Personal Project is a column about hobbies and digging into our hidden talents.
I learned about Victory gardens through a doll named Molly. She was one of the American Girl Dolls, each of which hails from a different historical era. There was Samantha, the rich Victorian orphan; Felicity, the rich colonist. Molly was a spunky suburbanite fifth-grader whose father was a soldier stationed in England during World War II. She wasn’t actually my doll; she was my sister’s — technically, mine was Kirsten, a member of a Swedish immigrant family settled in the Minnesota territories in the 1890s. I liked Kirsten, but her signature accessory was a wooden spoon she kept in her apron. Molly, 50 years later and several tax brackets above, had stuff. A roller-skating outfit. Saddle shoes. A dog.
She also had a radio, which, if you pressed a button on the front, played a little soundtrack of snippets from old-timey-sounding radio segments mixed with static, as if you were sitting on the living-room rug and spinning through the dial. One of them was an advertisement for seeds for your very own Victory garden, which was celebrated with tooting, tinny horns. It was one of several ways Molly the doll experienced “the homefront,” along with complaining about butter rations and making her own hula skirt out of paper for Halloween.
Molly is the first thing I thought about when I started sewing face masks in coronavirus self-isolation. A few weeks ago, we ran a tutorial on the Cut about how to make homemade protection masks; I remembered I had three beautiful untouched John Derian designer fabric samples sitting in my closet, taken from my last job because they looked pretty. I started with one mask, for myself, then for my boyfriend, then for friends. “Look at me, I’m Molly now,” I said to my sister over FaceTime as I showed her my new project. I was joking, but only sort of. After Andrew Cuomo announced that New Yorkers should wear masks when we go outside, despite the fact that they were widely sold out, I started taking requests on Instagram.
Sewing masks for others feels like tending my own Victory garden. I wake up in the morning and do a few minutes of stitching in between coffee sips. Every night, I settle in for an hours-long marathon session. I can finish about a mask a day now. After midnight, when I pull the fabric strips I use as ties through a finished mask, my head hurts, my fingers are red and pinched; I fall asleep with thread in my sheets; I dream about cutting fabric and steaming it smooth.
Being a writer during this crisis has been at times a struggle against feeling useless. “What do I really do right now?” I’ve asked myself. What do I actually make? Words, which are important, sure, but stuck in my apartment for days on end, alone, they feel too ephemeral, too disconnected. There is something about the physical result of a mask after a night poking myself with a needle that is supremely more satisfying. And then I see it on the face of someone I know (or someone I just met to make them a mask). I really made something; there it is, sitting on your nose.