Jennifer McKee:

academic advisor, College of Engineering 

Years at OSU: Almost four

City of residence: Albany

The national shortage of N95 masks and loose-fitting surgical masks has sparked an impressive response among sewing enthusiasts, who are cutting and stitching in droves to fill the gap with homemade masks. Jennifer McKee, a self-described sewing fanatic, is doing her part.

“I learned to sew in middle school, and my friends all know I love sewing, so they started sending me articles about different DIY communities making masks,” said McKee, an academic advisor for College of Engineering at Oregon State University. “It seemed like a great idea. I picked a pattern I liked and that wasn’t too difficult, then I started sewing a bunch of masks.”  

McKee has produced dozens of masks so far. The first batches went to Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis. Now she’s making masks for family and friends across the U.S., including in Illinois, where masks were just made mandatory and where McKee has many friends.

Each night, McKee gets her “one-person assembly line” in gear, cutting fabric, assembling pieces and attaching bands. Each reversible mask has a different fabric on either side to remind users to wear it the same way every time, and each one includes a pocket that can accommodate non-woven filter materials, like polypropylene.

It was slow going at first, but as McKee fine-tuned her technique, her nightly count increased. “At first, each mask took a long time, but I simplified and streamlined my process,” she said. “Now, if I get started right away after work, I can make about 10 each night.”

McKee uses tightly woven cotton from her ample supply of remnants. Many of the prints are festooned with bright colors and bold designs. “I’m hoping the fun colors and patterns get people to smile,” she said. “Little things like that can help in these tough times.”

But she also uses conservative patterns now and then for people who don’t want a Hawaiian print on one side and dachshunds on the other.

“This is something that’s keeping me sane through this, and I feel like I’m helping people, too, which is really important to me, because sometimes I feel isolated and anxious just sitting here reading the news every day,” McKee said.

“It’s good to think I’m doing something for people on the front lines. My friends and I used to joke about what we’d be doing during the apocalypse, and I’d say I’d probably be sewing for everybody, and guess what?”

~ Steve Frandzel

Have an OSU Unsung Hero suggestion? We are looking for submissions that highlight OSU employees and students who are not typically in the spotlight but are going above and beyond during this pandemic. Send your suggestions to [email protected] and our staff may contact them to conduct remote interviews that we would feature in OSU Today and elsewhere.