A Closer Look
The New Rosies
Rock County's Facemask Warriors
Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
Sewing keeps my mind young. This project is keeping me going!
~ 92 Year Old Lorraine Matthews
Author's note: The numbers in this article continually climb as the cronavirus cases climb and the need for masks increases. More seamstresses join the cause and more masks are being produced daily.
On your computer, use the anchor menu to the right to jump to various sections of the story.
The War Effort
In the 1940s, during the darkest days of World War II, our men were sent off to fight the battlefronts of the Pacific theater against the Japanese and in Europe against ruthless fascist, Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi regime and Benito Mussolini of Italy. Toward the end of the war, the troops discovered millions of Jews already murdered by the Nazis in gas chambers across Europe. The Nazi weapon of hatred extended to other ethnic groups of Europe and anyone not supporting their party. Had America not intervened, fighting alongside our Brittish, French and Russian allies, who knows how far those dictators would have gone? How many others would have been slaughtered? How much could our world have been turned upside down?
Rosie the Riveter
On the home front, the U.S. government began a major public relations campaign to encourage women to work. American women stepped out of their familiar, traditional, domestic roles and into the physical, noisy and often dangerous factory lines, filling the positions of the men who’d gone to war. Many of these jobs were not open to female employees before then, but they heeded the federal call and stepped up to the plate! Their work and dedication was extremely vital to the war effort.
They were our "Rosies", a term derived from a 1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley who was working on aircraft assembly at the Naval Air Station Alameda. Artist J. Howard Miller designed a poster using Naomi’s face and a woman flexing her bicep with the slogan, “We Can Do It!”. During WWII, millions of women entered the workforce to fill the gaps in the industrial labor force. By the end of the war, one of every four married women was working. That may not sound like a lot but, prior to WWII, it was highly unusual to see women on the factory lines.
The famous poster of Rosie the Riveter, a name derrived from a popular song of the era, was used to recruit female workers. Curiously, it didn’t take on popularity until decades later, when the poster became the symbol of women’s empowerment.
Artist J. Howard Miller's poster of Rosie the Riveter
The New Rosies
Nearly 80 years later, we have an entirely new generation of Rosies stepping up to the plate, facing a new and very different kind of war. This is a war waged on all of us by an invisible and deadly virus spanning the globe, attacking over 3 million people and, in just a few months, killing over 211,000 worldwide. We have yet to see the end of it and every nation is still trying to figure out how to deal with the devastation inflicted on human life and on our economies.
In an interesting twist to the story, the modern women of today are dusting off their sewing machines, and that domestic role which, for many, was left long ago on a storage shelf. During the women’s liberation movement, when The Beatles and soul queen Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T filled radio airwaves, women were not only earning their own living, but also entering higher education in greater numbers. There was less time and interest in tasks such as sewing, ironing and baking...something their mothers did, or returned to doing after WWII. The Baby Boomer and Gen X women were finding new, stronger, independent identities in the modern world. For most of them, sewing was not a part of the plan.
Yet those very women still learned how to sew and cook from their mothers when they were young at home. They paid attention in home economics classes and learned how to use those sewing machines, even as dreams of exciting careers, becoming business women or community leaders filled their bright minds. Little did they know the full value of those skills and how they would become incredibly helpful in a future 2020 crisis.
The latest trend of “Ok, Boomer” and mocking the older generations ought to be put to rest. We need to become aware that they are the ones rising up, mighty and strong, like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman on the big screen, to meet the nation’s needs in selfless giving during this global pandemic.
Teresa Nguyen's grandmother's portable Singer
They are the leaders of companies making decisions to switch from their usual products to manufacture PPE. They are the volunteers handing out free meals to the needy and school children, who depend on that daily lunch. They are top board members of nonprofits creating projects to assist healthcare and other essential workers of the community.
Dozens of (mostly) women have begun to sew masks, multitudes of masks, banding together like a large, grassroots factory. They are the new Rosies! It is an extraordinary movement all across America, as they work to help those most at risk on the frontlines of this war against COVID-19.
These Rosies are different this time around. They didn’t have encouragement or guidance from a U.S. Government campaign to get things rolling. But they didn’t wait for that. Instead, they drew upon their independent, intelligent and compassionate nature to answer the desperate calls for help across our nation. They found scraps of material in their homes, they followed YouTube tutorials, they communicated via social media with each other on the best patterns and techniques. It blossomed like a beautiful iris in morning sunbeams.
Rock County Effort
In our own Rock County, we shouldn’t be surprised that we have living angels among us. Ever since the pioneer days of our early farming settlers, the Midwest spirit has been one of neighbor helping neighbor, and that hasn’t really changed. Some of these women had to dig out those machines, while others are professional and experienced seamstresses who’ve been sewing for decades.
While many of these Rosies range in age from their 40's - 60's and older, some of the mask makers are Millennials, or even younger, picking up this life skill from their grandmothers.
Our local mask making movement has become a huge operation, requiring organizers, sewers, runners, delivery volunteers and countless heroes behind the scenes.
During these stressful, challenging months, the leaders of the movement endure endless organizing, phone calls, emails, delegating and coordinating volunteers, prioritizing and record keeping. All this easily adds up to a lot of stress! Yet they keep going. The sewers are working day and night; cutting, pinning, guiding material to the drone of their sewing machine motors, threading, untangling bobbins, finger poking, sore joints, sore muscles, sore tushes and a lonely separation from their fellow sewers. Yet they are determined to do it, collectively providing hundreds of masks for so many in our fortunate community!
Facemask Warrior, Gail Duncan, taught her granddaughter, Ashley (pictured), how to sew the masks
May you be inspired by these 7 interviews of hardworking, community members involved in the United Way Blackhawk Region’s Facemask Warriors group, as well as the stories of a couple of independent seamstresses. One has sewn 460 masks (still going!) and the Facemask Warriors have distributed 2700 masks to date! This isn't child's play, but a call of duty, and many are going well above that. These individuals are not representative of all, but they are a wonderful sampling of this amazing group of Janesville area women stepping up to make a difference. They have all become our local heroes!
Chief of staff to the CEO at Data Dimensions
Board of Directors - United Way Blackhawk Region
Founder/Admin for UWBR Facemask Warriors (Facebook Group)
New Project, Exponential Growth
Around the end of March of 2020, I began this project to create a hub, connecting sewers and volunteers on the United Way Black Hawk Region website.
In week one, we gained 5 seamstresses a day and requests for 40 masks a day. Then late in the second week, the demand hit a new high. After just a couple of weeks, I had my busiest days, and they continue to get busier. For instance, that Tuesday, April 7th, the need for our homeless vets came in and right after that, the Oak Park nursing home request came in.
We started with a few of us, then it grew to a group of 25 workers and after a couple of weeks, we had 91 members. Currently, as of the third week of April, we’re up to 110!
However, many who sew the masks have also been taking requests from many of their own connections, so it is understandable that we aren’t getting as steep an increase in production as we are in volunteers.
Early on, the news of this movement started to spread and we had a story in the Beloit Daily News and the Janesville Gazette. Madison’s NBC 15 came to do a brief interview and story, as well.
To watch the NBC 15 video, click here:
Some of the first UWBR Facemask Warrior seamstresses were a small group of women from St. John Vianney Parish, like Dona Bolton, Maureen Ziegler and Jeanine Wirth, who has been our launderer. They have been a pretty colorful part of this story and they have been working with this project from the beginning. It has seemed like months, even when it was just weeks.
Some don’t sew, but are willing to help in other ways. When this first started, I met a retired Marine named Timothy Brooks. We have connected every day. He has been running supplies all around and is our Delivery Boy and Marketing Man extraordinaire!
I contacted him when I was researching the JoAnn Fabric's relationship with the completed masks. He sends leads to me all the time for organizations that need help and seamstresses who want to help. When we started this project, both JoAnne Fabrics of Janesville and Beloit were running a free supplies drive, and anyone who made masks would then go to me.
I'm also trying to work with a quilter to get our whole "essential " team at Data Dimensions to have masks.
There isn’t much time to even think!
Retired Marine, Timothy Brooks, delivers masks
The Organizations Served
In just a month’s time, we have already served a variety of local organizations around Rock County including the local hospitals of Mercy Health and SSM, Rock County First Responders, Rock Haven and Aptiv, the Council of Aging, elderly care facilities and Beloit Memorial Hospital. Masks have been delivered to area nonprofits such as HealthNet, G.I.F.T.S. Men’s Shelter, YWCA, KANDU Industries, Housing 4 Our Vets, House of Mercy, the YMCA Daycare Team, Mercy Hospice, The Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin and many others. We’re working to fill the requests in this regional area, plus the essential employees of Rock County programs and the City of Janesville.
YMCA Daycare Team
Beloit Health System
There are still more requests coming in. There is so much need out there. And I feel we have a long way to go! But the good stories continue…we delivered elastic to an elderly friend of HealthNet and she is now sewing away for the cause!
We prioritize our requests as medical, non-profit and private "essentials", followed by non-essential public. We will further prioritize on a first come first serve basis.
What we need the most right now are mask sewers! We could also use a couple of porch-to-porch deliveries of fabric and mask pick-ups, etc.
If you are able to volunteer, please contact us on the United Way Blackhawk Region website.
Retired Parker Pen Employee
92-Year-Old UWBR Facemask Warrior
During WWII, my husband served overseas in the U.S. Navy. We weren’t married yet. I was still a teenager during the war. However, I knew a lot of women who worked at the GM plant for the war effort.
After the war, we got married. That was in 1947.
A Working Woman
Eventually, I worked at Amphenol Controls and at Hough Shade (now Hufcor) and in several different places, but ended up at Parker Pen. I retired after 12 years.
My husband had a heart attack and I couldn’t find anyone to help out, so, I was his caretaker. He was worth it. We were married for 62 years before he passed away…I miss him dearly.
Our children and grandchildren are all still in the area. I have a lot of family, 4 children living, 7 grandchildren, 14 great and 4 great-great grandchildren!
My interest in the project started when the COVID-19 disease started going around, and we were on this lockdown, with no one able to visit. I live in senior housing and I just have to stay busy.
I’m not the best sewer, I’m what I’d call a “hit and miss”! Over the years I learned a little here and there. With 5 children, I had to learn to sew. My mother was a very good seamstress, but I could never sew like she did. I had tried sewing different things, like costumes for the children when they were young. Once, I sewed an evening dress for myself, but I still didn’t sew a lot.
The other day I turned in 50 masks to the United Way Blackhawk Region project. I have another 15 made now and had made around 20 before that, which I donated to the hospital and I gave several to my family. I don’t have a total at this point. And I’m still going, because I know the need is still great.
A couple of other residents I know, Connie and Bob, a married couple, are working together on making masks. Another woman named Sandy is making masks for her family, and then she’s going to join me in giving more to this UWBR Facemask Warriors project.
92-Year-Old Lorraine Matthews
In addition to sewing masks, I also make hats for the homeless, the women’s shelter and Salvation Army. And I make baby hats for the hospital. I make them on a loom and have been doing that for a few years now.
Life at Ninety-Two
I’m a small woman, just 5 feet tall, and do alright. I only use my walker if my back starts to bother me, otherwise I don’t. I use a tablet and I am on Facebook. Since I can’t get to the beauty shop these days, my profile picture looks better than I do now!
I can’t just sit here. When you grow old and just sit around, you’re going to die really fast. And I love to do stuff for people, I really do. If I can help, I will. I enjoy it. That’s just how I am.
Lorraine's masks ready for pick up
Sewing keeps my mind young. This mask making project is keeping me going!
St. John Vianney School Librarian/Aide
UWBR Facemask Warriors' Launderer
Jennifer White initiated this project and told me she would like to get something started through United Way. Our friend, Dona Bolton, offered to sew, and I had told them that I don't sew, but would do anything else. I began washing their masks.
It was just the three of us for a while; Jennifer, Dona and I. We started it together, but Jennifer took the lead. She’s the brains and the organizer behind this whole thing. She is doing so much I can’t even tell you! She also holds down a job at the same time. We all owe Jennifer a big thanks for spearheading this effort!
The project really has grown! When the Gazette wanted to do an interview, some of us didn't feel like we should take credit, because there's such a big team doing it now.
Like Another Job
It has become like a part-time job between washing, air drying, bagging them up and dropping them off at Jennifer's house. It started out gradually, then increased over the weeks. Now I'm washing between 100-150 a day!
My job requires me to be at St. John Vianney School, as well. I've been an Aide there for 21 years, running the library, helping in the classrooms, the computer lab and helping mostly in the kindergarten classroom. Because of my work, I wash the masks at different times each day. I don't have helpers for laundering, but we do have volunteers who deliver them for us.
Meaning Behind the Masks
It is so sad. I have reached out here and there to families from St. John Vianney. When I offer them a couple of masks, they are so incredibly appreciative!
It makes me very happy that I can help out in some small way during this incredibly stressful time.
Oodles of masks hanging to dry at Jeanine's home
Jeanine Wirth, chief launderer, keeps others safe by wearing her own mask
Retired Social Worker
Former Director of UW Rock County
Admin of UWBR Facemask Warriors
I’ve been sewing since I was 7 years old. When the needs for masks came about, I was trying to help form a group to sew masks. My friend Susan Sellman then brought me to this group. With my background in social work, I realized that I could help connect people.
Jennifer White, Kelly Toubl and Mary Fanning-Penny co-created this group through the United Way Blackhawk Region. By forming this group, that made things so much easier for me, too. I couldn’t have done it alone. So, I was happy to help. They aren’t sewers, but working together we figured out what were the best patterns to produce, the fastest, most efficient ways to produce, and the best ways to deliver.
Because I’ve sat on some crisis committees before, I realized that we would want to minimize the lag and any overlap or duplication of services and delivery. That’s just what we’ve been trying to do with all the organizations now.
Every day, the sewing group “checks in”. They let us know how many masks they’re producing, what type they’re producing and then we match that with our requests. We then have people pick them up, since that is the safer way. The less we have our seamstresses going out, the better.
Growth of the Movement
It has really grown! The one thing is that we not only get new members daily, but we’re also increasing productivity. So, making sure we’re time efficient can help us to fulfill the quantity of these larger orders.
Facemask Warrior Sandi Walton donated fabric for others and has also sewn numerous masks.
There are professional seamstresses in this group and everyone is sharing their knowledge. What makes this group so special is that people who don’t sew, also want to help. Cutting out the patterns is very time consuming, so, we have people who don’t sew who are cutting the pattern pieces or people who are running out to pick up supplies. Rock County Management has a guy in construction who just told us that he will run around to deliver and pick up what we need. It’s not just people sewing, it’s a whole support network.
In the beginning, JoAnn Fabric in Janesville and Beloit had their employees cutting out patterns and packaging the whole kit, donating these for free for seamstresses to sew masks. It was very generous!
Facebook Warrior Cindi Pregler's creatively embroidered masks
Helping and Healing
When people are able to channel their energy into something during a situation where they have no control, it helps them to feel that they do have a sense of purpose and control. It not only helps the community, but it helps each individual in the group, as well.
What we’ve learned as a nation, we have things thrown at us that we have to figure out. And we would like for the federal government to have all the answers and all the boxes checked. But it is American ingenuity that actually makes things happen…it’s up to the people. Groups across the nation are thinking outside the box asking, “What can we do? How do we solve the problems? How can we make people smile in these dark days?”
Like that Happy Heart Hunt Facebook group that started in Milton. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I got to that page, look at the pictures and say, “The world is okay.”
Historically, we learned from the stories of people stepping up. So, writers are also important! Maybe our story will help others in the future to know that they can step up, too.
UWBR Facemask Warrior
I’m a neighbor of Jenny’s, (Jennifer White) so when she first told me of this project, I said, “Well, I sew a lot. Let me know if you need any help.” Little did I know it would turn into this project! It’s working out okay, giving me something to do!
Jennifer kept getting more requests in for masks. We both thought that some clothing company might step in and start producing cloth masks. But it seemed no one fulfilled the need, so we just kept going and got more people involved. It seems we’re getting most of the needs met.
It’s been sort of frustrating because we can’t really work together. I would have loved to get together with some of other sewers, to pick out the best patterns.
But the Facebook group has been a good reference for patterns and other tips. Sometimes, I don’t know if I have the best mask pattern or the type of mask that people prefer. However, in the end, I think all the different kinds of masks have a place out there.
A Passion for Sewing
I learned how to sew in 8th grade and wasn’t really that interested in it, though my sister was. I learned on my mom's old Singer, but I got my own machine before I got married and then returned to it in my twenties. I started sewing more when my kids were growing up, made things for them and then got into quilting. I have a part-time job at a quilt shop now, but of course, it’s closed for the duration.
Up to this date, I’m around 225 masks. But I was the first one on her volunteer list, so I’ve had a little more time than the others. And I’m not as effective as some people, either.
I see the need out there and I enjoy sewing, so it’s something I don’t mind doing. I was laughing with Jen White and told her I can’t stop trying to make all the masks “pretty”! I’ve sewn numerous projects and that’s the reason why I have such an extensive availability of leftover fabric scraps to make masks. I’m happy it can be used for a good purpose.
If I weren’t sewing masks, I’d be sewing something else. It’s a good outlet and meets some very important needs right now, so that motivates me.
Some of Maureen's beautiful masks
A few of Maureen Ziegler's professioinal projects
Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but the more we hear, the more we realize it’s making a difference...and it’s important.
Gee Gee Jannene
Admin for Making Masks: Working to get you covered! (Facebook Group)
An Early Start
When I was a young girl, my foster mother and my Home Ec teacher in Abbotsford, Wisconsin taught me how to be a ‘best practices’ seamstress. I appreciate all of the skills I learned from them. I started sewing in 4-H around 50 years ago!
Originally, I intended to major in Home Ec Education and even created an independent study for myself in high school. Later I would sew dress shirts and dress pants for my husband. These days I don’t sew as much as I used to, but I enjoy exploring other fiber arts processes.
Organizing the Mask Making
Kathy Katka, a close friend, is now a doctor nurse practitioner in Minnesota, and she reached out to me requesting masks for her friend in Seattle.
That was on March 21st. At that point, my mission was to get the word out, so I tagged a couple of family members that I knew would get right to work. And they did!
I found my role as an organizer and facilitator early on in this process. I was ‘rallying the troops’ and they sure did jump into production! Eventually, I realized it was time to pause from other tasks and sew.
In my online search, all I did was type in the word "pattern" and several videos showed up. I chose one from JoAnn Fabrics. The task has most definitely gotten easier.
I immediately checked my stash and then headed to JoAnn Fabric. I did not want to use the suggested fusible interfacing, as that would mean the people would be breathing in toxins. I bought all of the ¼ elastic they had and 5 yards of sew in light-weight interfacing. I am using my good cotton quilting fabrics that I have on hand. Most are part of a shop hop I participated in several years back. What better place to use them!
Then, I went back to JoAnn’s and bought the rest of the bolt; 23 yards! I also had an opportunity to go into my school and discovered that some leftover elastic there was the right width...HUGE score! I am an art teacher, so deciding on chenille stems for the nose was an easy choice!
Gee Gee Jannene sewing masks
I collaborated with Kathy and a Janesville friend. Her daughter is a physician. One of my sisters-in-law started creating right away. She has also distributed 100 plus masks to her community.
We made the decision very early into this process to forgo all of the proper sewing details we typically practice; no matching threads...white only, the corners and topstitching do not have to be perfect, and lines and patterns do not need to be centered or matched up. “Form follows function!”
There are many of us out there who are doing this. I started a private Facebook group to organize all of the information that was being shared with me as it was coming in via texts, Facebook postings, messenger and emails. I personally have been too busy in my corner of the world to reach out to other groups in the area.
I am also a full-time teacher, working to teach visual arts to elementary students with this new virtual learning! My students are also working on an art lesson to create their own PPE.
I know that I am over 150 distributed to date. As in production work, there are pieces at various points; initial sewing, turning, pinning, ironing, etc.
My sister is also sewing hundreds of masks and has distributed over 500 to nursing homes in central Wisconsin. She and I have had very lengthy conversations at night while we are both working.
This has truly been a word-of-mouth process.
We’ve delivered to family in various locations in the United States, the neighbors, friends, former neighbors, family of friends (police, firefighters, postal, healthcare), our mailman, wherever there is a need coming in.
I totally respect Kathy’s professional perspective on this current situation. She had the foresight to know that the need for masks was coming.
We both were rural Wisconsin girls who were raised to “help your neighbors”. I am appreciative that I have the skills and resources to help others. That’s just what we do as humans!
I keep saying, “When I retire, I will quilt and sew”. I had some elastic, which I ordered in early April. I was lucky to get what I did because two days later I couldn’t find any online for a friend, who wanted to make masks!
Influences in the Craft
I’ve been sewing since I was 8 years old. My mom sewed for a living at the Whitewater Raincoat Factory and then she made Raggedy Ann dolls and crafts all her life. My mom and my Home Ec teachers in junior and senior high school were my sewing role models.
Initially, I made some for my family, because finding paper masks to buy was difficult. For the first one I made, I watched the YouTube tutorial several times.
I have crates of fabric that I have always wanted to make stuff with.
Some of Lisa's adorable masks
I’m not collaborating with anyone, just working on my own. About once a week, I go out to get groceries and I see more and more people with masks on.
As of today, I’ve sewn 460 and have orders coming in. I've sat for 21 days straight at my sewing machine! Today I'm going in for some acupuncture.
Near and Far
The masks I’ve made are going out to family, friends and travel agent colleagues throughout the country who need them. One friend wanted to give some to her Mom’s caregivers or for personal use. I’ve sent masks to Florida, South Dakota, Missouri, Texas, New Jersey, New York, Mississippi, and Minnesota!
A friend, Suzanne, wrote to Lisa, "Thank you so much for the mask! I don’t have the sewing talent but am super appreciative that you do and that you shared safety to my family! My grandson (born premature) should be coming home in about 7-10 days and I will be allowed to see him because I can wear some sort of protection!"
I want to help keep people safe, to help people that might not have access to them and those who don’t sew. Sewing is usually a guilty pleasure, but now I can do it for a good purpose!
My mom was a plane spotter in WWII. That’s was her way of volunteering. This is my way of fighting the war on COVID-19, the invisible enemy.