This Food52 Maker Is Donating Cloth Masks to Those in Need

Steele Canvas has pivoted to manufacturing cloth masks—so medical masks can stay in the right hands.

April  4, 2020
Photo by Steele Canvas

Since the launch of this initiative, you’ve donated more than 10,000 cloth masks to healthcare facilities that are accepting them as a supplement to their medical-grade masks. We thank you for your generosity—and your invaluable sense of community.

I don’t get out very much anymore, for obvious reasons. However, on the recent occasions that I have dashed out to the deli or stepped out for a fix of sunshine, it’s been hard to miss the face covers people are increasingly opting to wear: surgical masks, home-sewn versions, even T-shirts reworked for the purpose. Until recently, I didn't think to wear one, trusting my social distancing and incessant hand-washing protocol to be enough.

That has since changed.

Per new recommendations from the Center of Disease Control (CDC), all Americans are now urged to wear a cloth mask as an additional public health measure. This is a marked shift from earlier guidelines that had suggested: If you’re healthy, you do not need a mask. The CDC’s new recommendation does however continue to reiterate that medical- or surgical-grade masks should be reserved for hospital workers and emergency workers.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Hospitals need medical grade masks. Thanks you!!!!!”
— Janet

Medical-grade masks, or N95 respirators as they are known, are in desperately short supply. As are surgical masks that protect health workers, well, slightly more than not wearing one. Instead of dipping into that scarce supply, many have begun making their own at home—but masks made of household materials are both limited in their durability and reuse, and have questionable sanitation. Still, they’re better than nothing, writes Tara Parker-Pope for The Times.

Ryan Huston, the director of sales at Steele Canvas, a 99-year-old manufacturer of canvas goods based in Massachusetts, learned firsthand about the acute shortage of protective masks on the frontlines. “An employee’s mother, who is a nurse, told us about how they were forced to wear N95 masks for days at a time. We were shocked and saddened, but most importantly, we wanted to help.”

Steele Canvas started out in 1921 making steel and canvas baskets for New England coal workers and textile companies. Photo by Steele Canvas archives

Almost immediately, Steele began redirecting some of its manufacturing capacity from producing storage staples to protective cloth masks. “In addition to helping healthcare workers, John and Paul Lordan, the two owners, saw an opportunity to keep our entire staff employed during the crisis—and from there it was full speed ahead,” Huston says.

The cloth masks that Steele Canvas makes, Huston points out, aren’t medical-grade N95 masks, and should not be treated as a substitute for them, either. The final design features comprehensive face coverage, and is composed of a sturdy, non-porous denim exterior and a 100 percent cotton flannel lined interior for comfort.

Photo by Rocky Luten

The company has been in touch with several medical facilities, desperate to supplement their supply of N95 masks. “The masks we are providing are washable and reusable, which can offer healthcare workers some protection if and when disposable alternatives are not available,” Huston says.

Steele Canvas is hoping that this influx of cloth masks will encourage non-healthcare-workers to hand off N95s to those that absolutely need them, while better protecting themselves and their community. “We want to keep medical masks in the right hands and provide a solution for all those who have access to nothing else,” says Huston. Which is why it is offering a buy-one, donate-one—or donate both—sale, pairing personal protection with community relief. So far, the company has identified four healthcare facilities that will receive the donations.

So yes, it's time for me to start wearing a mask—even on my 2-minute dash to the bodega. And knowing that I can wear one while a second makes its way to someone in need, is even more reassuring. But as I remind myself, and now you: wearing a mask can only go so far—social distancing and frequent hand washing need to follow.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Molly
  • richard lugenbeel
    richard lugenbeel
  • Rthompson
  • Lee
  • timo21
Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.


Molly May 12, 2020
I was really excited to support this cause too! I ordered two at the beginning of the month and still haven't received shipping information. Please contact me.
Arati M. May 12, 2020
Hi Molly. Sorry to hear that. I'm going to have our customer service team look into it for you.
Arati M. May 12, 2020
Please email our care team at [email protected] with your order# and the email you used to place the order. They will look out for your email and help you with this. Thank you for your patience—and your support!
richard L. May 3, 2020
I am so proud to be helping out such a great cause
Rthompson April 24, 2020
Hello so you do you do donations? I'm from the Navajo reservation where our local hospital is being hit hard with CoVid-19. This would be great for our people in the front lines and for the rural people in our Nation. Thanks!
Arati M. April 24, 2020
Hi. Thank you so much for reaching out. So sorry to hear of how hard your community, and local hospital, have been hit. Please email Ryan at [email protected]; we have let them know to look out for your email. Stay safe.
Lee April 11, 2020
All I have is brewers yeast ..can this be substituted in place of baking yeast?
timo21 April 6, 2020
These look great. what is the thread count on the two materials in the masks?
Janet April 5, 2020
I am an RN and certainly see the desperate need for masks right now. this is a wonderful effort, but I think it would be more productive to donate masks to homeless shelters, school feeding programs, churches, and grocery stores. The cloth masks need to be used in the community. Hospitals need medical grade masks. Thanks you!!!!!
Arati M. April 6, 2020
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Janet. These cloth masks are being donated to healthcare facilities that have already requested for them as protective measures. Donations have started with the organizations that were already set up, in an effort to respond as quickly as possible, but the list will expand and Steele Canvas is very open to all suggestions and requests for donations.
JL M. April 4, 2020
Do these masks have wire at the top so they can be closely fitted over one's nose?
Arati M. April 6, 2020
Hi JL. Thank you for your question. Our partner, Steele Canvas, decided not to add the wire based on the feedback on their product test runs.
Lori T. April 4, 2020
Thank you 🙏🏻 💙🙏🏻
Arati M. April 6, 2020
Stay well, Lori.