August 5, 2020

Conservatory student uses her skills to create face masks for family

Webster student Dorathy Johnston has been sewing nearly all her life. Johnston is putting her costume design skills to use by creating face masks for family members in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dorathy Johnston hunches over a sewing machine on a Saturday morning. She irons fabric in front of her, prepping to create masks for her family in New York. Then, she measures carefully to make sure the masks will fit. Johnston will sit in this spot for another eight hours, sliding fabric under her sewing machine.

The Beginning of a Career

Johnston has been sewing almost all her life. She started in elementary school where she learned to sew in an after school program. Johnston helped put together costumes for her middle school’s production of “Peter Pan.” She crafted her own homecoming dress in high school.

Now, she majors in Costume Design at the Conservatory of Theater Arts at Webster University.

When COVID-19 struck the United States, Johnston’s family was stuck in the epicenter of the virus. Johnston watched the news with her grandparents one night. She knew what she had to do — create face masks in order to keep her family safe.

“They’ve been really scared about the whole situation there,” Johnston said. “So, I’m just trying to help them stay safe the best I can.”

Professor Carole Tucker teaches Johnston’s costume design class. Tucker said the ability to read and recreate a pattern and the many hours spent in the shop cutting and sewing prepared Johnston for the work of creating the masks.

Sewing is a skill like carpentry.

Professor Carole Tucker

“The products created by those who practice those skills have made the quality of life better for all,” Tucker said. “By building the masks, Dorathy is improving and protecting the quality of life for many.”

Dawn Truhn, 55, lives in Mount Olive, New Jersey. Eight years ago, Truhn became Johnston’s “big sister” in a Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. Truhn has been a teacher and raised three kids, but said she has learned a lot from Johnston.

“You will never meet another young woman like Dorathy,” Truhn said. “She is special. She never steps one foot off her path. She has taught me more than I taught her.”

Truhn’s daughter Lauren Trapanatto lives in New York and received one of the masks Johnston made., Trapanatto wears a blue and white patterned mask that ties around her head with a pink ribbon to one of her grocery or pharmacy store trips.

“It feels very dystopian,” Trapanatto said. “Now I feel less anxious about having to go outside to run errands because. I used to worry about what to use to cover my face and was using an old scarf that was hard to secure in place.”

A Stressful Situation Leads to Mask Creation

The masks that Johnston made Truhn and Trapanatto almost did not happen. Over spring break, Johnston participated in the Cuba study abroad trip.

The trip ended a day early and the class was rushed back to the United States. Johnston said John Buck and Kelly Heath met them at the airport and put the students in an apartment for a self-quarantine.

Johnston described the situation as overwhelming.

“That first night coming back from Cuba was really stressful and really confusing because Webster was just like throwing things at us and they were like ‘Oh, this is all happening,’” Johnston said. “Most of us weren’t connected to the outside world and now you’re telling us all this stuff.”

Johnston had friends bringing items to her apartment door. They would leave her clothes and other belongings like her sewing machine at the doorstep.

Photo Contributed by Dorathy Johnston
The masks begin with a simple piece of fabric. Johnston is using what she can during COVID-19. This is using most of her spare fabric she had laying around the house.

Johnston also had to communicate with one of her friends in order to get certain fabrics from the Conservatory’s costume shop.

As her friends grabbed the materials they could for Johnston, emails from the university were flooding in. When Johnston received the news about students being forced to move out, she was confused. She thought she was supposed to be in quarantine.

How was she supposed to move out if she was still in a forced quarantine?

“All of a sudden they were like, ‘Oh, your quarantine is lifted.’” Johnston said. “It was all very confusing and stressful. So I was like ‘Okay, I just need to go home as soon as possible so that I can have some kind of stability.’”

Truhn said most young people would be shaken up by such quick changes. But, she knew Johnston would put her grandparents first.

“She is taking care of them, doing all the grocery shopping, doing her online classes, and making masks for the people she loves,” Truhn said.

Johnston used what little materials she grabbed from the school and what she had laying around her house.

Using spare elastic from a pair of pants, ribbon and the fabric she had, she crafted her masks and shipped them off. Truhn and Trapanatto both expressed relief at receiving a mask from Johnston.

Truhn has only left her house once a week to grocery shop. She has surgical gloves but, until Johnston, did not have a proper mask. She once had to use an old sock as a face mask. Another time, Truhn wore a scarf wrapped around her head three times and could not breathe.

“[Shopping] gave me a lot of anxiety. I am starting to become a germaphobe. I would worry about having to leave the house a day before,” Truhn said.

An Uncertain Future

Having one of the masks Johnston made her eases Truhn’s anxiety. Johnston can make up to 16 masks in one sitting. She wants to make more for her friends and other family members but is uncertain if she will be able to.

Her fabric supply is running low and Johnston does not know when she will be able to get more. Elastic to keep the masks secured to the face was already a problem.

“Going forward, I know the actual mask part I can do for a little while longer,” Johnston said.“[Materials are] one thing where I’m like ‘Well, should I order material now before Joanne’s has to stop running?’ There are so many things up in the air.”

Even though her supply may be running low, the masks she has made so far have provided a sense of comfort for the people Johnston considers family. Trapanatto feels better about going to the store to pick items up, no longer fearing that her makeshift mask would slip off.

Now, her mask crafted by Johnston stays firmly in place, easing anxiety with every step outside.

“The masks that Dorathy made truly represent her – they are creative, beautiful, thoughtful and helpful,” Trapnatto said.

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