Steph Feini Yin wears one of Sam Merkt's handmade fashion accessories

While self-quarantining inside her West Poplar home, Sam Merkt dug through her old sewing supplies and uncovered a years-old fabric that she had long since forgotten — a hilarious tablecloth-style print decorated with watermelons, hot dogs and hamburgers.

As a pandemic panicked the nation, she knew she had to make use of it.

Infused with a burst of inspiration, the 29-year-old after-school program director started sewing handmade face masks. At first, she admits they were kinda crappy.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Merkt said. “I made like four that looked awful. They were sloppy, and they didn’t make sense.”

But then she got the hang of it. Made from patterned fabrics and sometimes embroidered with anti-racist phrases, Merkt’s handmade masks are now available for purchase — with proceeds set to go to a good cause.

To be clear, the masks aren’t medical-grade. They’re just fabric sewn to some strings that you can loop around your ears. But they can still be useful in helping keep bodily fluids from spreading. They’re also meant to be fun.

“These masks are for aesthetic purposes,” Merkt said. “And maybe for chronic nail biters and occasional nose pickers to prevent them from touching their faces.”

For now, she’s selling the masks on a sliding scale from $10 to $30 apiece. She’s already gotten nine orders — mostly from friends — plus some independent donations. In total, Merkt has raised $325 so far.

The money will go to mutual aid relief funds in Philly, Merkt said. Recipients she’s considering donating to include:

Masks in progress Credit: Sam Merkt

Added bonus: These masks are machine washable and totally reusable, so they’re good for the environment. Merkt recommends washing them with hot water and soap to help make sure they’re clean.

There is, of course, the potential for coronavirus particles to get past this mask — plus the potential for packaging to get contaminated while it travels to your doorstep, although the World Health Organization has said that the potential for transmission of the virus via cardboard is low.

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the effectiveness of face masks at preventing the spread has come into question.

It’s problematic if regular people buy so many of them that the supply for actual healthcare providers is limited. And some suggest that covering your face with fabric might inspire you to touch it more, which can make the problem worse.

But “some protection, even if imperfect, is better than none,” one information professor wrote in the New York Times, especially if it prevents people from snatching up the legit masks that are desperately needed by doctors and nurses.

Merkt doesn’t necessarily expect her homemade masks to help with any national shortage for healthcare workers. After all, she’s only got enough fabric to make about 100 of them. But she hopes in the midst of a pandemic, they can at least make people feel better, including herself.

“This is a way to practice my own self care, practice sewing and be creative,” she said, “[and] also to support folks.”

Want one? You can order a handmade face mask — or donate to the cause — by DMing Merkt’s Instagram page.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...