Staying at home feels so helpless, but being able to make something gives you peace and feeds your soul. People feel like they’re helping and making a contribution.” -- Laura Wirkkala

It was a difficult Monday, March 16, when Laura Wirkkala had to shut down her sewing school because of the pandemic, wondering what she would do next. She has been teaching sewing since 2002 and is known for her energy as well as the ability to help students transform fabric into everything from a colorful iPad case to a dress for the first day of school.

Laura Wirkkala and her daughter, Amelia Ostling.Laura Wirkkala with her daughter, Amelia Ostling.Laura dons her signature mask.Laura dons her signature apparel.Only a few days later, Wirkkala found herself at the center of a much-needed sewing brigade, so busy she can’t quite remember who approached her first, but whoever it was had an important question: Could Wirkkala and her students sew masks?

Laura’s Sewing School, at 785 Mass. Ave., is now the hub for more than 100 volunteers who have sewn close to 2,000 masks and still counting. Wirkkala stays alone in her school, assembling kits from which to make 20 masks. Then those who sew them pick up and return the finished kits in the entrance way to her school.

The masks have gone to an array of groups, including the Visiting Nurses, Meals on Wheels, the Cambridge Health Alliance, Deaconess Medical Center lab workers, Food Link, doctors and nurses at local hospitals and senior citizens in Arlington. The Greater Boston Food Bank has asked for 500 masks, and the Arlington Housing Authority has asked for another 500. The brigade will comply.

'I don't feel alone.'

“The outpouring of help has been so wonderful,” Wirkkala said. “Even when I’m in my shop by myself, I don’t feel alone. I’m taking my skill and doing something good, and I don’t have time to worry. I’m here from 10 until sometimes 8 or 9 every day … this is my life right now.”

Arlington resident Nina Paynter keeps things running smoothly. She has created a spreadsheet to keep track of those who sew, donations, materials needed and requests for masks. “She’s been so helpful,” Wirkkala says. “I can take the communication burden off of me, though I still get emails and messages.”

Wirkkala rummaged through her own fabric cache, and volunteers and donors have provided more. Money and help have come from numerous sources. First Parish Church in Arlington donated its collection one week, and the Catherine J. Malatesta Foundation provided a grant of $1,000. The Saunders Hotel Group, whose properties include the Lenox Hotel in Boston, donated sheets. Paynter provides updates to sewers to let them know what is needed and which groups have a need for masks.

Elastic is also necessary, and Wirkkala discovered there is an elastic shortage throughout the country because so many people are making masks. ”Finding it is crazy,” she says. “I went through a roll and then didn’t know what to do.” She finally found some on a website and ordered hundreds of yards that never arrived. Then she learned about someone selling it by the spool with 788 yards on each, so she bought three and has since bought another shipment.

Not for front-line workers

The masks use cotton fabric on the front and sheets on the back so wearers can easily tell which is the inside and which the outside to put them on properly. A twist tie serves as a wire to go around the nose. “I can buy 2,000 ties at a time,” says Wirkkala. “I'm finding resources and figuring out what to use.”

The masks are not for people on the front line working with ill patients but will block 50 to 75 percent of pathogens. Some health-care workers use them to cover the more efficient N95 masks to keep them clean. Wirkkala washes all the fabric, cuts it into the necessary size, then packs 20 fronts, 20 backs, elastics and ties and bags them up.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Wirkkala began sewing as a child, making her own clothes throughout high school. She studied flute in college, with the idea of becoming a music teacher, but instead moved to Massachusetts to apprentice with the renowned instrument maker Powell Flutes. One day a colleague who knew about her sewing ability asked whether she could make a cover for a flute case. 

Thus was born Wirkkala’s first business, Wirkkala Design.  While she still makes accessories for the flute, her heart is in her sewing school. There she teaches classes a little differently than other schools. Instead of offering a class on a particular project, she has each student make what he or she wants. The results are a panoply of colorful tote bags, clothing, quilts, blankets, cushions and pillows. One boy made pajama pants; another student learned how to hem trousers.

But for now, everyone is all-in on masks. Wirkkala has posted a pattern on her school’s website and her daughter, Amelia Ostling, home from Mt. Holyoke, made a video of her mom making a mask. To learn how to make the masks or to donate or find out other ways to help go to

You can also see the video at Wirkkala's YouTube channel, SewInGenius.

Wirkkala appreciates the idea that not only are the masks useful for others; they offer something profound for her and the volunteers. “Staying at home feels so helpless, but being able to make something gives you peace and feeds your soul. People feel like they’re helping and making a contribution.”

Town of Arlington website image

Centers for Disease Control: Guide to use of cloth face coverings

This news feature by YourArlington freelancer Marjorie Howard was published Saturday, April 18.