How three Rockbridge area women are sewing masks for first responders

Their goal is to supply two masks each to any local first responders in need


Linda Floyd (left) sews the two pieces of cloth together to make the base of the mask. Mary Katherine Lawrence (right) tests out the sizing on her face. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Hannah Denham

Three women from three different generations have formed a mask-making assembly line out of two sewing machines, 70 cotton bed sheets and an ironing board.

Church had moved to Facebook Live and all three of their work schedules had been rearranged, so they gathered in an empty Airbnb on a Sunday afternoon at the end of March to do something for the Rockbridge area community.

“This pleating part is more difficult than I thought,” said Mary Katherine Lawrence of Waynesboro, holding the iron over the white cloth.

“Oh Lord, you’ve got to say a prayer before you start, because you’re going to need more than a prayer for that,” Linda Floyd said, crouched over her serger machine.

Floyd called the group of three women “the Wright Brothers” after their first week of working side-by-side. Except it’s not airplanes they’re building, but hand-sewn masks for the Kerrs Creek and Buena Vista Fire Departments.

A week after Susan Lawrence first called one of her daughters, Mary Katherine, and Floyd, who is a local seamstress, about her idea to give back, they had sewn 100 masks. Their goal is to supply two masks each to any local first responders who need them.

Susan Lawrence found a template for the masks online and laminated it while working at the UPS Store.

As the coronavirus continues to spread in Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, several groups have taken up sewing masks for healthcare workers, first responders and other residents to fill in the gaps left by a national shortage of supplies. On April 3, President Trump echoed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that people in the U.S. wear face coverings in public to halt the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s so crazy that they ran out of masks in just days,” Mary Katherine said.

“At every point you’re thinking, surely they’re going to have supplies,” Lawrence added. “They’re going to be like, ‘Surprise! We have thousands of them.’”

Lawrence brought the first batch of 12 masks to the Kerrs Creek fire chiefs, who wore them and offered feedback for the next batch.

“I’m just not much on sitting around fretting about stuff,” Lawrence said. “If first responders could actually use these, it ain’t rocket science.”

Floyd worked as a breakfast bar attendant at the Sleep Inn in Lexington before she lost her job, prompted by the impact of the coronavirus on travel and food services that has ransacked the hospitality and tourism industry.

But before she left, she asked her former employer for a donation of 100 percent cotton bed sheets to make the masks. Lawrence gathered more from her Airbnb on Midland Trail that’s been transformed into a sewing hub, since all her guests canceled their reservations through the spring.

The mask-making assembly line goes like this: Lawrence traces and cuts out the rectangular pattern from a bed sheet, two pieces each. Floyd sews the edges and attaches the elastic fasteners. And Mary Katherine sprays each mask with water, irons the cloth and folds three times like an accordion for pleats.

Lawrence said they can make 36 masks out of one bed sheet, and they’re working with at least 70 sheets, which are white and easier for mask wearers to bleach. When they run out of elastic, Floyd makes fasteners out of string with the serger machine she’s had since 1985.

When they run out of elastic, Floyd makes homemade fasteners for the masks with her serger machine. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Floyd has been sewing since she was 16 and has worked at various alterations stores in southwest Virginia. In August 2019, she opened a shop of her own in Buena Vista called Alterations by Linda Sew-n-Sew.

“I just got finished doing a gown for a lady for her little girl’s prom,” Floyd said. “She won’t be able to wear it now.”

Mary Katherine graduated from the University of Virginia in 2018 and now works as an engineer with Whiting Turner, which built the natatorium at Washington and Lee University.

She’s currently part of the chemistry building project at her alma mater, but at the time she was only working two days a week at the construction site as a precaution.

“It’s the one time you can save the world by staying home and watching Netflix,” she said.

Lawrence said the coronavirus hasn’t changed her family’s routine too much. Her husband is a truck driver, and her other daughter works at Kendal, a retirement community in Lexington. Lawrence also works part-time at the UPS Store and said she recently had to mail toilet paper to California for a customer. But Airbnb business is slow and she isn’t sure what the summer will hold for reservations at the Lane House.

“It really is tough for the Airbnb people here locally,” she said.

Susan Lawrence sorts the masks while her daughter, Mary Katherine, irons on the pleats for the next batch. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Floyd recently started a new job at the Lexington Walmart, but she said she misses the opportunity she had to interact with guests at the Sleep Inn who were visiting the Rockbridge area.

“I’m a Christian, so if I get the chance to talk to someone about the Lord or the Bible, I’ll do it,” Floyd said. “I kind of feel people out for their political beliefs. If they like Trump, I’ll talk to them about it. If they don’t, I’ll stay in the kitchen.”

The women talked about what they’d do with their stimulus checks when they receive them in May. Mary Katherine said she has a couch picked out for purchase.

When asked how she thought Trump was handling the national response to coronavirus, Floyd was confident: “as well as anybody could in this situation.”

“I don’t understand how he deals with so much criticism,” Floyd said. “Pelosi, I’d probably put her in a commode head-first somewhere. I can’t stand that woman.”

Lawrence said she leans liberal politically, but that helping out her community members in response to the coronavirus unites people across political fronts.

“Everybody’s quoting Mister Rogers about being a helper,” she said. “You always see in these apocalyptic movies where everybody’s in it for themselves, but in the end, I don’t think it’s actually like that. … There seems to be a lot more people coming together to help each other.”