Belgian with 20% lung capacity starts home mask sewing army

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In this photo taken on Thursday, March 19, 2020, Sien Lagae, works on a mouth mask, meant to help protect from the spread of COVID-19, on her sewing machine at home in Torhout, Belgium. Lagae runs a social media group of volunteers who are making mouth masks for family and friends as well as hospital and caregivers in Belgium due to a shortage in supply of industrially made masks. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.(Sien Lagae via AP)

ANTWERP – With only 20% of normal lung capacity, Sien Lagae was extremely wary of viruses before anyone in Belgium heard of the coronavirus — and has long relied on caregivers to help her get dressed, clean her house and provide home health care services.

Then one of her caregivers mentioned she had just paid 10 euros ($10.67) for a mask to protect herself and others from the virus. Lagae's hobbies happen to include sewing — and inspiration struck.

"I suddenly had the idea to make some face masks for my physiotherapist so that she could protect herself and her patients better,” Lagae said.

What started as a one-person operation about a week ago has mushroomed into a small army of home sewing Belgian mask makers. Membership in Lagae's Facebook page — “Mondmaskers Naaien” (Sewing Mouth Masks) — jumped to 3,000 two days after she started it and hit 5,300 on Friday.

In another boost to Belgium's mask making production, the country's Van De Velde lingerie company is now producing masks for hospitals. The hospitals provide the material to the company and Van De Velde provides the labor for free.

Lagae, 31, from Torhout in western Belgium, created her first design from scratch. Belgian medical authorities then gave her an approved design and advised her on materials to use.

She makes her masks using two layers of cotton fabric so they can be washed at 90 C (194 F) and reused, taking care to ensure the masks fit well around the nose and chin.

Each member can produce about 20 masks per day, and it isn't only women sewing.