A Stitch in Time: Making Masks for Rhode Islanders

Profiling three seamsters taking COVID-19 matters into their own hands


As the owner of a small business predicated on making people feel better, Abbé Ciulla concedes she felt helpless when she had to temporarily close her Westport yoga studio, HELIX Alternative Movement, per state regulations put in place to fight the spread of COVID-19. “Since the studio had been closed, I’d been looking for a purpose,” the Tiverton resident says. Thinking of how she could be a good friend and neighbor, Ciulla decided she could help: by making masks for anyone who needs them. “I just pulled my sewing machine out from when I was 15; the one my mom got me for home-ec,” she says. After a few practice runs, her sewing skills came right back. “It was like riding a bike.” 

Ciulla started making masks for people in need at no cost with another yoga teacher from the studio and one friend. Word spread quickly and as demand increased, she added an online request form to her studio’s website under The Free Mask Project. Ciulla’s initiative has distributed more than 500 free masks to health care workers, grocery store workers, the immunocompromised, emergency daycare workers, and people like Rhode Island’s Shopping Angels who grocery shop for elderly members of the community who can’t leave their homes, taking priority status. Ciulla says the experience has been inspiring in myriad ways. “It’s a really nice way to connect with people…plus, they’re pretty and funky, and it makes wearing a mask less dreadful; it wears down the stigma.” 

When SallyAnne Santos of Newport learned health care workers did not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) in their fight against COVID-19, she sought out a mask pattern from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and got to work. As health care workers in her community received the PPE they needed, she turned her efforts to friends, neighbors and even strangers in need. Local supermarket A Market reached out  to her, requesting masks for their employees and she happily obliged, while other quantities went to local nursing homes, vulnerable workers and even a convent of retired nuns. “Along the way, people have reached out to me asking for masks and I’ve been giving them to anyone who asked,” says Santos, “and I put it on Nextdoor so I gave a lot to elderly neighbors I never knew before – a lot of random folks have reached out to me.” Santos has single handedly made around 200 masks to date and doesn’t charge, but recipients have donated both money and materials to support her effort. “I’ve been keeping it super local, getting them directly into people’s hands, and enough people have reached out that I’m giving them away as quickly I can make them,” she says. Santos also joined the Million Mask Challenge Facebook group where she’s not only found other mask patterns, but comradery. “Actually, it’s pretty therapeutic for me. I’m getting much more out of it than I’m giving.” 

Another like-minded Facebook group, SewHopeSNE, has brought together local sewers, making a jaw-dropping impact. Lincoln resident Jeanelle deJager-Paul posted on her personal Facebook page she was making masks for medical personnel and was looking for anyone who wanted to join her. The response was so overwhelming, she created SewHopeSNE on March 20. Today, the group boasts more than 1,100 members. After initially showing a prototype that won the approval of Lifespan Health System, the group was off and… sewing. “We've delivered 10,900 masks to just Lifespan in one month,” says deJager-Paul. “In total, our group has given over 12,000 to Lifespan, Care New England and other organizations.” She says recipients have been very grateful, with one thank you note that said: “In what too often feel like very long and dark days, it is these very acts of kindness that help sustain us.” SewHopeSNE continues to make masks and have expanded their offerings to scrub hats as well. 

Mask Resources:

Anchored Heart


Masks RI

The Violet Orange


Material Matters: Mask Up RI Strives to Make Face Covers a Must-Wear Accessory


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