Longtime Wahpeton resident Joan Fredericksen never used her sewing skills for much outside of making clothing for herself, her children and a handful of community members. Sewing was sometimes a necessity when money was tight, and she treated it as such, she said.
In March 2020, sewing became a necessity in a different sense as the threat of coronavirus reared its head in the Twin Towns and masks quickly ran out. Fredericksen, retired and armed with 12 sewing machines, saw the disease as a call to action.
“I started sewing, and the word got out,” Fredericksen said. “Generally there’d be a call and they’d say, ‘I’d like to buy some from you,’ but I never charged.”
Fredericksen first equipped herself, her husband, Marlyn, their two children, five grandchildren and great-grandchild with masks.
People around Wahpeton and Breckenridge caught wind of Fredericksen’s project and started asking for masks. As shortages swept the nation, Fredericksen began receiving calls from out-of-state friends or acquaintances. She sewed and packaged the masks, and Marlyn delivered them to the post office to ship.
Penning down orders in a legal pad, Fredericksen kept track of shipments to states like Utah, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, she said. Within the community, she recalled giving OSPTI 24 masks and Breckenridge Fire Department 20 more.
When Fredericksen began sewing, she said she expected to make a couple dozen masks. By December 2020, she had made over 620, losing count of the exact number.
Some people offered to pay her for the masks or help cover the cost of supplies and shipping, but she always declined. A few recipients refused to take no for an answer, leaving money for her, which she eventually used to buy more elastic or cover postage fees.
“People would offer money or say, ‘What can I pay you?’ and I’d say, ‘Nothing. Just stay safe.’ And that gave us a good feeling,” Fredericksen said.
Fredericksen largely used scrap cotton material from previous projects to make the body of the masks. Following patterns she found online, she experimented with cup masks and pleated masks, settling on a pleated pattern that folds tightly above the nose and won’t fog up glasses.
Still, she needed to get creative in her craft because after masks ran out, crucial materials began to disappear from the shelves too. Her first masks were made with elastic to go around the ears, but soon, she ran out. She had plenty of ribbon, but it often made the masks too loose. She then began using hair ties, but those ran out too, so she resorted to using strips of old T-shirts to make stretchy ear straps.
Nose wire also ran out, as did pipe cleaners. At one point, Fredericksen tried using bread ties in the nose of the mask to make them more snug. People were just thankful to have something, Fredericksen said.
“I remember everybody that could sew were making masks,” Fredericksen said. “I wasn’t the only one.”
Fredericksen and her Bethel Lutheran Church sewing group also crafted rudimentary gowns for the county nurses, who needed personal protective equipment for when they traveled to patients’ homes.
She was able to have a little fun with her designs too, she said. Her favorite creations were made from a Crown Royal bag. The unmistakable purple velvet bag with gold lettering was a hit among her son and his friends, she said.
She said the only masks she has left are the “ugly ones.” All the pretty patterns and materials were already given away.
The months of sewing never felt like a burden or an obligation, Fredericksen said. If anything it was a way to break up the monotony of staying home. She joked if she got tired of Marlyn watching “Family Feud,” she would retreat to her sewing room and get busy making masks.
“It was something to do in a frustrating time,” Fredericksen said. “That makes you feel good to be able to help in any little way you can.”