How to sew your own cloth face masks: a beginners’ guide

Ireland & many other countries now recommend the use of cloth face coverings or barrier masks in certain settings. There are so many free face mask sewing patterns online that it can be hard to know where to start, especially for beginners. As a sewing machine newbie myself, here’s what I’ve learned from making face masks for my family.

This guide covers:

What you need to sew your own cloth face mask

  • 2 pieces of cotton fabric large enough for a mask
    The material should be breathable & fairly opaque when you hold it up to the light. You can use pillow cases, sheets, cotton tops or t-shirts.
    Or go all out & choose from the oodles of gorgeous cotton print fabrics available online – a quarter metre is enough to make a few. Prewash new fabric if you think it could shrink.
  • Something to use as ear loops or head ties
    e.g. T-shirt strip ties (explained below), elastic, ribbon, shoelaces or hair ties.
  • A sewing machine ideally, or else a needle & thread
  • Scissors
  • A ruler or measuring tape
  • A pencil, marker or chalk to outline the pattern pieces on your fabric.

Nice to haves

  • Iron – pressing the pieces throughout makes things easier and gives a better result
  • Pins – pinning pieces makes them easier to sew accurately
  • A safety pin or large needle for threading ties through
  • Optional – pipe cleaner, gardening wire or other flexible wire if you want to add a nose wire to seal the mask around your nose.

General method

There are lots of face covering pattern types available, including both pleated and fitted styles, but the approach is much the same:

  1. Cut out & put your fabric pieces right sides together.
  2. Sew edge seams and turn right side out.
  3. Make a narrow tube at each side by turning over the edge of the fabric and sewing it down.
  4. Thread ties into each side & gently tie. If possible the wearer should adjust these to fit.
  5. Knot ties firmly & pull loops around to hide knots within tube.

If you don’t have something to thread your ties through with, you can just insert the ties before you stitch the fabric tube at each side of the mask.

Some patterns include extra features like a pocket or opening to add a disposable filter layer or a nose wire to secure the fit at the top of the mask. I just leave these parts out and find the mask patterns below work well without them.

Ear loop or head tie options

T-shirt material strips

This is my favourite option because it’s quick, easy and t-shirt strips make super comfy ear loops. Just take an old t-shirt made of the usual stretchy material:

  1. Remove the end or sleeve hem.
  2. Cut a strip of material about 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide & cut out any side seam.
  3. Then just pull on the strip with your hands to stretch it out.

As if by magic, your old t shirt turns into a super soft stretchy cord! You only need short bits of this for ear loops because it is so stretchy.

If you don’t have any old t-shirts to spare, you can also buy t-shirt yarn like Hoooked Zpagetti instead. It’s great for knitting and crocheting with too, not just for mask ties 🙂

Elastic ear loops

Elastic demand has soared with everyone making face coverings. I got some in bulk from Vibes & Scribes & I’ve since spotted Sew Irish have elastic in stock too. The softer the elastic the better & you don’t want it too wide – 1 cm max, narrower ideally. As well as the usual strip elastic some use millinery elastic, which is a narrow tube form used for hats. Elastic can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods, so try t-shirt ties instead if that’s a problem.

Around the head ties instead of ear loops

I find it much easier to put masks on & off with ear loops but some prefer ties that go around the head for a better fit. You can use 1, 2 or 4 head ties.

A shoelace works great for 1 long tie. Just thread it up the left side of your mask, leave a big loop across the top, then thread it down the right side.
When you put your mask on the top loop goes across the back of your head. Then you pull on the 2 bottom loose ends and when happy with the fit, knot them behind your head.

If you don’t have a shoe lace or t-shirt strip for this, you can use ribbon. Avoid satin ribbon & use a firmer or textured type like grosgrain instead which won’t slip & stays in place better.

You can also use 2 ties, one for each side, or 4 ties, one at each corner. You can just stitch them directly to the mask edges and skip making the tube on either side of the mask.  Public health advice is to tie the top 2 ties on top of your head (rather than directly behind) and the bottom 2 behind your head.

Basic rectangle mask

This simple pattern is ideal if you have never sewn before. They are easy to make by hand with just a basic needle and thread and two 10 x 6 inch (25 x 15 cm approx) rectangles.

Here’s a short instruction video from the Irish government:

You can also view illustrated written instructions on the US CDC website.

If you are not a complete beginner, I’d recommend the fitted or pleated patterns below instead. They are a bit more advanced but the end result will be much better too.

Fitted face mask patterns

The fitted face mask style gives a very neat look. My favourite pattern is The Crafty Quilter’s versatile face mask which I find gives the best fit for a women’s/medium size.

The Crafty Quilter versatile face mask
The Crafty Quilter versatile face mask (shown with t-shirt ear loops)

This compact design also folds in half so it’s easy to have in a pocket or bag out & about ready for when you need it.

Fitted face masks are compact and fold in 2
Fitted face masks are compact and fold in 2 so great for out & about

There are extensive instructions including a printable PDF pattern on The Crafty Quilter.

Other suggested fitted face mask patterns:

One downside of the fitted style, is that sizing needs to be more precise & some can find it a bit restrictive & warm to wear. You can try a pleated style instead to avoid these problems.

Pleated face mask pattern

When I had trouble finding a mask pattern to fit my partner just right, I looked into pleated style patterns. These have a more traditional, surgical look & the sizing is more flexible.

I struck gold when I found the Iris Luckhaus DIY cloth mask. This is German engineering at its finest!

This isn’t just the basic 3 pleat design you may have seen elsewhere. It has an extra pleat behind the top of the mask which you pull up when putting it on to get a great fit around your nose, even without a wire. The angled sides also help & I’ve found this the best fitting mask for family members so far.

Iris Luckhaus pleated face mask pattern, in Liberty fabric with t-shirt ties
Iris Luckhaus pleated face mask pattern with t-shirt ties in Liberty Cottage Garden Country Path fabric

Three sizes are given and the pleated style automatically gives more sizing flexibility. If a fitted mask feels too restrictive or hot on your face definitely give this pattern a try.

Now, Iris has gone into a lot of technical detail in her posts. Don’t be put off by this because the mask fits really well & is easy to make once you get the hang of it.

It mainly uses 2 squares of fabric and only involves a few straight seams so this pattern can be hand sewn, once your needle can go through the pleated layers.

With my basic sewing machine skills, I find these easier to make than fitted masks because there are no curved seams.

It’s best to start with the Luckhaus mask photo tutorial which takes you through step by step. Once you print out the PDF pattern, you cut out the mask outline and then layer this on top of your fabric to easily fold and iron the pleats – it’s genius!

Layer the paper pattern on top of your fabric, fold the pleats & iron
Layer the paper pattern on top of your fabric (post top & bottom seams), fold the pleats & iron

The only mod I make to Iris’s pattern is to make the side strips 6cm x 10 cm (rather than 5cm), because I find t shirt ties easier to insert in a slightly wider tube.

Luckhaus mask side on
Luckhaus mask side on view. The nose pleat gives a great fit & won’t fog up glasses!

Tips & Advice

Sewing masks will take ages at first

Patterns often claim to be an easy 15-30 minute make. My first mask took hours! If you are a beginner sewer, making a mask is actually quite an involved task. It’s quite fiddly due to the small size too. Don’t let this put you off. While the first few experiments may take forever, you will quickly get the hang of it & never look back.

Helpful fabric choices for your first masks

If you are completely new to sewing, using certain fabrics can make things easier at first. Once you get the hang of making masks, a whole world of material awaits!

Fitted masks – use fabrics with a clear right and wrong side, and different fabrics for the front and back

I did all my pattern tests on white pillowcases which was a disaster. I got the pieces & sides mixed up so often, which really didn’t help when I was trying to learn how to use the sewing machine at the same time.  If you don’t have different fabrics, just clearly mark them with front, back, inside and outside to save your sanity!

Basic & pleated masks – use a linear pattern

Basic and pleated mask patterns don’t have any curved pattern pieces, just rectangles and squares. If you use fabric with a linear print, you can just quickly measure and then use the fabric pattern as a guide for where to cut along instead of having to outline each piece first. The print does not need to be striped or check, just something where you can easily see vertical and horizontal repeats within e.g. the red patterned mask shown in this post.

Try your masks out in real life as soon as possible

Trying on a mask at home is quite different to wearing it out and about or shopping. You may find certain masks or materials too hot to wear, or that they don’t stay in place right on you.

I made the mistake of making a bunch of masks first before starting to actually wear them. In the real world, I quickly found that some of my pretty fabrics were too heavy or scratchy to wear, and some of my fitted designs didn’t stay in place as well.

Make some space & be prepared for the mess

It’s amazing how making a few face masks results in so many loose threads and fabric bits that get absolutely everywhere. They never show you that on The Great British Sewing Bee!

Between the sewing machine, iron and other bits and bobs, a decent amount of space to work is also a big help.

Most time isn’t spent sewing

If you have the luxury of a sewing machine, most of your time will actually be spent cutting out fabric pieces, ironing, pinning etc. On the plus side, you may have helpers you can delegate the non-sewing parts too.

Save time by doing things in batches

It speeds things up if you make a bunch of masks together on an assembly line. So, first cut out the fabric for all the masks together, then do the next step for all of them etc.

You can also speed up your sewing by using a technique called chain sewing where you have a stack of pieces to sew and feed the next piece in when you reach the end of the previous piece, resulting in a long chain of sewn pieces that you can just snip apart. The video below demos this technique and some other time savers for the Olson fitted mask pattern, but it’s useful for any pattern:

So there you have it. If you are new to sewing, making your own face masks can seem quite daunting. But once you give it a go & get familiar with your pattern steps, you will be amazed at how quickly you progress. Once you make a few, there’s no stopping you!

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