Ottawa vocalist and choir director Joan Fearnley set in motion a sewing circle that stitched its way around the world when she started posting tutorials for a mask she designed specifically for singers.
Fearnley is both a soprano and conductor with the Bytown Voices, and the former director of the Women’s Choir and the Children’s Choir at Notre Dame Cathedral.
In the early days of the pandemic, she searched online and on social media for a mask that would allow her to sing safely in public.
Choirs had fallen silent, forced to stop performing and practising because the act of singing, with its deep breathing and voice projection, had been identified as a super spreader of COVID-19.
Fearnley says she couldn’t find a mask online that was suitable for the needs of a singer.
“They were really close to the lips and you would breathe in and you would suck the fabric right into your mouth. You would open [your mouth] wide to make a tall vowel and the mask would pop off,” she said.
That’s when she decided to try to build one herself. Sitting at a sewing machine in her basement, Fearnley began experimenting with fabrics and designs, eventually coming up with a workable model that used three layers of cotton, a polypropylene filtration layer on the inside of the mask, and zip ties to keep the mask from drooping.
Fearnley wasn’t interested in setting up a business or manufacturing the masks herself. She wanted to share the idea so “anyone good with a needle or a sewing machine could get to work and make their own masks.”
“I wanted to give people the tools to help themselves,” said Fearnley. “I created a community so that innovation could be shared and we could speed that up.”
She set up a Facebook page and posted how-to videos on YouTube. Soon she heard from choirs, sewers and even scientists from around the world who were either making the masks or suggesting design improvements.
Hundreds of thousands of masks have been made by choral groups and theatrical companies across North America, Europe and Asia, and recently she’s heard from choirs in New Zealand.
Local choirs wearing Fearnley’s design
Kurt Ala-Kantti, the director of music at St. Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church and the Harmonium Choir, counts himself lucky his sister-in-law is also an accomplished seamstress who stitched up dozens of the masks, allowing his choirs to resume singing after two years of waiting.
“To come back and sing together and make a nice sound using these masks, it’s hard to describe. I think we were all in tears at times at our first rehearsal,” said Ala-Kantti.
“Having these super masks that Joan has come up with allow for a space in front of the mouth for resonant sound, but also for being able to take a breath in and not breathe in a mouth full of fabric.”
Ala-Kantti says the individually sewn masks can be colour co-ordinated with the singers’ gowns, which is an added perk.
For Fearnley, it’s been especially gratifying to see her own choir safely reassemble after the long, quiet spell.
“I have a lot of seniors, and some of these seniors have been home for a full year, “said Fearnley.
“I think community choirs have a really big role to play in taking some of these people, who have been isolated, by the hand and make them feel really safe to make music again.”