By TIM ALEXANDER
HIGHLAND, Ill. — Southern Illinois Berkshire hog farmer Tammy Brink, along with her husband, Larry, have been involved in the pork industry for the entirety of their 37-year marriage. Also a professional seamstress by trade, Tammy was looking for a way to fill lost work hours and contribute to the fight against the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Brink channeled that desire by sewing a few elastic-supported masks for some friends to help protect them against airborne spread of the virus, and word spread quickly. Now, instead of sewing and hemming clothing at the Buckle store in nearby Fairview Heights where she is employed, she spends her days sewing masks for area businesses and community members, hospital workers and others. To date, she has completed just under 1,500 high-quality, reusable cloth face masks — and is still working to meet demand.
“It started when a friend, a retired nurse, sent me a message on Facebook with a tutorial video of how to make a mask. She told me she had some friends working in an area hospital that would really appreciate some masks. I went to Fairview Heights to pick up my sewing machine before everything got shut down, and I picked up some elastic and fabric and decided to make a few,” said Brink, who resides on a farm 40 miles east of St. Louis in Madison County.
“Messages then started coming in from all over asking me to please make some more masks. I started on a Friday, and by Monday morning I must have had 300 or 400 orders for masks waiting to be done.”
When Brink encountered a shortage of the elastic required to complete the masks, friends and family rallied to her aid by scouring stores and the internet to obtain the product.
“I think I got a little overwhelmed that first week,” she admitted. “At the same time, my daughter didn’t have daycare for her two little girls, and she brought them over to stay with us. The five year-old helped me by counting my masks for me, writing the amount on a little piece of paper and placing it on the top of the pile. We called that home-learning for the day.”
Brink has fine-tuned and improved the quality and comfort of her masks as she has gone along. Eschewing the traditional floral wire used in paper masks, she instead cuts thin slivers from ribbed aluminum roasting pans to insert into her masks to form their shape and restrict slippage. Spray tests have confirmed that this method repels airborne particles better than those supported with floral wire, according to Brink.
“I try to find the most comfortable elastic for around the ears,” she said. “Some of the stuff that’s coming off of Amazon is awful.”
Brink also adds an extra, third layer of cloth protection to her masks at the recommendation of nurses, EMTs and other first responders she has communicated with. “I make the masks for people who need to wear them on the job, not for walking around Walmart,” she said. “I decided that if I was going to make masks, I was going to make them of good quality and help people.” Brink’s masks have traveled to Alton, Granite City, Edwardsville and St. Louis, as well as to Ohio and Kansas. She gives credit for her sewing skills to her late mother and aunt, who shared with her their talent, time and passion for sewing.
“I have loved to sew since the age of 11 when I enrolled in sewing as a project in 4-H,” Brink said, adding that her aunt, Jean Klaus, now nearly 90, remains active by crocheting afghans for veterans in her nursing home.