New Jersey Sews in Unity – 30,000 Masks and Counting

In July of 2020, we reported a story about New Jersey Sews in Unity, an all-volunteer group that has been sewing hand-made protective masks for underserved populations in New Jersey during the pandemic. It was organized as a private Facebook group and currently has over 450 members. To date, they have donated more than 30,000 masks to organizations in the Garden State that include homeless shelters, soup kitchens, senior citizen groups, and healthcare organizations among many others.

The impressive work of this group continues today, as there is a mask mandate in New Jersey along with a definite need for well-constructed masks. One of the founders and administrators of the group is Phyllis Kivett-Howard who also coordinates “the depot” at her home that allows for picking up supplies and dropping off masks with a totally contactless system. We had the pleasure of interviewing Phyllis about New Jersey Sews in Unity, their operations, mission, and plans for the future. 

We know you were a part of New Jersey Sews in Unity from the beginning.  Tell us a little bit about the team that organized the project.

I joined about a month into the group and really don’t know about the genesis of the group. I have mainly dealt with Shannon Coulter and everything has been via Facebook Messenger. 

We have never talked on the phone or met in person. One of the supply depots in Westfield needed to close and an SOS went out for a porch. We have a porch, plus it was strategic to have a Cranford location. 

In addition to masks, we learned that the group has made other needed items. Can you tell us more about your donations?

Aside from the masks, we also have knitters/crocheters who make extenders (they hold the elastic at the back of the head to give ears a break). The buttons are even being produced by a talented young man on his laser printer. Last year, Gambert Shirts in Newark, donated fabric and cut the patterns for gowns, since there was such a high demand. Several of our very talented seamstresses sewed them and even later, made their own pattern and got creative with sheets and fabric that were donated. Beautiful scrub caps were made also. I would look at them and marvel. The skill, passion and love put into all of these handmade items is amazing.

What have been some of the reactions that you get from organizations that receive New Jersey Sews in Unity donations?

All the organizations that have received the masks are so appreciative and we get many heartwarming thank you notes. At first we were supplying hospitals and later we started contributing to nursing homes, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, special needs shelters, New Jersey Black Women’s Physicians and several senior centers. Mind you, for staff and for clients. We continue to supply various departments at a hospital, because one of our members is hands on and sees where the need is. No one is forgotten, she even made sure to take care of the boiler room staff.

“The Depot” is a terrific way for volunteers to get materials and drop off their finished products. Tell us how it operates.

The contactless supply depot is very straightforward, sufficient and great because folks can come and go on their own. On the porch, we set up drawers and bins and they are stocked with masks bundles, blocks (the precut fabric rectangles), elastic, buttons, thread, beads and ear loops. When elastic was such a high commodity and in short supply, Necessity, the Mother of Invention, came up with ear loops made out of tee shirts. Everything is pre-cut, labeled, and ready to go. Going back to that body part verse, a shout out to our cutters. They take the prewashed fabric and produce, cut, and iron to 9.5″ x 6.5″ rectangles and it is a blessing to our sewers. Everything has been donated. It’s amazing how the Fabric Fairy knows when to show up or I’ve come home to a box of elastic or bags of ear loops. It’s magical. This volunteer driven aspect is the balm. And again, its all been done with out a meeting. Fridays are the drop off day for finished masks. Saturday we get the total count and then we break down the requests for distribution so contacts can pick up on Sunday.

We like that the masks that New Jersey Sews in Unity are both attractive and useful.  We’d love to know about some of your artistic members.

At this point, Warriors can sew whatever style they prefer. At first, we had strict guidelines since they were going to hospital staff. Again, whenever I collect the mask, I feel like I’m looking at some Etsy or Pinterest items because the quality and talent is unreal. Some of us had not sewn since our home economics school days and it was great seeing how it all came back and how much better our skills got, too. Many questions and tips were shared on the Facebook page.

What do you think the future is for New Jersey Sews in Unity? 

Cranford Township recognized us with a proclamation when we hit our 20,000 mark and we were all hoping we would be shut down due to lack of need, but that did not happen and we just hit our 30,000 mark. Unfortunately, I think we will continue to have to “move the needle”, but fortunately, we are truly blessed to have this volunteer group of truly selfless and dedicated women. 

Anything else, absolutely anything you would like Woman Around Town readers to know.

Again, I can’t stress what an amazing and uplifting group of warriors NJSU is and I believe that is why it is still going strong. This pandemic has sapped so much from us all, but being able to contribute in an effective, functional and creative way is just what our spirits have needed.  We realized we had to step up, to do whatever we could to stop this beast. Everyone has been diligent and delightful to deal with for almost a year now.  We have made new friends that we haven’t even met yet. A few have met on the porch. I just look forward to the day when we can all meet in person, put a mask to a face so to say, talk, share some stories, laugh, exchange sewing knowledge and tips, doing it solely for FUN. Our parts in this mask-making journey will be forever woven into the fabric of our memories. Thank you! Bless you!

New Jersey Sews in Unity is a private Facebook group.  To find out more about it, you can visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/504918570394547

About Marina P. Kennedy (87 Articles)
Marina Kennedy began her writing career when her four children were grown and she returned to college to study in the humanities. She is delighted to be a contributor for Woman Around Town. The majority of her articles focus on the culinary scene, theatre, and travel. Marina and her husband Chuck enjoy the rich cultural experiences of the New York metro area and beyond. She hopes that readers like reading her articles as much as she enjoys writing them.