Local Artists Make Masks for PIT’s Front-Line Staff

Volunteers produce 1,800 stylish masks for community; 350 go to airport workers

By Rachel Saul Rearick

Published April 20, 2020

Read Time: 2 mins


A month ago, Nisha Blackwell was running her successful bowtie business, Knotzland, in Pittsburgh’s East End, where she repurposes discarded textiles into fashionable neckwear, as she has since 2014.

Now she’s helping to lead an artists’ collective that creates reusable masks for front-line workers and first responders coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, (mask) Makers PGH, an alliance of local small businesses and nonprofits, created 350 of those masks with style and care for front-line staff at Pittsburgh International Airport.

“The outpouring of local support has been immeasurably valuable to the more than 200 employees who are on-site each day, performing essential tasks that keep our airport safe, healthy and operational,” said April Gasparri, Senior Vice President of Public Safety, Operations and Maintenance at PIT. “As a team member who distributed cloth masks to employees, their smiles and joy in picking styles and patterns has been a highlight in our days.”

On April 3, Gov. Tom Wolf asked all Pennsylvanians to wear masks if they were leaving their homes, part of a comprehensive effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. And in an environment where everyone is searching for personal protective equipment, it isn’t easy to fulfill large orders.

That’s where groups like (mask) Makers PGH have helped fill the gaps. The collective has been doling out handmade and reusable masks across the region to both businesses and individuals for weeks.  Nearly 300 volunteers have produced almost 1,800 masks so far.

The reusable masks feature a variety of colorful prints and designs. (Photo by Rachel Saul Rearick)

“We’ve always tried to put professional tools in the hands of creative people. But since the outbreak, we’ve been able to use those tools to empower a much larger network,” said Devin Montgomery, founder of Protohaven, a nonprofit that supports the maker ecosystem. “The sewing community is now making more masks than any one of us could alone, and it’s giving so many people a positive way of contributing.”

Along with Knotzland and Protohaven, the collaborative effort also includes Radiant Hall, Hack Pittsburgh, Day Owl, Kerf Case, Firecracker Fabrics, and Cut and Sew.

Workers at PIT also have received handmade masks from neighbors and family members, a community effort to support essential staff in uncertain times that is greatly appreciated, Gasparri said.

“The show of support from our neighbors, relatives and small businesses is heartwarming,” she said. “It displays true caring for the health of our airport employees and an understanding of how critical our functions are.”

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