The problem with air filters is that they potentially could shed small fibers that would be risky to inhale. So if you want to use a filter, you need to sandwich the filter between two layers of cotton fabric. Dr. Wang said one of his grad students made his own mask by following the instructions in the C.D.C. video, but adding several layers of filter material inside a bandanna.
Dr. Wang’s group also found that when common fabrics were used, two layers offered far less protection than four layers. A 600 thread count pillow case captured just 22 percent of particles when doubled, but four layers captured nearly 60 percent. A thick woolen yarn scarf filtered 21 percent of particles in two layers, and 48.8 percent in four layers. A 100 percent cotton bandanna did the worst, capturing only 18.2 percent when doubled, and just 19.5 in four layers.
If you are lucky enough to know a quilter, ask them to make you a mask. Tests performed at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., showed good results for homemade masks using quilting fabric. Dr. Scott Segal, chairman of anesthesiology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, who led the study, noted that quilters tend to use high-quality, high-fabric count cotton. The best homemade masks in his study were as good as surgical masks or slightly better, testing in the range of 70 to 79 percent filtration. Homemade masks that used flimsier fabric tested as low as 1 percent filtration, Dr. Segal said.
The best-performing designs were a mask constructed of two layers of high-quality, heavyweight “quilter’s cotton,” a two-layer mask made with thick batik fabric, and a double-layer mask with an inner layer of flannel and outer layer of cotton.
A simple light test can help you decide whether a fabric is a good candidate for a mask.
“Hold it up to a bright light,” said Dr. Segal. “If light passes really easily through the fibers and you can almost see the fibers, it’s not a good fabric. If it’s a denser weave of thicker material and light doesn’t pass through it as much, that’s the material you want to use.”
Bonnie Browning, executive show director for the American Quilter’s Society, said that quilters prefer tightly woven cottons and batik fabrics that stand up over time. Ms. Browning said most sewing machines can handle only two layers of fabric when making a pleated mask, but someone who wanted four layers of protection could wear two masks at a time.
Ms. Browning said she recently reached out to quilters on Facebook and heard from 71 people who have made a combined total of nearly 15,000 masks. “We quilters are very much in the thick of what’s going on with this,” said Ms. Browning, who lives in Paducah, Ky. “One thing most of us have is a stash of fabric.”