Flu prevention. Medical face masks on blue background top view mockup

Bette Spilotro of Gilbert was inspired to start making handmade face masks a month before the federal Centers for Disease Control started recommending them to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

“When I saw it on the news about the shortage of masks, I said, what’s wrong with fabric?’’ Spilotro said.

An amateur seamstress, Spilotro soon put her skills with a sewing machine to good use, getting some fabric from JoAnn’s Fabrics in Gilbert and making masks for friends and relatives and mailing them to her grandchildren attending college out of state.

When she heard Banner Health was short on masks, she made some more for its employees. She said JoAnn’s joined in the community project by donating the fabric to her. As of early April, Spilotro estimated she had made about 1,000 masks.

Soon, she had set up a small neighborhood cottage industry, motivated more by a desire to help neighbors protect their health than by profit.

She made some cardboard signs advertising “fabric masks,’’ instead of the usual yard sale or missing dog signs. She posted them near stop signs in close proximity to her home in Gilbert’s Laguna Shores neighborhood in The Islands master planned community, north of Warner Road and Islands Drive east.

Her prices are reasonable for an item that was suddenly in sharp demand as the pandemic spread – $10 for adults, $8 for children. She said 20 percent of her sales will go towards charities for the homeless.

“It’s just a hobby. It’s a mission for me,’’ Spilotro said.

She said she only charges for the masks because she found herself consumed by her new mission, working long hours on the project.

 Her daughter, Sondra Monchunski, who is working from home like many other people during the pandemic, cuts different colors of cotton fabric into the size of masks.

Spilotro sews the cloth into masks of various designs, including sports teams such as the Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bears, and the Arizona Cardinals. 

The selection is not exactly akin to shopping on Amazon.com, but many national and international sellers were backed up for weeks while Spolotro had a limited selection of masks ready for sale.

 Spilotro is from the north side of Chicago. The Cubs were a hot seller, naturally, even though Major League Baseball has suspended operations.

“It just went crazy,’’ Spilotro said. “I think of it as my mission and people need it.’’

Monchunski added, “We just want everybody to be safe, that’s the biggest thing.’’

The fabric masks are not as effective as the N95 masks that health care workers from coast to coast have been seeking during the pandemic.

But healthcare authorities consider the cloth masks as a way to prevent someone from unwittingly transmitting an infection to others in public places, such as supermarkets and pharmacies.

Banner requested donations of such masks, saying that employees could wear them when walking around hospitals, but that they were inappropriate for medical use.

The CDC recognizes the value of cloth masks on its web site and even lists directions on how to make them. 

The recommendation includes a warning against diverting the N95 away from medical workers who desperately need them to protect their health while treating victims of COVID-19.