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Masks and Knickers

by David Anderson 01 Oct 2020 2 Comments
Masks and Knickers - Rainbow Life

2020 will be writ large in the annals of history, long after we have all shuffled off our mortal coils, for one major global event which will undoubtedly, for good or ill, change the course of human history: Covid-19.

There is much to write, but today I want to focus on one of the profound impacts it has had. Simple on the surface, and yet with a huge impact on human relations, inter-personal space, transportation, social events, and what some may find surprising, a potentially massive negative impact on the environment. I am talking about the use of face masks. Unfortunately, not the Halloween or secret ball in Venice masks (they’re fun) but the PPE mask.

Single use throw-away masks are made of plastic. They are cheap, easy to use, and you simply toss them away when you are finished and grab another one. They are handed out everywhere you go if you forgot yours. They are ubiquitous. They work reasonably well. What is there not to like?

Unfortunately, a small percentage of them end up in our oceans. That may not seem particularly horrendous given their obvious benefit. But if you consider the 100s of millions of these things that are used globally on a daily basis, that ‘small percentage’ equates to many millions of single use plastic masks floating around in our seas for thousands of years.

What can we mere mortals do about this? Is there a viable alternative?

There is... cotton masks.

You will no doubt be pleased to learn that they are as or more effective than the single use masks. They are easy to make. You can make them from upcycled cotton material. They are re-usable dozens and dozens of times. The environmental impact is negligible. They don’t end up in our oceans and even if they do, they biodegrade quickly. Depending on where you buy them, there is the opportunity to be ethically sound also.

The final hurdle is ease of use. This is where knickers come in. How are masks and knickers aligned you may ask? (or boxers, or Y fronts, or tighty-whiteys – take your pick, we don’t discriminate even with underwear)


In order to make things easy you need 7 pairs of underwear. You change them every day and, in the evening, toss the dirty pair in the wash. Next morning pull another pair on, and so on. The same should go with cotton masks. Build it into your daily routine, just like your underwear. Change your pants, change your mask. It is that simple.

Where to find this ingenious piece of kit?

There are options.

You can make your own if you are so inclined. It helps if you have access to a sewing machine or you have nimble fingers, but slow is also good. Here is how:

What will you need?

Home-made masks can be created using only a needle, thread and fabric lying about at home. The below example is made from fabric left over from a cushion cover. Try and use cotton (even an old T-shirt will work) as this is easy to machine-wash and keep clean.

Here's a step-by-step guide

  1. Find an old piece of fabric, preferably cotton. Cut out a rectangle measuring approximately 22cm by 36cm and lay it flat on a table.
    step 1
    Sarah Maisey / The National
  2. Create a small fold in the fabric, about 1cm long, that runs across the short width of the material. Lie it flat, and pin it in place.
    step 2
    Sarah Maisey / The National
  3. Repeat four times, pinning folds flat each time. You can do more folds if you like. You will end up with a concertina effect in the fabric (and should end up with at least double layers of fabric across the middle of the entire mask).
    step 3
    Sarah Maisey / The National
  4. By adding the folds you may have made the mask the right length to cover your nose and mouth. If you feel it's still too long, fold any extra fabric at either end underneath and pin in place. You will secure this fold in place when you hem the short sides.
    step 4
    Sarah Maisey / The National
  5. With a needle and thread (double up the string for extra strength), hem both short sides with a simple running stitch to hold the folds you've just made in place.
    step 5
    Sarah Maisey / The National
  6. Fold both hemmed short sides over again (this is only a small fold) and stitch that flat. This is to prevent fraying, and will make the sides of the mask extra-strong, as this is where the ties will be held.
    step 6
    Sarah Maisey / The National
  7. Add ties. These can be elastic, ribbon or even shoelaces. Sew on to the short sides of the mask, and make sure to leave enough length to be able to either tie the mask around the back of the head or around the ears, as you prefer.
    step 7
    Sarah Maisey / The National

Here’s a video tutorial for those who prefer to watch and listen rather than read: 

How to make a cotton mask:

There is another somewhat easier alternative: buy them (from us 😊)

While we would love for you to buy our masks, we encourage you to buy cotton masks from anybody that is selling them (not just us) as long as they tick all the right boxes. It is more important to us that you get away from single use plastic variety than us selling you a product.

Indulge me for a moment though. Here is why I think we offer a good option for you. On the practical side we have a large selections of cotton face masks in 2 and 3 ply with elastic or with ties. Why is this important? There are pluses and minuses to these different types.

There are some jurisdictions (Wales for example) that now require triple-layer masks. They do confer a bit more protection for you and those around you. The downside is that over prolonged periods of time, and especially in lower risk environments where that extra layer of protection is not required, triple layer is a bit warmer and slightly less easy to breathe freely. Personally, I barely noticed a difference, but some people do.

Elastic or ties? Click the image below to see both types.

Mask types

Elastic masks are very easy to put on and take off. Ties require you to tie behind your head. Takes about 20 seconds instead of 5 seconds. You might think that if you are constantly taking your mask off then you would want elastic, right? Think again. Once you have tied your mask once, for the rest of the day you can simply lower the mask under your chin and pull it back up over your nose when required. In addition, if you wear glasses or hearing aids or for prolonged use, elastics can chafe behind your earsget caught up in the legs of your glasses, or get tangled into your hearing aid, possibly yanking out out your ear when you take your mask offAnnoying.  

Overall, personally, I prefer ties. Plenty of people disagree, so I leave it to you to decide. 

Ethical considerations: our masks are made by the people at SETU. ‘SETU’ in Sanskrit means ‘the bridge’. As indicated from the name, `SETU-The Bridge to Artisans’ acts as a bridge between the underprivileged and marginalized artisans and the international typically affluent markets, at the same time, working for social, economic and environmental well-being of the artisan communities. 

In other words when you buy our masks you are directly supporting the poorest communities in India.  

You can read more about this wonderful organisation in the Front Stories section of the website.

To make life really simple for you we offer these masks for sale individually or at a huge discount if you buy a pack of 7. We want to encourage you to buy 7 so you are set to follow best-practice protocols of changing your mask when you change your underwear (hopefully daily). By the way, there are no special care instructions. Simply toss the mask in your laundry basket along with everything else. Laundry detergent DESTROYS Covid-19. That’s good to know isn’t it. A small win for humanity. 

Now that you have heard the sales pitch, let me qualify that again. If we do not carry the styles or colours that you really want, please buy them from somewhere that doesIt really is more important to us that you make the switch away from plastic.  

>We would love it if you dropped us a line to tell us what you would like. We will certainly do our best to source it for you, or if possible, have the artisans at SETU make them for you.

Check ours out here: Our SETU mask Collection

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09 Oct 2020 David

I have tried both and while the ties did get a bit more getting used to (getting the tightness right for slipping up and down effectively) at the end of the day I agree they are best too. Elastic is initially easier though I admit. I got a random selection of 7 and wore pink (proudly) for the first time in a long time. Pink shirt next.

08 Oct 2020 Patrick

I’m with you Lisa, ties are the best!

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