Homemade Cloth Face Masks: Governmental Information

Access to Online & Printed Documents

This material was put online April 2020 and revised May 2020
This webpage is one portion of the greater exploration entitled "Cloth Face Masks: Merging Science & Home Remedies" that can be access at https://clothingtextiles.ualberta.ca/facemasks/.


Governments have a duty to protect their citizens. As such, the guidelines and information they provide is one of the best place to start our exploration into homemade cloth face masks. One must remember that, as information is made available to decision makers, policies are likely to change to adapt to circumstances. Governmental decisions are, however, based on a variety of factors that can impact their policies. While public health experts may read a wide variety of scientific research, they are but one of several groups of civil servants that contribute recommendations to decision makers. Why?

Politics may be involved. Governments must tread carefully and have both the short and the long term to consider. For example, a crack in a carefully-crafted brand of strong leadership can impact a politician’s electability if he or she appears to “flip flop” (i.e. change their mind) and go from discouraging the use of homemade face masks (HFMs) to mandating them. Such a move could also cause panic amongst citizens. Some may expect to be provided with a mask by their government and the absence of this object may be remembered at the election booth. However, can governments in countries where the textile industry has been essentially moved abroad, then turn on a dime and mandate production and distribution of face masks? The short supplies of mandated masks for all could lead to frustrations and political repercussions.

Governments must also keep in mind different constituents, like health care workers. We have all been told that N95 masks are best to protect the wearer but that, due to global shortages, they should be saved for health care workers and those providing direct care to COVID-19 patients. Therefore, governments must inspire the rest of us to be selfless and civil and refrain from purchasing N95 masks: this is not an easy task. Many governments may be acting with caution when they only recommend rather than mandate the use of HFMs in public. An order for all to wear masks could lead to a run on N95 masks that could have disastrous consequences for all. Can people be trusted to wear an uncomfortable and untested HFM rather than a N95 masks?

The Canadian government, like many others, chooses the selfless and civil message when recommending the use of HFMs. Authorities describe non-medical masks and face coverings as not proven to protect the wearer, but as a means to protect others from the wearer. While HFMs can offer a level of protection to wearers from themselves (by limiting touching of their mouth and noses when used properly), the benefits is less to themselves but mostly for others. Thus far, the public in my city is not adopting HFMs in public in great numbers. The question thus becomes, is the Government’s message to care for others getting through?

Despite drastic shelter-in-place pandemic measures, the fact that asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission is occurring, the sudden rise of mask use around them and authorities promoting online no-sewing-needed alternatives, individuals may claim ignorance or disregard the message to wear HFMs. It may be that they have yet to be convinced of the effectiveness of homemade masks. If the public knows HFM wearing is recommended by health authorities in addition to other measures but they have not acted on this recommendation, then the “be selfless” message may not be effective.

At the onset of the pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada mailed a flyer to its citizens entitled “Help Reduce the Spread of COVID-19.” One of the steps listed is to “cough and sneeze into your sleeve and not your hands.” This reduces virus transmission through hands, which can be addressed through rigorous and repeated hand washing (soap and water for at least 20 seconds) or the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer as an alternative. However, this manner of coughing and sneezing does not address the containment of virus-infected droplets. A well-fitted face mask used properly can help to contain droplets from coughing and sneezing. Levels of efficacy vary but the proper use of a well-fitted mask could also address another directive found in the flyer that says “try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth.” Two readily available objects can help, eyeglasses and masks, but both are conspicuously absent from the flyer.

Why are eyeglasses and masks omitted as protective devices? Protective eyewear is considered essential in laboratories and even prescription eyewear and sunglasses can limit access to eyes. However, just as prescription eyewear and sunglasses typically offer less face coverage compared with safety glasses, masks may come in a variety of styles and fabrics that also vary in efficacy. If policy makers have solid information on N95 and medical/surgical masks that have been heavily studied, perfected and used worldwide for decades, the same cannot be said for HFMs.

Standardizing of materials is a problem: is there one fabric that could be used to create a HFM that is exactly the same in all homes and has been thoroughly tested? Materials used for N95 and medical/surgical masks are heavily regulated for numerous features. The same regulations do not apply for most household fabrics. A variety of fibers, both natural (cotton, linen, silk, etc.) and synthetic (polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc.), can be blended and used to create textiles for a variety of purposes. This world of possibilities must address fibers properties but also how these fibers are used to create a textile.

For the purpose of this discussion, readers must be aware of the existence of both non-woven and woven textiles. Felt, for example, can be created without a loom. Non-woven cloths like felt are sought after for the randomness of their fiber orientation and their 3D web structure. This creates a circuitous path that provides filtration efficiency and allows the capturing of particles of much smaller size compared with the grid structure of woven cloth where the space between fibres is more open.

The fibres and the woven or non-woven structure of fabrics are not the only factors that affect the properties of a textile. A myriad of weave structures exist, from simple plain weave (a thread crosses path with another and goes over it but under the one next to it) to complex weave structures (a thread may go over or under more than one thread at a time) that can affect filtering abilities. Other factors that may affect a textile’s properties are different twists in the threads can create more rugged exterior and surface treatments like mercerizing. A broader understanding of textiles is thus required even when home textiles are involved.

Therefore, testing on scarves, bandanas (described as “cotton cloth”) or tea towels to assert their filtration potential for HFMs is of no use as those descriptions pertain to the use of a fabric rather than specific, standardized fabrics. Governments could thus be at a loss to insure the efficacy of any HFMs as these masks are all made of a wide variety of cloths. Additionally the designs used to produce HFMs, even when tested on one individual for fit, may not provide a good seal between mask and face for all individuals.

Attempting to copy a tested commercial product at home is also problematic. At the core of an N95 mask is a non-woven synthetic material called polypropylene. It was tweaked for decades to filter 95% of airborne particles. Its success relies on many factors. One is its surface treatment that includes the addition of electrostatic charges (not found in all polypropylene products). The thinness of the non-woven material and its exact shape also allows wearers of N95 masks to breathe more comfortably compare with most HFMs. Mind you, not all individuals can breathe comfortably in N95 masks and people with respiratory problems may want to consult with their doctors under the circumstances. In any case, simply trying to use polypropylene found in some household goods is not sufficient to provide the same level of filtration as an N95 mask. If governmental agencies explained this situation, they may fear that individuals would rather buy N95 masks, which could lead to greater shortages for health care professionals.

Faced with a lot of data and a multitude of factors to consider, not all governments have mandated HFMs. The fact that different governments reached different conclusions is an interesting fact that illustrates well the complexity and cultural aspect embedded in face masks. Each population and sub group is different: some may see the mandated use of HFMs as an act that affects their civil liberties. Others may worry about the message a face mask sends: are HFMs a code for danger? Does wearing one identify the individual wearer as a dangerous person affected with the virus? Unless everyone wears masks, the few individuals wearing masks may fear retaliation. Does wearing a mask in public add to people’s anxiety? The face mask is a much more multifaceted object than expected.

I invite you to read through governmental information, keeping in mind the issues presented here. Overall, governmental messages aim to be clear and best for the widest number of people. Are many of us wearing glasses? Yes, but that object adds to the complexity of the situation as fogging of lenses may be an issue. So the presence of eyewear may be omitted even though some simple solutions could help to address the situation. One message does not necessarily fit all but, in the midst of a crisis, clarity is usually best. Governmental messages must be easily understood by the average person. It is not necessarily the place of governmental agencies to explain the science or reasons that led to their decisions.

In other parts of this website, I will try to explore these topics but I first want readers to access the governmental messages on the subject of HFMs.

In a free and democratic society, we can express our opinions and vet our ideas so that, very often, innovations may ensue. To the question “Why comment on government guidelines?” my answer is

  1. because we still can;
  2. because a person may make informed suggestions that can lead to improvements;
  3. because there are different populations (such as those who wear eyeglasses or hearing aids) who may not be served by only one standard message or design, and;
  4. because critical thought and evaluation is important in any crisis.

Discussing HFMs is fraught with perils. However, if everyone played it safe and waited for someone else to address the subject, this could have dangerous consequences as well.



Anne Bissonnette, PhD
Associate Professor, Material Culture and Curatorship
Human Ecology Department
University of Alberta
Curator, Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection


1A. Government of Canada

"Non-medical masks and face coverings: About"

"Non-medical masks and face coverings: Sew and no-sew instructions"

"Non-medical masks and face coverings: How to put on, remove and clean"


1B. United States of America

Centre for Disease Control (CDC)
“Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19”


1C. Explanation of the Minor Differences Seen in the Canadian and American Sites Presented in 1A & 1B

The face coverings on the Government of Canada’s and the Centers for Disease Control’s websites are nearly identical. There are only minor differences.

“Sew method”/”Sewn Cloth Face Covering”

  1. Metric measurements are found in the Canadian website while imperial measurements are found in the American website.
  2. The Canadian website suggests safety pins or a stapler as alternative to needle and thread while the American website suggests a bobby pin as an alternative.
  3. The Canadian website indicates that a sewing machine can be used if available while the American website does not indicate this information.
  4. The American website describes T-shirt fabric as "able to working a pinch" while the Canadian website says it "will work too," thus de-emphasizing the secondary status of cotton jersey T-shirts.
  5. The Canadian website errs in instructions as it indicates that the top horizontal section of the mask (“long sides”) must be folded to create a 6 mm hem while indicates the bottom should be folded to create a 12 mm hem, a measurement used for the vertical sides of the mask. The American website indicates the same amount of folding on top and bottom, 1/4 inch, and, for the sides, 1/2 inch.

“No-sew method using a T-shirt”/”Quick Cut T-shirt Face Covering (no sew method)”

  1. Metric measurements are found in the Canadian website while imperial measurements are found in the American website.
  2. The Canadian website as text to accompany visuals while the American website's tutorial has no text outside of the visuals.

“No-sew method using a bandana”/”Bandana Face Covering (no sew method)”

  1. Metric measurements are found in the Canadian website while imperial measurements are found in the American website.
  2. The Canadian website as coffee filter or a folded paper towel in the materials and illustrates the use of a cut coffee filter in the instructions.


1D. Problems Encountered in the Design in Use of the No-sew Models Presented in 1A & 1B

  1. In the second model (“Quick Cut T-shirt Face Covering”), the model only works on t-shirts with no side seams (which is not made explicit in either websites) and only one layer for the mask is far less effective.
  2. In the third model (“Bandana Face Covering”), the wearer ends up having to breathe through a total of 18 layers of fabric once the piece of textile is folded. The likelihood of being able to breathe easily through these 18 layers is slim. As the Canadian website adds a coffee filter or also suggest the use of a paper towel in addition to the bandana, this increases the layers beyond the 18 folds in the piece of cotton cloth, thus reducing breathability further.