The material culture of masks

By Tiffany Shipp
Historic Archaeologist

In January I didn’t think about masks even once, now I think about them all the time. 

I think about whether my family has enough, whether the prints and patterns make wearing them fun, whether they are comfortable, clean…

I’ve been making masks since mid-March. Initially I resisted. I was spending my sewing time hiding from all things Coronavirus, and well the CDC wasn’t recommending them. However when the guidelines changed it was only hours before the texts began to arrive… “you sew right? Can you make me a mask?”

 At first there was a good bit of trial and error. My first masks were stiff and uncomfortable and took forever to make. I changed to a more fitted pattern that came in sizes and continued to refine my process. I learned that I can in fact sew with a three-year-old climbing up my back to sit on my shoulders, although I don’t recommend it. At times I got burnt out on sewing masks, and had to find creative ways to manage my (limited) time and find ways to make it interesting. I started carving stamps and block printing my own fabric. I even got a friend to send me reference images of PPKs (an acronym for Projectile Point/Knife) so I could make archaeology themed masks. 

Masks with projectile point stamped pattern

Early on in the quarantine I bought a set of carving tools, rubbery pink blocks, and a starter set of screen printing ink. Initially I thought I’d try block printing fabric to sew garments, but somehow that idea evolved into making block printed masks.

The first part of the process is making the stamp. For these masks I didn’t have any PPKs handy in my house so I made a friend send me pictures of the ones she was working with. From there I just printed out the pictures, carefully cut out the PPKs and traced them onto my blocks. The nice thing about the PPKs is that unlike stamps I’ve made with lettering, it doesn’t matter that the image is mirrored on the stamp.

Once the stamp has the image drawn on I carefully carved around the shape, and then carved out the material around it. I could have carved more away for a cleaner stamp, but I liked that you could see some of the tool marks around the shape.

For ink I am currently using Speedball brand screen printing ink. It’s water based so clean up is easy but good for fabric and seems to wash well once it’s heat set. You can feel the stiffness of the ink on the fabric so I may try a different type in the future.

The fabric I am using is plain unbleached muslin fabric, it is 100% cotton and has a tight stable weave – ideal for both printing and for wearing as a mask. For each printed panel I measured a square of fabric large enough to make two adult sized masks. Large pieces of fabric are harder to handle, and pre-cut mask pieces move around too much.

For each stamp I put a thin layer of ink on the stamper with a foam brush (too much and you won’t get good detail) and press the stamp evenly on the fabric. Then repeat. Periodically I stop and wash the ink build up off the stamp. Some colors are thicker and need this done more often.

When the fabric panel is done I hang it to dry for at least a day, but sometimes it needs more time to fully dry. Then the ink needs to be heat set with an iron. I use a medium hot setting and slowly press both sides. From there I can cut out and sew the mask, which gets lined with more of the muslin fabric. It’s not a fast process but for me the repetition is soothing.

Maybe eventually I won’t need to make more masks, but I have to wonder if this new accessory we Americans have donned is more than a momentary necessity. In other parts of the world masks are worn whenever one has a cold, or when pollution or pollen counts are high. Perhaps that will become part of our culture as well.

I wonder if in a hundred years the refuse of masks will be like pull tab soda cans in the archaeological record. Informative, yet irritating at the same time. The fabric and paper will be gone but metal, plastic, and those stretchy elastics will far outlast the wearer who dropped it.


One comment

  1. LOVE this, tiffany. simply LOVE this!!!! you are so very talented. stay safe – and thanks for helping others stay safe, too.


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