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Making masks by the thousands

Gail Brill, left, and Susan Waters worked alongside over 50 local women who came together to produce 4,600 masks. (Photo provided by Gail Brill)

SARANAC LAKE — A year into the pandemic, it’s sometimes hard to remember that masks were once a scarce commodity. Long before they came in every style, pattern and color imaginable, a group of local volunteer artists and seamstresses banded together to make them from scratch.

After her son was diagnosed with COVID-19 last March, and “feeling desperate and unable to help in any way,” Gail Brill decided to fill what was then a massive need: mask-making. She started the Tri-Lakes Community Makers, a group that grew to over 50 local women who eventually produced 4,600 masks.

“At that time there was a real sense of panic,” said Brill, a graphic designer who recruited area sewers, as well as others who could help with the sourcing of materials, organization and distribution.

Brill made different designs for the masks, drawing illustrations and emailing them to the Makers. “We bought fabric as a group. There was no elastic anywhere. So we used T-shirts, cut them into strips,” she said of the various early designs she crafted at her Saranac Lake design studio.

“I would put a kit together with some coconut macaroons, because I felt like I had to keep people happy,” Brill said.

Gail Brill smiles in her Saranac Lake mask-making studio. (Photo provided by Gail Brill)

“People were picking up brown bags from a green bin,” she said of the distanced system she put into place, which included a drop-off bin outside her studio. “I don’t know what my neighbors were thinking. This went on for months. A lot of late nights, a lot of macaroon baking.”

“We made masks for construction companies, businesses, food service and animal hospital workers, the rescue squad, health care workers, private practice doctors, food pantry workers, boat stewards,” said Susan Waters, who joined the Makers after seeing Brill’s Facebook page about the project.

“We made some for the Franklin County department of power and water, for pizza delivery people, sheet metal workers, corrections officers,” continued Waters, a former production manager who set up a series of spreadsheets to track the process. “I think we even sent some to California.”

As the months went by, the group filled orders for drivers delivering Meals On Wheels, the police department and the hospital. When schools reopened, the Makers made 1,300 masks for the Saranac Lake school district.

“We morphed a little bit,” said Waters. “The bulk of the orders began to taper off by the end of June. The weather got better, organizations were finally able to get masks, people started making their own.” So the Makers pivoted to making surgical caps for Adirondack Health — 325 of them.

“We got lots of donations of fabric, of funding, we had people volunteer to deliver things — it really was a community effort,” said Waters. “I made some very good friends through this process.”

“Now we’re kind of retired,” said Brill recently, though the Makers filled an order in January for day care workers in Elizabethtown.

“I have several hardcore seamstresses still asking,” Waters said. “They don’t want to quit; they just thrived on helping people. It was a lovely thing to be a part of.”

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