How 450 people started to sew masks for people living in Direct Provision

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, “We Make Good” reacted quickly. Usually, the social enterprise produces all kinds of sustainable design products, from tables and chopping boards to throws and candles. However, the pandemic shifted their focus fully towards the textile workshop as they prepared to sew masks.

Everything that We Make Good sell is made by people from disadvantaged backgrounds; for instance, someone; with a disability; a refugee background; or who has spent time in prison. “It’s all about giving people meaningful work, training and progression into employment.”, explains We Make Good co-founder Caroline Gardner.

13 employees are currently working from home sewing high-quality masks. Half of the masks are sold through the We Make Good website, the other half goes to people living in Direct Provision, following the model that Toms shoes made popular: For every mask they sell, they donate one.

More than 1,000 masks have been donated this way already and distributed to Direct Provision Centers with the help of the Irish Refugee Council.

“We’re keen that everyone living in Direct Provision has access to at least 3 masks of a certain quality,” tells Caroline Gardner.

People living in Direct Provision are one of the groups that were affected particularly hard by COVID-19, as Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Councils explains:

“After nursing homes and meat processing centres, Direct Provision Centers have been the third setting at high risk. People have been living in extreme worry and fear during the pandemic that the virus would spread quickly as so many of them are sharing bedrooms.”

Luckily, to date, only 180 people got infected and there have been no deaths.

“Another key issue is homeschooling. A Direct Provision Center is just no good environment for teaching at home. Both parents and children find school to be a sanctuary during the day. With that gone, there is no way of breaking up the day and no routine. COVID has also slowed down the application process for asylum. 

People across Ireland are aware of these hard circumstances, but most of the time we feel helpless when it comes to offering solutions. So Caroline and her team decided to extend their usual operations and joined #thecommunitycall.

They called on people across Ireland to dust off their sewing machines to sew quality masks as part of the Sew Change project. Through a partnership with Age Action, Alone, Third Age, and Age and Opportunity, Caroline and her team also aimed to actively include older people.

Please note that registrations are closed now. 

It didn’t take long for people to register for the 450 packs that were financed with the support of the Web Summit donation. People were itching to help in some way.

“I’ve got a degree in Fashion Design, and a Masters in Fashion and the Environment. While I went on to work in healthcare I kept a lot of fabrics – some of which I had saved from landfill – and my industrial sewing machine. I kept everything in a renovated old farm cottage that belongs to my father’s house. Throughout covid we were almost waiting for the call! ‘When will people ask us to make masks?’” – Una Hussey, Limerick

“I feel that direct provision in Ireland is an inhuman system that needs to be abolished. I hope that in the meantime through sewing masks I can do my small bit to make people in direct provision feel safer and reduce the incidences of Covid 19 in these settings. I feel it is the least I can do as a fellow human being.” – Helen Gaughan, Dublin

“I had been sewing with my daughters (9 & 12) at the beginning of the lockdown, teaching them the skill and keeping us occupied with something productive. The older one is really concerned and upset about recent events in the world and about racism and inequality everywhere and especially direct provision it would be good to be able to put the skill of sewing to work to help in some small but practical way to support people in DP” – Ruth Hegarty, Craughwell

Sew Change, of course, was not the first project to sew and distribute masks. Olga Voytenko and 15 other women living in direct provision centres in Cork set up the Sanctuary Masks Initiative; Aziz, who is living in direct provision in Rosslare, Wexford made masks available for free to anyone in his local SuperValu in Rosslare Harbour; and Volunteer Waterford was calling on people to sew masks, to name just a few examples.

“There have already been a lot of initiatives. We didn’t want to jeopardise that.”, says Caroline. She wanted to make sure that people could get involved who have sewing skills but found it difficult to understand which style of mask is best for the current crisis and were struggling to access high-quality materials. Everyone who participated could keep a couple of masks to give to someone vulnerable in their community, and send the remainder back.

“A lot of people really want to do something to show that they are on the right side. This allows people in a small way to say who they are and what they value. Getting involved in the community is a way to say what you want our society to be and show that through your actions. So even though its a small thing it’s important that people have a way to express their values at this time.”

And We Make Good couldn’t have made it easier for people to do that. It took Sew Change starter Patricia Carraher just one day between receiving her pack and sending out the completed masks.


Photos courtesy of Patricia Carraher 

And on the receiving end, people are thankful to get their carefully designed quality masks.

“I gave out the face masks yesterday. A big thank you on behalf of all residents, it is much appreciated. Some people came back with the feedback saying the texture is good and breathable. Everybody is happy to receive them.”
 – Anonymous

Registrations for Sew Change are closed for now, but you can find the mask pattern and instructions on the ChangeX website, to make masks for your own community. For those who have already signed up to Sew Change – THANK YOU! The packs are being sent out daily and We Make Good thank you for your patience as they manage these large orders. This project has created a new work role for a woman with experience of the criminal justice system. It’s her first job after leaving prison – an opportunity, that sadly, many people never get. This role has changed her life, giving her hope for future employment and security. 

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