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Local theatres use their sewing skills to make face masks

By Melissa Biediger | May 13, 2020 | 6 min read | Community Health, Coronavirus

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At Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, we are proud sponsors of many arts organizations across the state. We recognize the impact these groups have on a community’s health and well-being.

Through the visual and performing arts, audiences and participants see the magic of dance, musical theater, symphony and more. These displays of creativity, vibrancy and talent enrich lives and inspire future generations.

And now, as many organizations have closed their theaters and halted performances due to COVID-19, two of our partners, Carolina Ballet and the North Carolina Theatre, are re-purposing their talents to fulfill a different need in the Triangle.

woman irons mask

Responding to the community’s needs

The CDC recently released recommendations on wearing face coverings to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. Communities across the country expressed a need for face masks. In particular, elderly and homeless populations and essential workers are considered at risk.

Seeing this growing need in the community, and looking for an opportunity to engage temporarily out-of-work skilled sewers, Kerri Martinsen, Costume Director at Carolina Ballet, jumped in to help.

Working with the newly formed Covering the Triangle – an effort by Drs. Eric Westman, Wickham Simonds, and Larry Greenblatt and Duke medical students to help get masks to high-risk citizens – Kerri activated her network of costume makers and professional sewers to help produce masks.

“The costuming community in the Triangle is pretty tight. We all know each other even if we don’t work at the same theater,” Kerri said. “Many theaters bring in extra help during the performance season. I wanted to help employ those workers that were no longer sewing costumes while helping meet this need in our community.”

From costumes to face masks

Using Carolina Ballet’s surplus fabric inventory, Kerri and a team of more than 20 professional sewers started producing masks on April 3. Most sewers are working from their homes and producing as many masks as their time allows.

One member of Kerri’s team, NC Theatre costumer Denise Schumaker, was eager to put her skills to work. Working out of NC Theatre’s costume shop located in north Raleigh, Denise has personally created hundreds of face mask covers. She uses old fabrics from previous NC Theatre shows and other donated pieces.

“We are proud to support artists like Denise and those involved with these efforts across our region, who share with us the goal of activating our common humanity,” said Elizabeth Doran, President & CEO of NC Theatre.

5,000 masks and counting

To date, costumers across the Triangle have hand sewn more than 5,000 masks. They’ve distributed them to groups like the Durham Rescue Mission, Raleigh Rescue Mission, Raleigh Housing Authority and local nursing homes.

“We have a running list of people that need these masks,” Kerri said. “Right now, we’re having a tough time getting materials. But once we have more fabric, we’ll be able to sew more masks and pass those along to the people that need them.”

Covering the Triangle is actively working to secure grant funding to support sewers and purchase materials. Since the initiative began, corporate partners have also joined, making large scale production possible.

While the team awaits materials to resume their work, the enthusiasm for giving back has not waned. “I intend to keep sewing face covers until I’m sewing costumes again,” Denise said.

Learn more about Covering the Triangle, including how to donate, here.