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Masks for America

Determined Czechs in the U.S. Sewing Face Masks + Designer Radka Salcmannová in an exclusive interview with Marek Milde.


April 15, 2020

Protective masks, which until recently had only belonged in a hospital environment, have suddenly for many of us become a daily accessory. World-wide, they are considered to be part of effective prevention against the spread of the coronavirus and are now mandatory in the Czech Republic. People without a mask cannot go out in public at all. Even politicians are setting an example and no longer appear on television without a mask. In the United States, the situation is different, besides some states like New York and New Jersey public mask-wearing is only recomended not mandatory .There are different opinions on their effectiveness and their use is, with a few exceptions, only recommended at the moment. Because the amount of industrially produced masks is limited, a good alternative is to make your own mask out of commonly available materials. In the Czech Republic, people have mobilized, and masks are being widely made at home, which are then shared as a gesture of solidarity with others. Sewing has become something of a movement and a trend in the Czech Republic. In just a few days, home-made masks became part of the lifestyle and, for many, a creative way of helping.

Foto: Helena Plavcová, Suzanna Halsey, Anna Rathkopf, Šárka Vamberová


Additionally, some Czechs living in America – and especially in the significantly coronavirus-affected New York – decided to start sewing protective masks, in order to help out in a serious situation. Many have never sewn before or rarely sew. We can also find among them professional designers and artists who are all connected by the desire to help and prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in society.

Conceptual artist and designer, Radka Salcmannová, with whom we bring an exclusive interview to our readers on the subject of masks below, finds hope in sewing. “I got inspired by sewing masks in my home in the Czech Republic,” she says. In Brooklyn, Williamsburg, she sews masks for a wide range of fashion people. Salcmannová, who for many years has been creating masks as sculptures and works of art, for instance showcased at the New York Fashion Week, has quickly remodeled to sewing protective masks: "I like that it is bringing the world, which is now isolated, closer together."

Suzanna Halsey, a NYU professor, notes: “It was a personal challenge for me!” She struggled with sewing, but eventually made various models for the family. "We both wear glasses, so I was looking for a mask which would not cause the fogging of glass."

"Thanks to the masks, I became friends with the sewing machine again after 25 years," says Šárka Vamberová, Czech cultural attaché in Washington, D.C. She sews masks for colleagues at the Czech Embassy in D.C., family, and loved ones.

Barbora Zeigler at Greenpoint, originally from the Czech city of Hradec Králové, had never sewn before. She is now making masks out of cotton which she tie-dyes herself with natural dyes and distributes them to her local Brooklyn community.

Foto: Barbora Zeigler


I will make it!” exclaims Anna Rathkopf, a Czech photographer living in Brooklyn. She humorously describes her troubles with sewing masks out of an old shirt for her family on her blog called “Mom Across the Water.” She always wanted to sew but never got to it – now she has been inspired by the face-masking movement in her homeland and a simple tutorial on Youtube.

"I realized a lot of people were afraid to come out of the house because they couldn't get the masks in stores," says Helena Plavec, who sews with her daughters in New Haven, Connecticut, while her husband, doctor Martin Plavec, is on the front line at the Yale University hospital caring for patients sick with COVID-19. “The enthusiasm and willingness of our girls (15-year-old twins, Nicole and Natalie) to do something during this difficult time was contagious.” They distribute the masks to people in need in their neighborhood, including hospital staff who lack them.

In Chicago, to keep school on children’s minds, the Czech School TGM announced a Koroňák Competition with Hihlík ​​for the best mask. The pictures of the masks, most of which are adorned with animal motifs, were shared by teacher Klára Moldová.

Foto: Archív České školy TGM, Chicago


The determination and creativity of these Czech women brings hope and can inspire America. In recent days, Americans are also beginning to wear masks more and making them on their own. Instructions on how to sew handmade masks have even appeared in The New York Times. Although improvised masks cannot offer 100% protection, experts agree that by wearing them, the probability of infection is significantly reduced. The U.S. Army has even newly been ordered to wear masks, even those that are handmade or improvised.

Because the American public cannot simply be ordered to do something, besides staying well-informed, things like trend and design may play a significant role in popularizing the wearing of masks on a regular basis. “I want to make masks that are cheerful, artistic, and maybe a little crazy,” says Radka Salcmannová, adding it is “not to go crazy and to maintain a positive mood.” With this Czech artist living in Brooklyn, we talked about design and masks.

Read the full interview HERE.