Mask appeal leads to mass production


June 19, 2020

Timothy Soden-Groves

Gail Van Guilder has made more than 1,000 colorful, two-sided masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has used donations of materials and is providing masks at Carlton-area stores for free.

When Gail Van Guilder made her first face mask, she was thinking of the potential danger the coronavirus posed to her family and herself. Now, more than a thousand masks later, her effort to supply masks to anyone in need has become a story of service, sacrifice and friendship.

When pandemic restrictions hit in mid-March, Van Guilder got out her sewing machine and cleaned the dust off. She figures she hadn't used it in five years.

"I was just gonna make some for the grandkids and (husband Donnie) and me because I'm considered high risk," Van Guilder said. "I had all this fabric so I thought - I'll just make a bunch. That turned into everybody I knew."

As the manager at Carlton Gas and More in Carlton's South Terrace neighborhood, Van Guilder interacts with many people every day, many of whom she doesn't know.

Before too long, her masks were available for all at the checkout counter.

After making a few masks she decided that her old machine was "kind of icky" and bought a new one. The difference in machines was drastic. "It makes it a lot easier," she said.

Trial and triage

Her sister held a sewing party, making about three masks before nicking her finger with the machine. Donnie, a woodworking enthusiast, found a way to save time using templates he cut from wood so that the fabric for each mask could be cut with a fabric cutter instead of scissors. In working out the details, he cut himself with the fabric cutter.

Trial and error led Van Guilder to a design that keeps eyeglasses from steaming up. And, with distinctive patterns in the fabric of each side of the masks, users can easily track which side should be worn facing in and which side facing out to help prevent contamination.

Before too long, Van Guilder was running out of her own reserves of fabric and mask-making materials were in short supply.

As elastic for straps became hard to find, Van Guilder switched to ribbons. She enlisted her 7-year-old granddaughter, Sophia Angell, to measure out lengths of ribbon.

Donnie's main role changed from fabric cutter to procurement specialist as he spent hours online finding the thread, elastic, cutters and other supplies needed to continue making masks.

Finding fabric remained the biggest hurdle of all. Van Guilder's friends pitched in from their own fabric stashes and her sister, Michelle, posted a plea for fabric on Facebook.

A friend who saw the post brought it to the attention of Mary Kay Wihela, and a cosmic connection was made. "I have a problem with fabric - there isn't enough fabric on Earth for my liking," Wihela said. "To put it in another way, you can't have too much fabric."

Having never met Van Guilder, but knowing and liking her sister, Wihela went to the Carlton Gas and More to speak with Gail.

Guilder confirmed that she was "kind of running low" on fabric, Wihela recalled. With her large collection of fabric, Wihela offered some to Van Guilder.

"To tell you the truth, parting with fabric is kind of like parting with friends," Wihela said. "I put a box of fabric together and I brought it back to her. I gave her my name and my telephone number and I said if you need more, you just let me know."

A few days later Wihela went back to the store and saw masks made from her fabric. "So I felt good about it," she said.

A week went by and Wihela returned, asking Van Guilder again how her supplies were holding up. Van Guilder said that she was running low. Wihela was impressed that her donated 30 yards of fabric had gone so quickly. "I thought, if she is making that many masks, she is one fine lady." Wihela went home and put another box of fabric together.

Production line

Asked about how many masks she might typically make in a day, Van Guilder estimated 20 or 25 masks each weekday evening after she returns home from the full-time job at the store. During a weekend she might make 100 to 125.

Timothy Soden-Groves

Gail Van Guilder, granddaughter Sophia, and husband Donnie relax on a bench outside the Carlton Gas and More in South Terrace.

Earlier this week she estimated that she's made 1,100 masks. Wihela said Van Guilder is "very modest" and has probably made quite a few more.

Van Guilder delivered on a request for 35 masks for the Veteran Services office in Cloquet. She's made smaller masks for children and also keeps Carlton Meat and Grocery stocked.

"People like the colorful ones," Van Guilder said.

Wihela feels as though she has made a new friend. "I am humbled and honored to call her friend, because I think she's doing a remarkable job," she said.

"There's no way I would have been able to do what I've done without her," Van Guilder said. "And if it wasn't for the community effort, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I think that's why I keep doing it. They keep helping, and I keep doing it."


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