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O Sewing Mio

By Sue Strachan

Julie Winn, New Orleans Opera Association’s costume designer, pivots from making costumes to masks and scrub caps for healthcare workers

During the spring and summer, Julie Winn would usually be busy sewing costumes for the upcoming New Orleans Opera Association season.

As the opera’s costume designer for the past six seasons, Julie has given Sweeney Todd, The Vampire, Dead Man Walking, Orpheus in the Underworld, and Abduction from the Seraglio a visual tableau as rich as the music.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Julie suddenly had time on her hands.

The opera cancelled Charlie Parker’s Yardbird originally scheduled for April, and postponed The Magic Flute to Spring 2021, freeing up time in Julie’s busy schedule.

“When this first happened I brought home artsy stuff so I could sit around and be creative making things,” said Julie.

“All of a sudden on Facebook I saw that there was a shortage of masks.”

Julie knew she could put her skills to work making masks, and started doing research on mask patterns, which in the early days was confusing with the number of different ones being disseminated online.

Wading through the options, Julie chose one and started sewing.

Her first donated batch of masks went to Covenant House New Orleans.

“I heard from a friend who was on the board that they had nothing,” said Julie, and she soon sewed 30 masks.

Julie uses three different patterns, which she has altered to a varying degree. All are made of two layers of cotton with elastic, and a few using bias tape, to go around the ears.

The first mask she made was pleated. 

“Then when I wanted to make the masks more safe and couldn’t find a pattern, I found a You Tube video on how to sew a mask so a filter can be inserted into it,” Julie said. She doesn’t add the filter; she allows whoever is using it to make that decision.

The third mask option doesn’t have pleats and fits snugly on the face.

It wasn’t too long before Julie found herself making scrub caps after Alex Christian Lucas contacted her. Lucas, a graduating senior at Loyola University, has performed in the opera’s chorus as a baritenor.

“Whenever there is something going on like this, I need to help,” said Alex. “I don’t’ know how to sew, so my first thought was ‘Who do I know who can sew?’ ”

He put the call out and found people, like Julie, who could and wanted to sew.

Alex approached his mother, Karla Lucas, RN, the ICU Director at Ochsner Baptist Hospital, to find out if there was anything the hospital needed but was unable to supply.

“I told him thing that nurses would appreciate bouffant or skull surgical caps,” said Karla.  “We can’t really use homemade surgical masks.”

Homemade masks do not meet PPE requirements for healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. They do not block the airborne respiratory droplets.

Julie got to work and through trial and error created patterns for both types of caps.

“The first time I made about 50 caps,” said Julie, who adds that the total amount is now approaching 90.

The two styles work well because the bouffant is roomier for more hair, while the skullcap is closer the head. Nurses also liked the extra protection with a cap on, with some having hairstyles that don’t allow them to wash their hair every night.

Other bonuses?

“They are fun to wear,” said Karla, also noting when a nurse is covered up wearing PPE, “You recognize people by the cap on their head,” citing the different fabric patterns.

The caps immediately caught the attention of doctors and other hospital units, who started asking for them as well.

Even though healthcare workers couldn’t use the masks, Julie has made some for the hospital, but only for administrative staff that doesn’t come in contact with patients.

Julie can make 15 to 20 masks a day. Other recipients of her handmade masks are the staff of optometrist Dr. Brendon Sumich.

Julie also created an innovation with the caps and masks. Nurses began have issues with the elastic rubbing up against their skin too much, so Julie bought stretchy headbands and added buttons on the ends so the elastic could hook on the buttons instead of the ears. Julie likens the design to headgear for braces.

Creativity, problem-solving and an eye for detail is natural for this Algiers native, who studied drama and communications at University of New Orleans, followed by an internship at the Juilliard School in costume and design.

After that, “I never stopped working,” said Julie.

In addition to the opera, Julie’s designs and handiwork – as well as millinery – have also been seen on the stages of Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, Southern Rep Theatre, NOLA Project and Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane, as well as in a number of theatrical touring companies and movies.

Julie makes her caps and masks at home. “My front room is a sewing room.”

Julie initially started using fabric remnants and other supplies at home, then went to the opera’s H. Lloyd Hawkins Scenic Studio to see what remnants from making costumes could be used. Fabric was donated by RicRack from Walmart and elastic mask bands from Lynn Highstreet who owns Vieux Carre Hair Store. And, she has received monetary donations to purchase supplies, and the opera is now helping with production and costs.

The best fabric for masks and caps is 100 percent cotton, with Julie making them on her 20 year-plus Elna sewing machine.

“So far it has gotten me through this whole thing,” said Julie.

In addition to her work at the opera, Julie is the costume designer for Louisiana State University, which was in the middle of performances for “Manon,” when the quarantine began.

“In the beginning it was an emotional experience,” said Julie says about making the masks and caps. “Because so many people needed them and I couldn’t make them fast enough.”

But for those who got them, they mean the world.

“Everyone just loved them,” said Karla Lucas. “And love the fact these are voluntarily made.”