Masked Making: Uncovering Women’s Craft Labor during COVID-19

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In the United States in 2020, face masks became a political symbol: first welcomed as part of assisting emergency workers, and later condemned as a threat to individual liberty, the face mask is an inescapable site of conflict. However, it is also a thing of labor, entwined with the domestic sphere of sewing. 

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, several news stories emerged about essential objects in the pandemic, as well as various responses to these objects. Included in these stories were so-called “hobbyists,” mainly women, who used sewing machines and even needle and thread to make Personal Protective Equipment, including gowns, hair nets, and especially face masks. Indeed, hundreds of thousands face masks have been crafted by collectives of home sewers, frequently led by and including mainly women donating their time and resources. Their example of collective labor prompts the need to think of the usually invisible forms of making that occur in socially “private” and feminized spaces of labor—such as sewing rooms, kitchens, and offices—as active forms of contribution to safe social practices, altruism, and community-based maker cultures. 

In this exhibition, we center this labor, using generative graphics and texts to imagine those masks: in an endlessly cycling generator, we capture both the imagined making and brief fragments of text centering the imagined, forgotten, and invisible makers who power this collective effort. 

Built using Tracery, HTML5, and Javascript, this endless interactive imagetext generates imaginary masks that represent the lives and thoughts of the fictional people who made them. The fictional crafters in this piece reflect public examples of the crafters during COVID-19 --such as collected news items, social media images, and personal reflections--that are gathered to represent the wealth of diversity, age groups, and communities that participate in collective mask making. Sharing these publicly available resources will more faithfully represent and thus uncover the faces, hands, and labor of mask making during COVID-19. This exhibition invites the viewer to contemplate not only the mask itself, but also the erasure of primarily women, whose collective labor has been ignored, mocked, and diminished even as the US faces a horrifying setback in gender labor equity. By using a format in which content is constantly being generated, Masked Making centers both the crafted object and its crafter as ephemeral and disposable. In doing so, we hope to capture the marginalization of craft at a time when such domestic labor (and indeed, the confinement to the domestic) is literally life-saving. 

Masked Making is a work that keeps its origins in mind: the interactive work will be available online for participants to engage with as a form of knowledge mobilization outreach, communicating the significance of women’s contributions to public audiences as well.

(Source: Authors' abstract)

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Masked Making

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Irene Fabbri