Crafts and COVID-19: How Sewing Masks Affected Women Around the World
As a textile artist and someone who spent most of the past year working at a fabric and craft store, I was very fascinated by the way that needle crafts became mainstream during the pandemic. Not only did people come into the store every day telling me how they had just started knitting, sewing, or crocheting, but almost every time I opened my news app, I would see articles encouraging people to craft or highlight a particularly spectacular project someone had completed during lockdown. I was convinced this had all started because people had to learn to make their own masks, and for many, that skill snowballed into a craft obsessions. So I set out to research this phenomenon, thinking it would make for a fun little thinkpiece. But along the way I discovered appalling information about COVID-19's adverse effects on women and the garment industry, effects made worse by seeing the great financial gains crafting companies made this year. My thinkpiece turned very quickly into an exposé of these terrible inequities.
The Unequal Impact of COVID-19 on Labor
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, and hardships to everyone around the world. It was impossible not to be affected by it, but studies done in the past year have shown that the difficulties of the pandemic have fallen unequally on women. While women make up 39% of the global workforce, they accounted for 54% of jobs lost to COVID, a rate 2.9% higher than men's job loss. This is likely due to the fact that women are over-represented in industries most affected by the pandemic, namely hospitality and tourism, food service, retail, education, and manufacturing. Prevailing sexist cultural ideas could also have been a contributing factor: according to one study done by the McKinsey Global Institute, around the world people believe that men have more right to a job than women when jobs are scarce. Women who were able to keep their jobs were largely frontline workers in great danger. Nurses, school staff, and grocery store cashiers are all positions dominated by women (77% of hospital workers; 74% of school staff; 66% of cashiers).
However, regardless of if they kept their pre-pandemic jobs or not, women on the whole saw an increase in the amount of unpaid labor done at home as a result of the pandemic. With restaurants closed, food shortages across the nation, and limited grocery store hours, women faced greater difficulty meal planning for themselves and their families. This, in addition to the other responsibilities of home care, are tasks that unfortunately often fall on entirely on women and during lockdown the average American woman saw an additional two hours of labor on her plate. The situation was even worse for women living in unsafe home environments. The United States Rape, Assault, and Incest network says their sexual assault helpline saw its highest demand in its 26 year history. In Mexico, the number of emergency calls reached the highest number in the country's history and the number of women in domestic violence centers quadrupled. It's no wonder that unhealthy drinking habits formed for many people. A University of Texas study showed that for each week spent in lockdown, there was an increase in binge drinking. Of all the respondents who reported unhealthy drinking, 69% were women.
The country began to rely on women to keep the public safe, and this placed immense pressure on them. The obvious example here are the nurses and hospital workers who put their lives on the line to care for the sick and dying. The less obvious example, and the one I want to focus on for this article, are the countless women who spent their own time and resources on making face masks for their friends, family, and communities. Early in the pandemic, when the world was facing a severe PPE shortage, people needed maks and one of the only ways you could get one was to sew it at home. This task fell on women because men, for the most part, "don't learn [sewing] because they've always believed that it's a skill for women" (Margaret M. Chin, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College). This is clear from the numbers. One NYC group, Face Mask Aid, is made up of 85% women. A quick browse of Facebook groups shows plenty of mommy mask-making groups, but there are no such groups for dads. I personally only knew one man who made his own mask in the past year, and he already knew how to sew. But women didn't just provide masks for their families, countless women donated countless masks to communities and hospitals in need. One group, Sew Much Love, donated hundreds of handmade masks a month to underprivileged communities and the project is still going strong. All this comes as no surprise.
"Whenever there's an emergency in the United States, women have been called on to make or create things."
(Margaret M. Chin) One need only think of the various Victory campaigns of World War II for a precedent of the country demanding and relying on women's unpaid labor. The Victory Knitting campaign called on women and girls to knit clothing items for soldiers fighting overseas. The Red Cross even published knitting patterns for such items. Women planted Victory Gardens to work around food rations and made clothes from flour sacks. During the war and the Great Depression, the motto of the day was, "Repair, reuse, make do, and don't throw anything away," calling on women to manage their homes as thriftily as possible. All of this happening while more and more women worked outside the home. During the war, there was a 50% growth in the female labor force and the number of women working outside the home increased almost 10%. And yet, this era was immediately followed by the 1950s when media glorified the housewife and nuclear family, reminding women that their labor was meant for the home, not the workplace where it could earn them wages.
Before the pandemic, women were already performing a massive amount of unpaid labor. The McKinsey Global Institute estimated that women do an average of 75% of the world's total unpaid work such as child and geriatric care, cooking and general meal planning, and home maintenance. This number is even higher in South Asia and the Middle East where women account for 80-90% of total unpaid labor. This work is valued at $10 trillion, or 13% of the global GDP. The pandemic has only worsened these figures. The same report estimates that the American woman saw an additional two hours of unpaid labor put on her plate. And while it is har to estimate how much unpaid labor goes into the average mask, I have made an attempt. Let's assume it takes 20 minutes to make one mask (this is a fairly quick turnaround and a time that most novice sewers can't meet). That means to make ten masks for your family, you've spent at least 3.25 hours. To make a hundred masks for donations, you're looking at giving up over thirty hours of your time, not to mention cost of materials which can reach up to $100.
Now think: when was the last time you or someone you know donated $100? What about the last time time you or someone you know spent any amount of time volunteering? If there was an occurrence, how much time did you spend? Thirty hours?
How many people do you know who made masks? How many of them made enough for friends and donations, not just for themselves? Do you think the recipients understood and appreciated the amount of time that went into each mask?
I don't ask these questions to make anyone feel guilty or to suggest that these people shouldn't have volunteered, but because I want to emphasize how exceptional this kind of labor is, and how out of the ordinary it was for it become common, even expected, during the early days of lockdown.
The Demand for Face MAsks: the effects
Immediately after the CDC released its face mask guidelines, a sewing fervor swept the nation. Jeff Fuller, Vice President of Tacony Corporation, a supplier of Baby Lock machines, was quoted as saying:
"It was a Friday when the new guidelines were announced. By Monday we saw the largest spike in sewing machine demand we've ever seen."
Walmart went from having a 100 day supply of machines to a five day supply in 24 hours and by early April, almost every model of Singer machines were out of stock. By the end of the month, "you really could not find a single sewing machine below $500 in the U.S.," said Paul Ashworth, president of Bernina of America.
Initially, the sewing boom was need-based and often charitable. People were buying sewing machines to make masks for themselves and for donations. But very quickly, mask-selling became a way for businesses to stay afloat. Independent businesses and large corporations alike began to sell masks. Etsy, one of the largest marketplaces for independent businesses, states that 110,000 sellers sold 29 million masks worth $346 million by August. One brand, American Giant, completely retooled its North Carolina facility, retrained their seamstresses to make masks, and began turning out 35,000 masks a week.
And the boom wasn't just limited to mask-sewing, though that was likely the catalyst. The popularity of crafting in general skyrocketed during the lockdown. Etsy states that there was 64% increase in searches for craft supplies compared to 2019; DIY kits specifically have seen a 221% increase in searches. This massive increase in trade more than doubled the company's revenues, earning them a record $1.7 billion in 2020. Michael's Craft Stores saw a 150% increase in views of their Facebook Live tutorials and launched online classes to meet the sudden demand for crafts.
I've been a life-long sewer and crocheter. I spent my childhood in craft stores and watching YouTube tutorials, but this was the first time in my life that I had seen crafts so popular, so mainstream, and so valued. Articles and blogs were continually coming out praising the mental health benefits of crafting and encouraging readers to take up sewing, knitting, and crochet. The authors emphasized the life skills that crafts teach-- "resourcefulness, resilience, flexibility"-- and how much these skills were needed in times like these. Authors dug up occupational therapy studies proving "a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feelings of calm and happiness" as well as "a subjective reduction in anxious preoccupation when knitting." Novice crafters were interviewed and they consistently reported a sense of control that came from crafting. Tiffany Cagle-Schrift, who learned sewing during the pandemic, said, "You didn't necessarily know where to put your energy and anxiety, but making something that could potentially help does make you feel better." Another beginner sewer, Michelle Tuegal, said, "It's given me a purpose. [...] I feel like I'm donating my time and resources to the good of other people." Crafting wasn't just a hobby anymore, it was a valid and promoted coping mechanism.
But this experience wasn't universal. While conducting research for this piece, I noticed a trend: most articles quoted novice crafters, people who had taken up the art because of the pandemic. When experienced sewers were interviewed, they had a bit of a different perspective. Megan Piontkowski, a freelance illustrator and artist, told Vox that tat the beginning of lockdown, she made around sixty masks for a local hospital. This took up about 35 hours of her time and she used her own materials. When she went to the hospital to give them the masks, she asked if they were able to pay her at all; the answer was no, the hospital didn't have the funds. Piontkowski said,
"I felt very mixed about it. I knew the hospital needed masks badly. But at the same time, I'm out of work and I'm being asked to donate them."
The fact that she and others weren't being compensated for making highly necessary items "felt like a case of 'traditional women's work not being valued.'"
Elisabeth Woo, a quilter, told The Washington Post,
"It was so exhausting [making masks]. Normally you are used to sewing as a form of stress relief and a creative outlet. Now you were focused on something bad happening in your world, and you had to use your time and fabric and resources to keep yourself safe."
Throughout the pandemic, we praised the volunteers who took up sewing to meet this sudden need, and rightfully so, but we also forgot about all the independent artisans whose craft was now essential, but was also expected to be done for free.
It's hard not to notice a discrepancy between these artists' difficulty and the previously cited statistics from Etsy. The numbers by themselves make it seem like artists were able to profit off the pandemic by selling masks, but they don't tell us everything we need to know. We don't know if the individual artists running those shops saw increased revenues this year, or whether their mask sales were barely keeping them afloat, making up for lack of sales on other products. We don't know how many of those sellers were donating masks on the side, or promising to donate a mask for each one bought, and how this affected their profit margins. We don't know how many shops went out of business and were replaced by sellers making masks entirely. All we know is that Etsy, the host company, made net gains.
Independent artists weren't the only craftspeople neglected and exploited during the pandemic either. Garment workers around the world who manufacture clothes and masks for large multinational corporations (MNCs) saw terrible effects from the pandemic and the demand for masks. Once again, we see a majority female industry simultaneously classed as essential while also being horribly devalued.
At the onset of the pandemic, "Most garment MNCs responded consistently by shifting the damage for potential losses onto suppliers and workers who could least afford it, [...] unleashing a domino effect along supply chains, causing suppliers to close temporarily or indefinitely and resulting in mass worker layoffs, worsened pay, and deteriorating working conditions." Researchers at the University of Sheffield and the Worker Rights consortium studied the working conditions of garment workers in Ethiopia, Honduras, India, and Myanmar (important supply bases for clothing exported to the U.S. and Western Europe) and found that these women's already meager wages fell an average of 11%. And these were the workers who kept their jobs. 13% of garment workers lost their pre-pandemic contracts, and of these, 80% were not paid their full severance pay.
Two-thirds were paid nothing at all. Of those who were able to find new contracts, over a third reported that the new job had worse working conditions, including lower pay, unfair wage deductions and withholdings, threats and/or intimidation, and unsafe working conditions. Average debt levels per household rose 16% and the number of respondents with no savings increased by 25%. All this while many garment MNCs have reached historic highs in sales.
In a contradiction all too familiar, women were the backbones that supported their families, their communities, and their nations, but they were also some of the ones who suffered the most. Women's work from nursing, to teaching, to sewing was "essential" but it was also expected of us and went unthanked and unrewarded far too often.
Moving forward: a world in recovery
At the end of this article, I've presented a lot of depressing problems and not a lot of answers. The issues I've talked about are not singular effects of the pandemic. These are issues about gender and labor equity that have existed for centuries and are inexorably tied up with our economic model; the pandemic just made them worse.
These aren't the kinds of things that are remedied easily, but the starting point is always awareness. That is what I hoped to do with this article. There is also the hope that with more people taking up crafts, they will find a greater awareness and appreciation for the kind of labor that goes into making physical objects like masks and clothes. Hopefully this awareness will lead people to question how they're able to get products so cheap when they take so much effort to make, leading them to investigate the whole system. Ideally this leads to action, to consumers speaking up to brands and corporations and using their buying power to support ethical supply chains.
I hope that for you, the reader, this article will be a starting point of investigation. If you want to learn more about how you can support those working in the garment industry, I've included links to various unions and organizations below.
Remember: buy local, buy independent, and buy ethically whenever you can. Talk about these issues in your circles; talk about them in the public forum. Research for yourself the supply chains of your favorite products. Speak against companies abusing their workers and support companies who care for theirs. It is the very least we can do as consumers at the end of the chain.
how you can help:
Workers United list of brands that employ union members in the U.S. and Canada
UNITE HERE! Resources page
Human Rights Watch campaign to have clothing brands #GoTransparent and their page on Labor Rights in the Garment Industry (updates and reports on working conditions around the world)
Worker Rights Consortium page on COVID-19 and Garment Workers and their brand watch page which lists brands that are paying their suppliers properly during the pandemic
Sustain Your Style report on working conditions in the fashion industry and their list of sustainable brands that support workers' rights
Self Employed Women's Association (Indian union of self-employed women, many of whom work in garment manufacturing)
Labour Behind the Label Actions List and COVID-19 Action Fund
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Taryn DeLeon Mendiola is an artist and researcher based in New York. Having earned her undergraduate degrees in Art and History, her passion is researching and recreating ancient textile techniques. She is also critically interested in the workings of the garment industry and the place of textiles and craft in the fine arts market and museum space. You can find her work @t.dl.mendiola on Instagram.