/Dispatches from a Pandemic: These millennials are spending their quarantine being of service others. Pull up a seat — and a sewing machine

Dispatches from a Pandemic: These millennials are spending their quarantine being of service others. Pull up a seat — and a sewing machine

They never get bored — there is far too much to do.

Photographers Mercedes Jelinek, 34, and Lucy Plato Clark, 27, are self-quarantining together in Penland, N.C. They decided to use their skills to help medical workers who are battling coronavirus on the front lines, those with preexisting conditions, and people who are in high-risk groups.

‘Anything anyone can do to make it a better place, they should do it. We can say, ‘At least we tried.’’

— Photographer Mercedes Jelinek

“I lived through the beginning of the outbreak in Italy,” Lucy says. “It was interesting to come back to America. I left the night of the lockdown in Italy. I felt an extreme need to social distance and self-isolate. I didn’t show any symptoms, but I was terrified of being asymptomatic.”

Lucy has witnessed the evolution of coronavirus on both continents and observed how people’s attitudes have changed. It appeared to happen both gradually and overnight. “At first, people said, ‘This is ridiculous. This is the flu.’ Within two days, people had changed their view.”

But they both understand that human behavior and pathogens don’t move in a straight line. “We have to be able to do everything we can to stop this,” Mercedes adds. “Anything anyone can do to make the world a better place, they should do it. We can say, ‘At least we tried.’”

They have devoted their days and nights to being of service to people who are in need of masks all over the world, and are churning out up to 50 per day. “We wonder how anyone could get bored in quarantine. There’s just so much to do. We have this wartime attitude about life.”

Lucy adds, “Our motto is: ‘Better than a bandana.’”

‘The masks have kept us super-positive throughout this whole thing. Sometimes making artwork can feel selfish. This does not.’

— Photographer Lucy Plato Clark

MarketWatch spoke to the duo about their mask-making, nonprofit cottage industry:

MarketWatch: How did you meet?

Mercedes: We just had a photography show together in Tuscany, and we were preparing for another one in Long Island City, so everything for us was canceled.

Lucy: Mercedes took my portrait and, a few years later, she was hired to work at the school where I live in Florence, and we just started to do a ton of projects together. It’s part of a study abroad program with East Carolina University.

Mercedes: I’m usually based in Brooklyn, but I have traveled around and set up a photo booth with a wooden 4×5 classic camera. I take photographs for people who may not be able to afford a really nice picture. They can then pass it down to younger members of their family.

MarketWatch: What gave you the idea to spend your time doing this?

Mercedes: We started making masks for health-care workers, especially after my sister, Leandra, who is a surgeon in Michigan, told me that her hospital has a mask shortage. When I heard that, I freaked out a little bit. We learned how to sew in a very short time. We have sent them to 14 states and have sent some back to Italy.

Lucy: We went from making 10 masks a day to 50 masks a day. Today, we’re trying to beat our record, but one of our sewing machines is down again. The Penland School of Craft has been great. Someone there already fixed one of our sewing machines, and made all new parts for it. They actually made us cupcakes.

MarketWatch: How do you fund your mask-making endeavors?

Mercedes: People also donate money for shipping, and materials.

Lucy: We use two different patterns so people know what is the front and back of the mask. That way, they can be mindful of what side may have been exposed to the virus. You can trash it or wash it on a high heat, so it’s good to go again. We recommend two layers of fabric if cotton. If you can layer it three times, even better.

Mercedes: We are just two photographers who read way too much about this stuff. Make sure when you tie the mask, that the edges lay flush with your skin.

MarketWatch: How do you feel about the federal response to the crisis?

Mercedes: I feel like nobody knows exactly what’s going on with the coronavirus. So I’m trusting that they are trying to keep us as safe as possible. They’re learning as they go, just like we’re learning as we’re going. I always wish that things could have gone faster, and people were protected sooner.

MarketWatch: So you learned how to make masks as you went along?

Lucy: We got to know an amazing seamstress who gives us tips through our mailbox. We have turned the entire house into a fabric store. The house is owned by friends, Jim and Debra, and they weren’t using it, so they allowed us to stay here, and work from here too. Yesterday was supposed to be our day off, and we worked 12 hours straight.

MarketWatch: What’s the best material to use?

Mercedes: We started off using cotton T-shirts, but we’ve found that cotton fabric with a 180 thread count is one of the best fabrics to use. Vacuum fillers — not the crazy ones with fiber glass — and coffee filters are good for extra protection, but we found vacuum bags aren’t great for breathing. We just get up in the morning and start reading the CDC website.

MarketWatch: You are both very committed to this project.

Mercedes: I don’t know how much we actually like making the masks. The repetitiveness is really amazing. It’s very meditative. I recommend that people do something over and over and over.

Lucy: It’s really the feeling that we have to do something. Sitting still in the middle of a crisis seems against both of our natures. We both have bigger things to think about.

MarketWatch: I imagine there was a lot of trial and error with finding the right mask at the right speed?

Mercedes: We finally found a pattern that goes so much faster. It’s the simplest one. We go so fast when it’s already cut, it’s amazing.

Lucy: We have been overwhelmed by the donations and graciousness of people. if you have any cotton fabrics, send them to us, we would love it. My sister called this morning, and asked me, “Do you need an Instagram

social-media team coordinator?”

MarketWatch: You have been making masks every day since March. Do you ever get tired?

Lucy: The masks have kept us super-positive throughout this whole thing. Sometimes making artwork can feel selfish. This does not. We have a sanitizing station and a packing station, and we wear masks when we pack them. The other day I woke up to about 20 messages. One said, “My husband has cancer.” Another wrote, “My 3-year-old son has a compromised immune system.”

Mercedes: She’s my people.

Lucy: She’s mine.

Mercedes and Lucy can be contacted via Instagram on @itsbetterthanabandana, @mercedes_jelinek and @luplacla. You can message them their to arrange donations of fabric or postage.

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