Ohio University

Lisa Williams sews over 500 masks for PPE-needy healthcare workers

Published: April 15, 2020 Author: Tony Meale

As a young girl, Lisa Williams learned how to sew from her mother. Almost 50 years later, that skill could save lives amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

The Patton College of Education Associate Professor of Instruction is sewing 576 masks—four gross—to donate to OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital in Athens.

“I had already donated goggles, gloves, and masks that I had in my textiles lab to O’Bleness and thought that this was another way that I could help our medical workers while I am staying home,” said Williams, who teaches in the Retail Merchandising Fashion Product Development program. “I am just so thankful that I have a useful skill that I can use to help others.”

Williams pursued this project after reading an Athens Messenger article about the mask-making efforts of local businesses. Three Athens Dental Arts partners—Drs. Tim LaVelle, Beth Welsh, and Seth Cooper—had approached Zonez, a promotional printing business in Athens, about purchasing discontinued shirts, which could be turned into medical-grade masks for healthcare workers fighting COVID-19. The dentists had already donated their extra personal protective equipment (PPE) to O’Bleness but wanted to do more.

So did Zonez owner Dave Kasler, who cut discontinued T-shirts into workable material and asked Athens Tailoring owner and seamstress Yuka Kennedy if she could help sew masks. Kennedy obliged, as did Williams, who called Kasler to volunteer her services.

I love to sew but don’t have a lot of time during the school year,” said Williams. I used to make most of my clothing, but now I’m mainly doing quilts for my home and office when I have the chance.”

Now, however, Williams can use her skill to help people and, potentially, save lives. If she isn’t teaching or grading, there’s a good chance she’s sewing. Williams began sewing April 5 and is working between three and six hours each day. She is approximately halfway through and hopes to finish on or before April 26.

“I’ve been identifying redundant stitching and have been working to eliminate that so that each part of the mask only needs to be sewn once,” said Williams, who has already returned one gross (144 masks) to LaVelle. “That should speed me up.”

LaVelle bundled mask materials in one-gross units. The materials include dental-grade fabric, which LaVelle and his partners use to wrap their equipment in after it has been sterilized. Each mask has two layers of fabric, a filter that cannot be removed, and can be sanitized in an autoclave or with UV light.

“The fabric has qualities that would be superior to just a plain woven fabric,” said Williams, who picked up LaVelle’s materials from Passion Works Studio Executive Director Patty Mitchell, who also joined the cause.


Masks - Lisa Williams


Passion Works, a collaborative community arts center, is working with other local businesses, as well as OHIO’s CoLab, to create masks for frontline healthcare workers, nursing homes, and the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

“We are makers,” said Mitchell. “We have been constructing things out of repurposed materials for 21 years. We have never made things that were intended to protect and serve a purpose, other than to delight. Our approach and designs have evolved. After making over 1,500 masks, we’ve learned some tricks, and we share what we discover with other local mask-makers and folks throughout the world on social media. We’ve had great community collaboration and participation.”

According to LaVelle, more than 20,000 masks will ultimately be sewn and donated in and around Athens. Williams is happy to volunteer her sewing skills for a life-saving cause and is overjoyed to see the community working together in times of uncertainty.

“I am happy to see people helping in whatever way they can to support the community, whether it is educating children and university students in a new format, making things for our healthcare workers, working in essential services, taking care of our sick and elderly, and supporting our local businesses and their employees through takeout or monetary support,” said Williams. “It is heartening to see the community pull together for the sake of us all.”

Patton College Dean Renée A. Middleton hopes that others follow in Williams’ footsteps and contribute to the global fight against COVID-19. As of April 15, the coronavirus had reached more than 180 countries, infected more than 2 million people, and resulted in more than 130,000 deaths. To date, more than 27,000 Americans have died of the virus.

“I am very proud of Lisa for volunteering her time and talent to help our community through this public health crisis,” said Middleton. “The Patton College has always advocated for the importance of living out what it means to be CALLED to Lead, and Lisa is an excellent example of that.”