t fit for stagewear to personally crank out up to 50 masks a day. Her donations are left on her porch to be taken to St. Anthony’s Hospital, where they are sterilized and stored until needed. Now that she has resumed teaching (remotely) this week, her production may slow, but Thonen has no plans to stop.

“We have already made and delivered 900 masks to hospitals, assisted-living facilities, home healthcare workers, COVID units and more,” Thonen explained. “This is really good and we have just gotten started! We have over 6,000 mask requests and over 600 in the group working together!”

Thonen even expanded to videos. “I have been making tutorial videos for our group. These are being used beyond the group. In fact, a hospital in Tennessee wrote and asked if they could use them to get people to make masks for them—Norton Healthcare,” she exclaimed.

“Here’s the thing, I really believe there is always time to do the things that are important,” she said. “Now that we are over 600 strong, the thought that keeps coming to mind is: Lots of people doing a little still adds up to a lot. There will be time for what is important.”

Eckerd College Theatre Professor Jessica Thonen sewing a mask