Purple Community Fund in the Philippines

Ash Cloud with a Silver Lining

In the months leading up to summer, my small team and I would usually be busy sewing colourful upcycled wears ready for the festival season. However 2020 had different plans for us all. With this years UK festivals cancelled, we are now making masks instead.

But my personal mask journey didn’t start with the Covid-19 pandemic. It started back in January, in the slums of Tondo – Manila Philippines.

Jane Walker, inspirational power house and founder of the Purple Community Fund (PCF) had invited me to participate in an education-development project for the residents of Manila’s most densely populated slum, Barangay 105 in Tondo.

PCF supports the community through a range of services and livelihood schemes, its signature project being the making of upcycled products including bags and jewellery made from ring pulls, to shoes out of aeroplane tyres.

Last year, Leftover Threads sold PCF upcycled products at UK festivals giving 100% of the money back to the charity.

The original plan for my stay in Manila was for me to design a festival range of hats and waist-coats made out of neckties for the nanays (mothers) working in the livelihood centre to sew. Nature, however, had a different plan.

Jane and Simon with the local kids in Happy Land
Tondo Recycling Dog

24 hours before my flight, Taal Volcano, 100 km south of Manila, started spewing hot ash columns exceeding a kilometre in height. A state of emergency was declared on the island and its nearby residents were evacuated. The situation on the ground worsened rapidly, with continuous eruptions leading to an ash cloud visible from space, swiftly moving towards the capital Manila, one of the most densely populated cities on the planet (more so than Delhi). Tondo, the slum I was to work in, houses 38% of the city’s inhabitants, crammed into a small area with poor sanitation, negligible security and health provision. Accommodation is made of found materials and the windows are merely apertures without glass through which the harmful volcanic dust threatened to rampage.  Fear surged through the area, as measures taken to protect inhabitants were inadequate.

With smoke still billowing from the volcano, 80,000 passengers had their flights cancelled or delayed but luckily my connecting flight from Hong Kong was one of the first to arrive in Manila. As we began our descent, I could see the big ash cloud lingering threateningly.

Upon arrival, Jane and I quickly decided that the easiest way to give immediate support to the Tondo community would be to provide face masks. Mask prices locally had quadrupled in the days that followed the eruption making them unaffordable for many. Could we make some? Of course we could!

At the time, there weren’t many patterns online. We downloaded one from craftpassion.com.

Within 24 hours of my arrival, I had trained a team of 20 women to make the masks using recycled textiles we had at hand. Bed sheets, shirts, t-shirts, school uniforms, you name it.

Over a 1000 masks were distributed to the local residents of Tondo in our first week of mask production.

Face Mask Cutting
Face Mask Making with Purple Community Fund in Manila

The city remained on high alert for a month, after which the volcano calmed to a level 2. But at this point Covid-19 had already arrived in Manila. Fear surged through the community once more.

In Tondo, it is very common for families of 10 or more to live in a small room together. Due to these living conditions, it was a huge concern that the virus would spread like wild fire with a devastating impact on mortality rates. Fortunately, by the time Covid19 arrived, we had a team of 40+ women across Luzon already skilled in face mask making. So PCF could continue paying them a good living wage whilst providing free masks to the communities.

The nanays in the livelihood centres in Tondo, Baguio and Bulacan made around 4000 masks during my time there.

When lockdown was announced at the beginning of March, I was working at the PCF centre in “Dumpsite” Irisan- Baguio, North Luzon

All foreign nationals were given a 72-hour window to leave the country. I didn’t really want to leave. It felt like my work in the Philippines wasn’t done. We had so many other projects in the pipeline. School uniforms, shoes, hats… But sadly I didn’t have a choice.

After hours spent trying to get a last minute flight on a terrible internet connection I then had the challenge of finding a way to get to the airport. Public transport had stopped overnight. No buses. Not even taxis or private vehicles for hire.

Finally, we managed to get in touch with the local tourism department and they gave me 30 minutes to get to the city hall. Luckily my bags were already packed. With a handful of other foreign nationals, I got escorted to Manila airport. What should have been a 4-hour drive took 9 hours with 5 temperature checkpoints and massive queues along the way.

Face Mask Making from Secondhand Textiles
PCF handing out masks to the local community

On my return to the UK, I continued making face masks. It suited the Leftover Threads ethos well as masks can be made from smaller pieces of fabrics like off-cuts, end of roll and other reusable textiles. At the beginning, I was donating a mask locally for every one sold. But the demand was so high and I couldn’t keep up. Luckily there is a big group of people making and distributing free masks to those that need them locally. So I decided to donate 15% of all our masks sales to PCF instead. I know that all the money goes directly where it is needed the most, making a big difference to people’s lives. PCF do so much for so many. Their charitable schemes span education, nutrition, housing, health, and livelihood.

Lockdown in the Philippines has been strict. Struggling families are even worse off now. They are only allowed out one day a week. Most families have had any chance of earning an income totally taken away from them. We are grateful that there are some nanays who have mask-making skills enabling them to go out on their day to the market, sell some masks and make some money for groceries. Strangely Taal Volcano‘s ash cloud had a silver lining and had prepared us for what was to come.  I know they are very grateful for the skill-sharing which enables them to sell direct. Purple Community Fund also continues to buy masks from them and distributes to those in need.

 

Many of PCF’s beneficiaries live in, on and are surrounded by waste. Not their waste- other people’s waste. Half of the community sort recyclables all day, every day.

Even the food waste from fast-food restaurants is “recycled” refried and sold. Its called pagpag and people eat it because it’s cheap. In Barangay 105, survival is a constant battle.

Every so often there’s a fire. Usually a result of working with plastic and heat in cramped conditions. Last month, a big fire meant over 1000 people had to be put in emergency housing by the charity with no government help whatsoever. Families are familiar with losing the little they have. They are resilient, positive and creative in the face of constant change. They know that life is as flimsy as the walls of their makeshift homes and rebuilding is part of staying alive…

Tondo local with facemask
Nanay's Making Healthy Meals

However, parents are hopeful for a brighter future for their children and believe education is the key. This is why PCF sponsors hundreds of students through school year in, year out. The opportunity of an education keeps hope alive.

Residents of Manila continue to live on strict lockdown measures. The Department of Education has announced that all learning will move online, via an App, for the foreseeable future. Without electronic devices, the poorest students are unable to continue their education. The Coronavirus pandemic and associated school closures now pose another immediate threat to the Tondo community; loss of hope.

PCF’s “Phones for Futures” campaign aims to secure electronics for as many students as possible so that they can access online learning.

By buying our masks you are providing essential support to these students and their families.

If you want to help directly by donating cash or a smart phone you can find more information here:

https://www.p-c-f.org/phones-for-futures/

What Type Of Face Mask Is Best For Me?

What Is The Best Face Mask For Me?

What Type Of Mask Do I Need?

If you are a healthcare worker and your job requires you to wear proper respirators then there is no real replacement for that. Cloth masks should only be considered if there is no proper PPE protection available. N-95’s and similar respirators do a good job at blocking viruses. But as there is a huge shortage of this gear right now, they should be left for our frontline health workers who need them the most. Quite frankly, respirators are not something that are needed for just popping to the supermarket.

Surgical masks are subject to conflicting recommendations when it comes to virus prevention. But one thing’s for sure; unlike N95 masks that filter in both directions, a surgical mask is designed to filter the air during exhalation only. In addition, they rarely provide a tight enough fit for proper protection.

So let’s leave the respirators and surgical masks with our frontline health workers where they belong and focus on the different types of cloth masks.

 

What Style of Cloth Mask Gives Better Protection?

A tight fitting mask made with good breathable, filtering materials is the short answer.

There are now hundreds of patterns and videos circulating the internet on how to make DIY cloth face masks and as many people selling them. But when it comes to washable cloth face mask types, we can narrow it down to two different styles:

The ‘pleated’ mask VS. The ‘fitted’ mask

Here’s the lowdown.

The pleated mask is easy and quick to make; you don’t need a pattern or a printer to print out the pattern. All that is required is two rectangles of fabric, elastic/string or ribbon.

Many sewing heroes around the world are making pleated masks for the pandemic going on right now.  You don’t need to be an expert sewer so you can churn them out and get them to where they are needed, fast. However, the fit of the pleated mask is not always the best choice. They often squish the nose down, gape at the sides and can be a bit bulky. And without the addition of a flexible nose-wire, they do not offer a tight fit above the nose.

The fitted mask takes a little longer to sew and comes in a variety of patterns. It is ergonomically designed with a seam across it, horizontally or vertically.

These masks require a pattern in order to make them, so a printout is needed in order to properly replicate them. They are more conical in shape, creating space for the nose which also make it more comfortable to wear. Although they take a little longer to make, the end result is usually a much better fitting mask that doesn’t necessarily require a nose-wire.

The materials used need to be carefully considered, but what is most important is having a tight fit, with no air gaps around the nose, chin or cheeks.

For this reason alone we prefer and sew the fitted model.

What Are The Best Materials To Use For a Cloth Mask?

In short, a good quality cotton with a high thread count.

New research is emerging daily on what materials filter the most efficiently. There is currently no definitively endorsed material to use, but there is lots of information about how to maximise efficiency of recommended materials.

When considering breathability and filtration, the following score high.

  • 100% cotton (80-120 thread).
  • Paper towels

A single layer of fabric is rarely sufficient on its own so doubling up or layering different materials is a much better option. For extra protection, a layer of interfacing fabric can be used too.

What is interfacing fabric?

This non-woven material is made from short fibres fused and mashed together similar to pulp made into paper. It is a melt-blown material like polypropylene (the fibre used to make disposable respirators) and can be found in many fabric stores. It can either be sewn into a fitted mask as an extra layer or inserted as a separate filter. 

 

Do I Need a Filter With My Reusable Face Mask?

Filters can improve the capabilities of cloth face masks. Choosing a mask with a filter pocket will enable you to insert non-washable materials with good filtering abilities (like paper towels) and then remove them prior to washing.

There are manufactured face mask filters on the market for inflated prices, like the PM2.5 but there is no information stating how they protect from viruses.

We recommend paper towel, interfacing fabric or saline filters.

What is a saline filter?

This is a salt-infused filter that has a higher filtration efficiency than conventional mask filtration layers. The saline filter goes beyond blocking the virus, to potentially killing it if the virus breaks through the surface of the mask. Research into saline filters is ongoing and is led by biomedical engineer, Hyo-Jick Choi at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Have Questions?

Can Reusable Face Masks Protect From The Coronavirus?

Can Reusable Face Masks Protect From COVID-19? 

Do the Face Mask Really Work?

The benefits and effectiveness of facemasks during the Coronavirus pandemic are widely debated across the globe. Some scientists and health professionals recommend that all members of the public wear masks, whilst others suggest that only COVID-19 patients, their caretakers and frontline health workers should wear them. Recommendations seem to change on a daily basis and differ widely across governments and public health agencies. Without a universal protocol in place, we are left confused about where to stand on the matter.

 

In many Asian countries, the humble facemask is already part of people’s daily routine, especially in crowded places and on public transport. Indeed, it is currently a legal requirement to wear the facemask outdoors in places such as Singapore.

Here in the West there still seems to be a stigma attached to the wearing of the facemask so it’s been interesting to see the concerted effort of the governments of the Czech Republic and Slovakia to persuade their citizens to wear a facemask when out in public.  The motto “your mask protects me, my mask protects you” and the campaign #mask4all led by prime minister Andrej Babis had a whole country making and wearing mask within days. He even urged Donald Trump in a tweet to adopt the same approach: “Mr President, try tackling the virus the Czech way. Wearing a simple cloth mask decreases the spread of the virus by 80 percent.” Although this figure has been debated, the Czech Republic is seeing a steady decline in new cases of COVID-19. So is there a correlation? Maybe.

 

 

Even though Mr Trump may not agree, many health officials and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US are now advising all Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. They clearly state that these cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators but they recommend wearing a cloth face covering over no protection at all.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also recently called for masks to be worn by anyone using public transport in the capital to help prevent the spread. He said it is important that the UK is “no longer an outlier” as he referred to the CDC’s advice in the US. However, the UK government remains reluctant to officially recommend that the public wear facemasks when they leave the house. The current PPE shortage could be fuelling this reluctance. The government understand the desperate need for NHS workers to be equipped with the much needed N-95 respirators and it fears that should they mandate the wearing of a facemask, supplies of this essential protective gear will be snapped up by the general public instead of being available for those that need it the most.

In short, it’s up to us- the general public- to opt to use cloth facemasks so we can curtail the spread of the virus and protect each other. Let’s work together, from grassroots up, to flatten the curve without taking away the essential PPE supplies from our heroic health care workers.

 

 

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