Area makerspace, local sewers, called into action to create sign language-friendly masks

  • Bill Schongar of Mason, president of MakeIt Labs in Nashua, demonstrates how the clear front mask allows the wearer’s lips to be seen while speaking.

  • Bill Schongar of Mason, president of MakeIt Labs in Nashua, is helping to create masks with a clear shield in front, for use by people that use ASL, or otherwise need facial cues. Courtesy photos

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/20/2020 5:39:03 PM
Modified: 11/20/2020 5:38:51 PM

American Sign Language isn’t just a language of hand movements. Facial expressions are part of the language, and for some deaf or hard of hearing people, lip reading is fundamental for how they communicate.

So how can they communicate with people wearing masks?

It was an issue that the United Way and Southern New Hampshire Health asked MakeIt Labs, a makerspace based in Nashua, to help solve.

Makerspace president Bill Schongar of Mason said the usual activities at the creative co-working space have been disrupted by the COVID-19 virus, but its 210 members haven’t been idle, turning their equipment and knowledge, plus some big donations by major companies, towards projects like making thousands of face shields for libraries and other protective equipment production.

The group turned its design skills to making an ASL-friendly mask, using a plastic barrier at the center so people can still see expressions and lips. The makerspace created their own design that allows the plastic barrier to be removed from its cloth base, so the rest of the mask can be washed and the plastic sterilized between uses.

“If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, a basic mask can be a barrier to communication,” Schongar said.

However, Schongar said, while the makerspace has plenty of materials to create the plastic shields, there aren’t enough members who have the necessary skills to sew the cloth base to insert them in. Members have put out the call within their local communities, asking for additional help.

“We’re more engineers than sewers,” Schongar said. “We can laser cut things all day, but we’re terrible sewers – we don’t have that particular skill. The biggest holdup for us is the sewing side.”

Schongar said the MakeIt Labs members have been making ASL-friendly masks anyway, but have only been able to produce a small number. But he said he knows there are members of the community that have been dedicating themselves to mask production for months, and are going to be much more proficient. Anyone with the skills to sew a basic, double-sided mask shouldn’t have an issue with the pattern, he said, and MakeIt Labs has made their design public domain, so anyone can access it. They also have provided laser cutting instructions, but will also provide pre-cut plastic windows for those that are only able to sew the frame.

“I figure if I can sew it successfully anyone with real skills can do a much better job than I can,” Schongar joked.

If you are interested in contributing to the project, the full instructions and patterns are here: To donate sewn masks, or to find out more information about the ASL-friendly mask or other MakeIt Labs projects, email info@makeit


Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.

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