Eunice Valle of the Bucket Brigade hands a bucket of mask supplies to be delivered to volunteer David Babbott. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Among the things Abe Powell learned as a volunteer firefighter were the Rickover Rules. They start with the admonition that standards rise over time and end with the order to learn from the mistakes of the past, but the central rule posted at Powell’s door is “you must have a healthy respect for the dangers and risks of your particular job.”

Admiral Hyman Rickover was thinking of nuclear-powered warships when he wrote the essay that became the rules, but they apply equally well to goods and services during a pandemic. A small team from the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, which Powell cofounded in 2018 to dig buildings out of the mud of Montecito’s 1/9 Debris Flow, were all fitted out in face masks as they worked on Friday to prep their new mission: cloth face coverings.

Even that seemingly simple sewing job has been refined. At their temporary digs in the Montecito Library, Powell and Ana Fagan sorted through some newly arrived metal nose-bridge strips. “People are using wire at the nose to hold the mask closed,” Powell explained, “but these are more comfortable and don’t have sharp ends that can poke through.” The strips had arrived in the mail from a company in North Carolina that called after catching Powell on CNN talking about the Brigade’s work.

The team had prepped supplies that morning and were waiting for their volunteer drivers to stop by. Twice a week, a dozen volunteer drivers pick up material and elastic to run them out to sewists and to bring back completed masks. The drivers also take bags or boxes full of masks to locations like Foodbank of Santa Barbara County distribution sites, the County Jail, Cottage Hospital, and grocery stores.

Everyone wore a variety of face coverings depending on the tenderness of their ears. As any nurse or doctor can tell you, wearing a mask for days on end is galling to the skin. Fagan demonstrated the elastic “spaghetti” cord they’d received from a bikini maker that was more comfortable and would soon be incorporated.

The Bucket Brigade has also enlisted people with 3D printers to make plastic connectors that loop onto mask straps behind the head. Those 3D printer owners have made 3,000 visors used to make face shields — 2,000 of which have been completed and sent to fire departments, sheriffs’ and dentists’ offices, and to food workers.

But for the squad of 300 who form the Bucket Brigade’s sewing corps, Friday marked the 9,000th mask sewn in May and the 16,000th since April 7, when the project began. Even inmates at the County Jail are lending a hand, cutting the cloth from 10-foot lengths before they’re sent to Mission Linen to be washed gratis. The sewing has all been done by volunteers, and Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners washes the masks when they’re done — all for free.

Altogether, an amazing 36,000 hand-sewn cloth face masks have been made by a loose consortium of volunteers in the past two months. They include a group in Carpinteria, the Coastal Quilters Guild, and about 30 volunteers who call themselves the Craftivists. The masks are going to essential workers at retirement homes and animal shelters, but also to churches, skilled nursing centers, school districts, and individuals.

Bucket Brigade’s Abe Powell shows off a face mask that was printed by volunteers and their 3D printers.

Judi Weisbart, who keeps the Santa Barbara County Mask Network organized, said they had their sights on smaller masks for children, who will be in summer camps and then in school again — if COVID numbers stay tame in the county. Powell added that the Bucket Brigade was working on fun fabrics and smaller mask patterns for school kids.

“They’ll need five of them a week, or six for one extra,” he said, “before washing once a week. A bit of chlorine will help sanitize them.” Asked about the sudden ubiquity of surgical masks online, Powell got insistent. “Just think. People throw those away. We’ll have thousands, millions thrown away!”

One of the drivers, David Babbott, pulled up behind the library to pick up supplies. As he read his list, he remarked that this would be his fifth delivery to one of the sewists, whom he only had met over the phone when he got lost trying to find her house. Masks returned and supplies dropped off are left on porch steps, he said: “I must have picked up 150 masks from her. This is so well-organized, it’s a pleasure to volunteer.”

Eunice Valle, the Bucket Brigade’s community outreach coordinator, handed him a sandwich and a bucket of fabric and elastic to deliver, and Babbott headed out the driveway. Across the street at the Village Service Station, he’d get free gasoline from Keith Slocum, yet another Bucket Brigade participant.

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