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Sew a Mask, Build a Community

A woman wears a mask created by the Fashion Design Department

Stories of Impact

The team that joined together to support their students, their community, and one another.

June 1, 2020 marks the two-month milestone of the Fashion Design Department’s mask-sewing project. With it, the founding team members of the initiative look back at all they were able to accomplish because of like-minded volunteers and supportive community members along the way. What initially started as a jinx (simultaneously having the same idea) for Nancy Spaulding, the program’s Department Head, Noelle Knipe, and Monica HuiLin-Garcia, both adjunct professors of the department, quickly snowballed into community interest and effort unlike any of them had ever seen. Together, they were able to initiate and direct the creation of over a thousand masks, unite 45 volunteers, partner with community members and companies, and donate both locally and internationally.

Reaching far and wide

“We didn’t realize the need, not just in our community,” Knipe recalls. “My students started doing research and people needed them that you would never think would need them.” Originally, the project began for them with the intent of creating and donating solutions for those who didn’t have any. They never anticipated the breadth of organizations that lack the necessary supplies to stay safe. To-date, they’ve given masks to the Community Food Bank, SunTran, local post offices, Youth On Their Own, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, the veteran’s hospital, and more, as well as individuals and families in need across the globe.

Banded together

“What’s been great about it is the team-building and team-bonding,” states Spaulding. “You always knew that somebody had your back no matter what.” Over the last two months, the team faced numerous challenges all while social distancing: secure drop-off to pick-up locations; shared instructions, patterns, and graphics; accessibility to materials; the availability of sewing kits and machines for students; even the emotional impact of this pandemic. Yet, one by one, due to their dedication and camaraderie, they overcame each barrier.

“You always knew that somebody had your back no matter what.”

—Nancy Spalding; Fashion Design Department Head

The community played a huge role in the project’s success as well. “The Foundation has been solely helping this,” Spaulding explains about funding for the project. “We’re working off of donations for all of it. We’ve received financial donations but supply donations too. Marcy Euler [the President of Pima Foundation] is a rockstar!” Receiving donations was integral to their process. Some of the most impactful donations included the gift of sewing machines for volunteer use from Cathey’s Sewing and Vacuum; Palo Verde Cleaners sanitization of masks and sharing which communities they knew were in need; material donations including the large gift of 150,000 yards of elastic (the fashion industry’s equivalent of toilet paper, Knipe had mentioned), donated by CEO Ivan Lee of Great Giant Fiber Garment Co. (located in Taipei Taiwan), secured by HuiLin-Garcia; and lastly, die-cutting for the team from Pat Ferrer of Palm Free Sunwear, that in turn saving them hours of hand-cutting.

Facemask Team

Fashion show turned fashion mask

The team’s inspiration to begin accepting monetary gifts began with the cancellation of their yearly Fashion Show. The event showcases student designs and sold out for the last two years with it projected to do similarly this year. Proceeds from this popular fundraiser support student awards that help pay for program and tuition costs, so the lost revenue from this year’s event was a huge concern for them. “We weren’t planning on accepting anything. Then people started messaging us, saying, ‘Can I buy? Can I buy? Can I buy?’ and we said no,” Knipe states when posed with the question of selling the masks. While they didn’t entertain the idea, they did consider a compromise: “If they do want to pay something, they can give to our students. That [fashion show] money we do fundraise actually helps them with their tuition costs.” With the new direction, they then partnered with the Foundation to begin accepting monetary donations with masks being a ‘thank you’ for each gift given. 

The mask project has also become this year’s opportunity for students to showcase their creativity and skills. It’s helped them maintain direction and connection during a time of uncertainty while serving as a chance to be innovative and give back to their community. Savannah Franco, a senior at Pima Community College and the Fashion Club President, recounts her drive in supporting the cause having been the first student to participate in mask-sewing efforts back in mid-March: “I’m always looking to help others. Any opportunity I can get to help or showcase my talent for the greater good, you can always count me in.”

“I’m always looking to help others. Any opportunity I can get to help or showcase my talent for the greater good, you can always count me in.”

—Savannah Franco; Senior Fashion Design Department

Innovation at its finest

After a whirlwind of activity for nearly eight weeks straight, the team honed their designs, in big part due to Fashion Design grad, Najmeh Gallman. She created numerous patterns and designed the team’s graphic for spreading the word. From their combined efforts, the team now offers a range of sizing options with a variety of new materials and fits, including beak and accordion masks with built-in filtration pockets (and sometimes filters as well) for extra protection. While these are their core creations, the professors have spurred their students to think outside the box when approaching their own designs. “I decided to do something fun to inspire my students,” Garcia explained about her approach. “[I told them] If you have any ideas just make it happen. Try to do different experiments.” 

From this, the team shared their belief on how this pandemic could transform the community’s viewpoint on health as well as the fashion industry. By bringing together the fashion and medical industries in this inventive way alongside their students, they foresee a positive shift for the future. For some students, that shift has already come with the project leading them to new job opportunities. Knipe states that, “They’re coming up with some amazing ideas that are going to help people. I think [it’s going to] change the view of fashion as a whole. It’s not just a luxury profession—it is a necessary profession.”

The future of their fashion

Steven Higginbotham, Pima’s Dean of Arts, shares his perspective on the team’s hard work: “Thinking about the students, faculty, and staff, and what they accomplished in a short amount of time, makes us so proud… to see how willing they are to serve in a time of need.” The support of Pima has only heightened the department’s passion for this project.

“Thinking about the students, faculty, and staff, and what they accomplished in a short amount of time, makes us so proud… to see how willing they are to serve in a time of need.”

—Steven Higginbotham; Dean of Arts Division

While they never anticipated the popularity and connection derived from their efforts, they are thrilled to have supported the community as extensively as they did. Their success was due to the community joining together, spreading the news by word of (covered) mouth, and diligently working with their goal in mind: keep students thriving by supporting their community.

To donate to the Mask Project, visit To see what they’ve created lately, visit their social media: Instagram | Facebook