Veteran using sewing machines he rebuilt to make face masks

Catholic military veteran John Beach from Kearney, Nebraska, models one of the dozens of masks he is sewing one of three sewing machines he rebuilt. The masks are for the Kearney Police Department. CNS photo courtesy of John Beach via West Nebraska Register

KEARNEY, Nebraska (CNS) – Kearney resident John Beach, a Catholic military veteran, enjoys rebuilding things.

So when he found an opportunity to use some of his rebuilt sewing machines for a good cause, he didn't hesitate, despite not knowing how to use any of them.

"I've never sewn a stitch before I made these masks," he said. "I taught myself how to thread the bobbins and thread the machine."

Initially, he said he got the machines to make blankets for guitar cases and guitars he has rebuilt. But when he heard about the need for masks to help protect people from the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, he changed gears.

As a disabled veteran on a limited budget, he received the fabric, pattern and thread as donations. Material Girl, a fabric and quilt store in Grand Island, Nebraska, has the mask pattern and is offering the fabric at a discount for others interested in sewing the masks.

John Beach accepted donations of sewing materials and a pattern for the masks he is making. Photo courtesy of John Beach via West Nebraska Register

Beach said he found each of the machines in a state of disrepair. The first, he said, was a commercial Singer sewing machine from the 1920s. The machine had been thrown away with all the wires cut off.

He rewired the machine and the foot pedal, then found a cabinet for it. He found the second machine, a 2004 Brother, at a garage sale for $5. It "was hardly ever used," he said.

He bought the third machine at Goodwill for $15. He later learned that it was a model from before 1900, before sewing machines had serial numbers.

"It's 30 years older than the Singer (commercial machine)," he told the West Nebraska Register, newspaper of the Grand Island Diocese. "It's a museum piece. It's in immaculate shape."

Once he received the pattern and fabric, he set to work cutting and ironing the interfacing and making the ties for the masks. Each mask has a pocket inside for a filter, and the masks can be washed and sterilized for repeat use.

Quilters also sewing masks

Elsewhere in the Grand Island Diocese, quilters and seamstresses are using their stash – not a stash of cash but a stash of fabric – to sew masks for the vulnerable and anyone else in need.

Ruth Armatys, a parishioner at St. Leo's Church in Grand Island and a member of the Grand Island Prairie Pioneer Quilt Guild, said she has donated nearly 100 for friends, family and staff members at the church.

"I kind of lose track after a while," she said of counting them.

Armatys said when the virus first broke out, she found out that not everyone on the administrative staff at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, had a mask, including her daughter-in-law.

"She asked if I could make some for her and the girls she works with," she said.

She did not have a pattern and, like many people, looked online for an example. After a few trial runs, she decided on a rectangular shaped mask with interfacing and she used a pipe cleaner for a nose piece. She finishes the mask with elastic to go around the ears and pleats in the fabric for a better fit.

"Everybody seems to like that style and it works," she said.

She said she's been fortunate that she hasn't had to buy anything to make the masks, including the elastic, which has become hard to find in Grand Island.

"I happen to have a huge stash and some are quite colorful. I was lucky I had a lot of elastic," she said, "because you can't get it right now."

Dr. Missy Girard-Lemons, who owns Animal Medical Clinic, is a parishioner at St. Mary's Cathedral and also a Grand Island guild member. She used leftover cotton fabric from her stash, like others, to make masks for all her clinic team members. She used a paper procedure mask she wears for surgeries as a pattern.

"I customized the fit to each person the best I could," she said. "Some have ear loops made from quarter-inch elastic and others I used headbands cut apart."

She also made some masks with ties and used a paper clip for a nose piece. She added that her mom, Debbie Girard of Osceola, Nebraska, was making masks for the local county hospital.

Armatys said she has given masks to neighbors; her niece, whose son has cancer; a sister in Kansas; and friends in Arizona and Oklahoma who have underlying health conditions. Armatys said she doesn't mind the requests, especially since she is retired and has "lots of extra time on her hands."

Shortage prompts action

In Kearney, Beach said what prompted him to get involved in making masks was hearing there was a shortage of them and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency couldn't get enough to distribute to those in need. So even despite his physical disabilities from serving in the military, he decided this was a way he could give back to the community and the people that are helping to take care of him now.

"I think God's on my journey with me," he said. "This is better for my health and my emotional health than medicine. I can still serve my country and my community. I'm not giving up."

Beach said he has enough supplies to make 15-18 masks, which he plans to donate to Regenirex - Advanced Pain Solutions in Kearney.

He hopes to make more and is open to anyone wishing to volunteer to use one of his other two sewing machines to mass-produce the masks.

"You can't let medical problems let you feel sorry for yourself," he said. "Each day is a blessing. Each day you can do something for your fellow people and learn to stay close to Jesus."

He said making the masks is the best spiritual help he can have right now and he encourages others to share with humanity in a positive way.

"If Jesus could give his life on the cross," he said, "we can give a small portion of our life to helping others."

Gallion is associate editor of the West Nebraska Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Grand Island.