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Upper Valley maskmakers stitch together a community

  • Hen House Fabric owner Susan Parker, left, looks over a quilt Joanne Lendaro, of Grantham, N.H., is making while visiting Parker's shop on Friday, May 22, 2020, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Susan Parker, owner of Hen House Fabric, says goodbye to customer Kathi Moreno, of Wilder, Vt., on Friday, May 22, 2020, in White River Junction, Vt. Moreno was at the fabric store to buy birthday gifts for her granddaughter. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/23/2020 9:08:21 PM
Modified: 5/23/2020 9:08:18 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — So far, a group of Upper Valley maskmakers has turned out more than 27,000 cloth masks and passed them along to a long list of Twin State institutions and businesses.

As the owner of Hen House Fabric in White River Junction, Susan Parker was eager to pitch in, and decided to provide pre-cut cotton quilting material and elastic to people doing the sewing.

“I found out I was better at making kits than I was at making masks,” Parker said Thursday.

At the same time, maskmakers who were resurrecting their mothballed sewing machines often found them in need of repair. They took them to Parker’s shop to be picked up by Buzz Barr, who fixed them in his Bethel home and brought them back to White River Junction, often in a day or two.

Hen House Fabric, tucked behind stores off Sykes Mountain Avenue, was crucial to the beginning of the maskmaking effort. All the same, it will close at the end of June. The novel coronavirus has accelerated Parker’s plans to close the shop after 11 years in business.

“Because of the COVID thing and the maskmakers’ site, a lot of new people have found me,” Parker said. “Isn’t it ironic?”

Before opening Hen House, Parker worked for Country Quilters Emporium, owned by Nancy Barr, Buzz’s wife, for nearly a decade. It was there that Buzz Barr started repairing sewing machines.

“She decided we were going to sell sewing machines, and I was elected to learn how to fix them,” he said in a phone interview from his Bethel home.

When the Barrs closed up shop, Parker took over some of the inventory and opened Hen House. Next door, Buzz Barr kept a sewing machine repair business on the side while he worked full time, driving a truck for Airgas, a distributor of industrial and medical gases and welding supplies. He said Parker is like a sister to him and Nancy.

Buzz Barr’s work repairing sewing machines has been critical to the maskmaking effort, said Honor Hingston-Cox, one of the administrators of the UV Mask Makers Facebook page.

“It turned out that people were fighting machines that had been put away for a long time,” Hingston-Cox said.

Barr estimated that he’d repaired more than two dozen sewing machines since the beginning of April. He said he tried to refuse payment, but people have insisted, so he and Nancy have been buying extra groceries and donating them to the local food shelf. He’s had time on his hands, since he was laid off March 19 from his full-time job moving cars at White River Toyota.

His business card has been circulating on the UV Mask Makers page, and calls keep coming in. He picked up five machines at Kendal at Hanover, fixed them up and brought them back so their owners could make masks.

“Compared to the other work I’ve done for the rest of my life, this is pretty easy,” said Barr, who started out working at dairy farms and has worked in construction, in addition to driving truck. “At 72, ... I’m enjoying not working,” he said.

The work of the members of the UV Mask Makers group isn’t nearly over. They have sent masks to more than 202 establishments, ranging from a handful for Edgewater Farm to more than 3,700 to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

They are in the middle of a big push to sew masks for 57 Vermont day care centers, including masks small enough to fit children as young as 2 years old, said Mary Beth Stocken, another of the site’s administrators.

While the Upper Valley group is still going strong, two large groups making masks on the New Hampshire Seacoast have shut down, and Vermont’s populous Chittenden County lacks a robust maskmaking effort. UV Mask Makers is sending 500 masks to Burlington for 13 different day care centers, Stocken said.

While the Facebook group has 521 members, about 150 are actively sewing masks, Stocken said. They have sent masks as far away as the Navajo Nation, at the request of a member of Doctors Without Borders, she said. For the most part, they are advising members of the public to seek out masks to buy and are concentrating on helping institutions and businesses. Schools are probably the next big need.

When they started, members received donations of materials from places like Hen House, and raided their own stashes of fabric and elastic. Those supplies have run low, Stocken said, but new materials are flowing in, including a big donation of pre-cut fabric from Vermont Teddy Bear in Shelburne, Vt.

The network of maskmakers has operated pretty quietly, with people leaving paper bags of material for each other on porches and front steps, Hingston-Cox said. They have been surprised at how far their work has traveled.

“I think it’s a great comment on the Upper Valley,” she said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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