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Local fashion designer puts needle and thread to surgical masks 

Sarah Jane McPike is a wizard with needle and thread. Formerly a wardrobe technician at Geva Theatre Center for over a decade, she recently showcased her own clothing line, Hot Rod Betties, at the Ameripolitan Awards in Memphis, Tennessee.

click to enlarge Sarah Jane McPike - PHOTO BY JAMES VIA
  • PHOTO BY JAMES VIA
  • Sarah Jane McPike
McPike cuts a mean silhouette, with plenty of moxie and high-heeled swagger. She’s like a bouquet of switchblades.

But when this sewing machine chanteuse heard that surgical masks were in short supply,  she put her own clothing line on hold and got to work.

And she told us all about this passion project. Eavesdrop all you want. Our conversation was edited for clarity.

CITY: How did you get started?

Sarah Jane McPike: When I first saw (the shortage) on the news, my brain immediately went into theater mode: “How can I fix this or help fix this? It’s an emergency.” So I googled how to make medical masks, and ironically at the same time a friend posted on Facebook that Hickey Freeman was looking for home sewers. I sent a couple of emails to see where they were in the prototype process, things like that would need to be approved by hospitals. I didn't hear back, so I reached out to my circle of fashion designers and seamstresses. I found Jess Hanebutt Snell, @rockinbclothing on Instagram, and she had posted a hospital-approved video tutorial. That was the first design I went with. So I just started pumping them out with what supplies I already had laying around my sewing studio.
click to enlarge PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
Where are these masks going?

They are going everywhere. I’ve had so many people reach out to me. From people who are working with the developmentally disabled, to home health aides. I sent a bunch to Helio Health in Rochester. I mean, it’s overwhelming the amount of workers that are on the front lines caring for our community. We hear about the hospital ERs, etc. But there are also smaller organizations that are in dire need as well. My first call was from a nurse outside of Buffalo. Her ER had been turned into a COVID-19-only ER. The supplies that were to be shipped to them were re-routed to New York City. But she said her staff was good for about two weeks, so I decided to send my masks to Helio Health because they had run out. So now I feel behind and my supplies are low. I can sort of get a little bit of a sense how doctors and nurses feel having to choose between whose life to save. I don’t make that statement lightly, I’m just saying I go from, “I can’t imagine,” to, “I can imagine.” It’s soul crushing.

How many have you made?

I really haven’t been keeping track. It’s like counting Halloween candy. I make ‘em, I give them out. Well over 100. I feel like I’m in slow motion. I can’t get them out fast enough. I have to remind myself that there are so many other amazing people doing the same thing I’m doing and that I’m not alone, so it’s a comfort. I’ve recruited my 11-year-old son, Maddox. He attends Twelve Corners Middle School in Brighton. I gave him two choices: Do homework that’s been assigned by his teachers or help our community and make masks. I taught him how to sew years ago, so he helped me make some masks. It’s been a great learning experience for him and he’s actually hanging out with me for once.
click to enlarge PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
What conventional or unconventional fabrics are you using?

I’m thankful for my 12 years at Geva and years of watching Tim Gunn on “Project Runway” with his famous words, "Make it work." I actually have tattooed on my arm, "Make it work or die trying" and a sewing machine. Supplies are low, stores are closed, there is a shortage of elastic. Amazon isn't shipping until mid-April. We don’t have time. I ran out of good supplies masks ago. I tore through my sewing notions to find makeshift elastic. I came upon this huge spool of pink fold-over panty elastic I’ve been carting around since 2001, when I had my first fashion design business. I don’t think I’ve ever held onto anything that insignificant for so long. Finding that spool of panty elastic was like finding gold. I’m going to run out of cotton material before I run out of elastic. Who knew after all these years how significant that spool would be?

Do you plan on manufacturing anything else?


 Related to the virus? I don't know. My supplies are running short. I would like to make hospital gowns. I’ve made them in the past for children at Golisano Children’s Hospital. For now It’s just masks, until I can’t mask no more.

What has been the response from the people receiving them?

Grateful to say the least. I get a sense of relief from them. It’s emotional for sure. It really takes a lot of courage to be out there fighting on the front lines, risking their lives, their health, their families while most of us are at home cozy on lock down complaining about our kids or spouses or not being able to be social. I don’t know if I have that kind of courage. But what I do have is the ability to help the courageous and I’m grateful for that.

Frank De Blase is CITY’s music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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