Historical Musing

The Other Front Line

“During the last week of February, several large events led to further spread of the disease. These included…An international professional conference held in Boston, Massachusetts, with approximately 175 attendees,” wrote Dr. Anne Schuchat, second in command at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an article of CDC posted. Boston Herald reporter Alexi Cohan reported this quote in the May 2, 2020 edition of the Boston Herald. The reporter stated that Dr. Schuchat was referring to the Feb. 26-27 (2020) conference by the biotech company Biogen, where more than 100 of the 175 attendees were infected with the novel coronavirus, fueling the Massachusetts outbreak that has now spiraled into more than 66,000 cases.”

By the end of the summer of 2020 it was assumed that this conference, with its attendees having returned to their homes in Greater Boston, Washington, DC, North Carolina, and 31 other countries had infected 200,000 people. Needless to say the impact of the local infections would affect those communities in all sorts of ways. I wrote this essay in June 2020 to record what it was like to work at a large fabric store in Metro West Boston as customers came in hunting for mask fabric after the CDC said there were no medical masks available.

March 2020: Fabric Place Basement, Natick, MA:

“Is this one hundred percent cotton?” I’m asked for the twentieth time that morning.

“Yes” I answer, trying hard not to sound weary or sarcastic.

I work at the quilt table at a large fabric store, and it has been a joyous place to work – a department of beautiful fabrics, sorted by their bright colors and novelty prints such as butterflies, puppy dogs, cowboys and dinosaurs.

When I am not at that table, I help customers choose drapery and upholstery fabric for living rooms, porches, babies’ rooms, and beach homes. And when needed in the front of the store, with the fashion fabrics for wedding dresses, prom gowns, new outfits, and even the occasional “zoot suit.”

But mostly I am at the quilt table. As a librarian and archivist, I enjoy organizing the fabrics by color and tone – plums to lavenders and peach to flame orange – and my experience as a mother, history teacher and quilt historian allows me to connect with our customers and help them create their heirlooms and placemats.

In “quilting” our customers are for the most part, adult women. With some fabulously artistic exceptions, they make one-of-a-kind quilts as gifts for loved ones — celebrating births, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, and other happy milestones. Quilters come to the store with a color or pattern in mind and we help them find the fabrics that will work with their overall design; help with the quilt math; and cut their fabrics. Pieced quilts take months, or even years, to create. Some are simple, some are mind-bogglingly intricate, and we enjoy it all, helping our customers create, and celebrating their final results.

In early March 2020, our Governor declared a state of emergency, and social media erupted in a frenzy of news of hospitals being short of personal protective equipment (PPP). Suddenly, new customers arrived and were buying hundreds of yards of elastic. More than one claimed that the CDC, or the World Health Organization, had demanded that they, personally, come in to obtain these materials.

I had a hard time believing this could be true, since the elastic was far from sterile. As we measured, it draped onto the floor. But, the customers did not notice nor did they care. They simply demanded more, and more, shaking, anxious, hysterical, as if possessed by the religious fervor of a burgeoning cult. Before the week was out, our store, and nearly every other fabric store in the region, was out of elastic, and the quilt cotton was next.

Our quilters, disappeared with the state of emergency, and our smiling- happy- faces- at -the- quilt- table with them. The older ladies were scared into hibernation or were ordered to stay at home by their children. Others simply delved into their stash (a nice word for what was hoarded three days before). But mask-makers began to flood the store. Each seemed to need twenty yards of solid-color quilt cotton, mostly black. They required yards and yard of Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics logo fabric. There hadn’t been a lot left by spring anyway, and soon we, and our supplier, were out of that. They decimated the novelty prints: the popcorn, the peanuts, the cupcakes, the beer bottles, martini glasses, hot dogs, pretzels, dogs and cats, tiger stripes, leopard spots, and seagulls. They petitioned for free fabric as a donation to their noble cause, scoffing at our offer to sell them the older fabrics which we sell below cost to make room in the warehouse.

We were endlessly informed of the “need” for masks. There was nothing to discuss, no participation, no need for our expertise or involvement. Our knowledge of fabrics, color, style and even the obvious need to breathe, was unnecessary chatter to these new, and self-important customers. Cutting yards of fabric and elastic so they could be cut into bogus medical masks by obnoxious, nervous people seemed a waste of our time, and I was relieved and happy to be furloughed when the state shut-down the store due to the quarantine.

By the time we returned to work in May, smiling was no long necessary, appreciated or noticed. Now we were all wearing masks and the pundits had proclaimed that two layers of “quilt cotton” were the best protection from “person A” spewing his or her viral droplets into the environs, and/or inhaling the droplets of “person B.”

Now we were mask professionals. Didn’t Dr.Fauci, or someone, say that two layers of cotton would save your life, but I repeatedly told customers that I would not, nor could I legally, give medical advice. But some of my colleagues did tell newbies which liners they used and what three layers worked best for them. And customers told us about their mask-work too. They proclaimed their great work making and donating hundreds of masks to senior centers, old folks homes and community food banks.
When the pundits advised the use of “quilt cotton” I wonder if they really know what they are recommending. Modern quilt fabric comes in a myriad of types, some thinner, some stiffer, some with shiny metal inks, some with a sort of interesting plastic overlay that adds a shimmer. Even the cute dogs, cats, flowers, and geometric patterns on their lauded quilt-cotton masks are printed with an acid reactive process by some of the most polluting factories in Asia. Using these fabrics to create an heirloom, it can be argued is worth the environmental trade-off, but mass production of cotton masks is another thing. By over-buying and then using these fabrics for small masks that will be worn only a week or two, the mask-makers are contributing to an economy and cycle of unremediated global water and air quality degradation, despite their belief that their efforts were saving the world.

We have signs around town reminding us to support the nurses, doctors and first responders on the front line. Of course, theirs is the greater task. But others have had their lives up-ended, too—thousands without a job or summer camp, with a “zoom-room” the only connection to a once full and busy life. Even at the local fabric store, the happy quilting corner—only a few months ago abuzz with stories of weddings and babies—has become a masquerade of mild despair.

I update this as of January 2022: many of the quilters have returned, lots of babies are coming along; the masks are now bought on Amazon or CVS; but unfortunately the workers are masked again after only a few short months of breathing free.

Boston Biogen conference was major early U.S. coronavirus event, CDC says