With a 1903 treadle sewing machine, $40 in elastic, and fabric on hand, alumna Phyllis Tubesing '70 partnered with a friend to create 1,260 protective masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. She put out a notice to her neighbors that she would make them available for free. They wouldn't have that, though, and in the end donated $1,213 for her time. She donated all of it to The Hunger Task Force.
"That feels real good," she said.
Phyllis would typically spend her time in numerous activities that include line dancing, playing sheepshead, going to the Wisconsin Athletic Club, participating in meditation activities at the Mindfulness Community of Milwaukee, and doing pottery outside of her home—all of which she couldn’t do once the government implemented a lockdown during the pandemic.
She turned to sewing, she said, to keep her mind off of the things she would normally do.
“I think we really started cranking the week of the 15th, 16th of March when they shut everything down," Phyllis said. She sent out a notice to neighbors on March 23 that she would have masks available on March 31.
Phyllis’s mother first taught her how to sew in the summer of sixth grade and then she strengthened her skills as an eighth grader while at a Lutheran parochial school by walking once a week to Hi-Mount school in Milwaukee for afternoons of sewing classes.
It was as a child that Phyllis learned her skill on treadle machines. She has a 1980 Singer machine, but when she started making the masks, preferred the control the manual wheel and pedal her 1903 treadle offered. The newer Singer didn’t have the right tension, she said. She’s had the treadle since 1962 when the grandmother of her sister’s boyfriend passed away and Phyllis inherited her sewing machine.
Using the 117-year-old machine, though, had its own challenges. She had lost the metal pin that holds two pieces of rubber together, instead managing with duct tape. Twice a day, though, it would get stretched out and she’d have to add new duct tape. As she started growing her mask production, she ordered a new belt and it came just in time as the old one broke in two places and she would’ve had to duct tape that, too.
“That same day the new belt came in the mailbox,” she said.
Phyllis graduated from Carroll with a degree in sociology
and a minor in psychology
. While living and working in Chicago after graduation, she received her master’s degree in business at Loyola University with a major in accounting. She worked in finance and accounting in many different types of businesses and did contract consulting for 12 years between 1997 and 2008 when she left the full-time job to start her business. She assists people “older than myself,” she said with any financial needs, reconciling checkbooks, paying bills, getting information ready for tax accountants and financial planners. Since starting her own business in 2008, she’s had as many as 40 clients, but in the last three years has not accepted new clients and is now down to two.
And those two live in facilities she hasn’t been able to visit during the lockdown.
So she spent her time making masks after her sister turned her on to the idea. Phyllis asked her friend, Sharan Zelinski, who also picked up her sewing skills from her own mother, to help and together they divided the mask-making duties. Each played a specific part in the sewing and production. Phyllis was putting in eight-hour days with mask making while putting her neighbors on notice through the Next Door app in her suburban Milwaukee community that she would be providing the protection for free.
As she and Sharan completed masks, Phyllis hung them outside of her front door and clipped them to two hangers, seven masks on each for neighbors to take.
“If I was there and could talk to them, I would say, ‘Take what you need for you, your family, and any neighbors you know',” she said. People were grateful, particularly when she declined any payment for her work. Still, some offered small tokens of appreciation—like flowers and lotions—and money. She donated every dollar to help fight hunger—which has increased—during the pandemic.
Learn about Carroll University's efforts to combat hunger through our 2020 National Service Project >
Now that more stores are selling masks, she said the neighborhood demand has slowed. So she and Sharan have stopped – for now —and plan to take care of other home needs. She said while other people in lockdown spent time decluttering and cleaning out closets that, “I haven’t had time to do that.”
She said what started as an opportunity to fill her time grew to much more with neighbors not only providing the funds to help curb hunger in the community but also just simply meeting new neighbors who took her up on the mask offer.
“It’s a nice side benefit from something we tend to think is a bad thing,” she said. “You just feel so connected. Maybe we will have a better understanding of who people are and what they might need.”