Working with my hands

What quarantine taught me 

By Daphne Oseña Paez

Daphne uses her free time to sew cloth masks.

“Why are you still sewing?” My husband asked me this question one afternoon while I was doing my daily activity. Fabric, pins, needles and elastic were strewn beside my old sewing machine on my work table. I have been sewing fabric masks since quarantine started three months ago. I’ve made around 200 and I am still at it.

I’ve owned a starter-level sewing machine for over 13 years but only learned how to use it seven years ago. I imagined myself as a hobbyist, a crafter who could sew simple skirts for my daughters and me, placemats and tea towels for gifts, and maybe evolve to more sophisticated design projects. None of that happened. I ended up making only three pillow cases and packed away my sewing machine.

When ECQ was declared, like many, I had to deal with a lot of emotions—shock, anxiety, fear, and helplessness were some of them. I joined the majority who couldn’t get a restful sleep. I would wake up at the crack of dawn. My husband Patrick and I would sit outside and watch the sunrise in silence. Sometimes we both wore earphones. He’d monitor the news, while I listened tearfully to Pope Francis or surfed Instagram and checked on other cities around the world. Those mornings were quite beautiful. I enjoyed watching the light change from dark to pastel pink and then to bright orange and white. Every day was about getting enough sunshine. I’d sit quietly staring out into a suburban farm lot behind the narra and ylang-ylang trees I planted myself over 20 years ago. The world stood still. I didn’t hear the city. There were no motorcycles, no airplanes, no cars. And as days rolled by, I’d pray and the tears were replaced by a feeling of peace.

Daphne's DIY mask matched the floral backdrop

I might have started preparing for a lockdown as early as February, if not in terms of supplies perhaps at least in my mind. I felt it was inevitable that we were headed there, so I climbed a mountain in Montalban, saw my friends, shopped for bread flour, had my hair color and treated, and had a facial at Belo before lockdown.

I was monitoring the World Health Organization press conferences daily since Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan. I took an online course with the WHO on public health management and safety practices for health workers. I felt like I knew the drill, but there were many things unknown and uncertain. I listened to science and facts from the WHO, DOH, and UNICEF. I tried to skip opinions and news reports entirely. I avoided group chats that were hotbeds of false news and hysteria. I focused on keeping safe, staying hopeful, and finding ways to help. 

I relied on facts and faith to get me through every day. 

My daughters had online classes until May. I appreciated that they had a daily schedule. It gave them a sense of duty and responsibility. I believe children need structure, so a daily routine helps.  At first, they celebrated the time off and cancelled physical classes. They got used to online lessons quickly. But as the weeks passed, they started to miss their friends and the freedom to walk around outside. They took stock of what was cancelled—two proms, two musicals, a foreign camp trip, a Shakespearean play, an art show. We acknowledged and mourned the losses, but also embraced that these were sacrifices we made to help stop the spread of the virus. I told them as the world transitions to be better, so we should use our time to improve ourselves too.

Quarantine life wasn’t much different from the life I already had. I have been working from home, tending my vegetable garden, practicing Pilates, slow cooking, and baking bread for a couple of years now. The big difference was that I had my husband and children with me 24/7. We became conscious of our physical activity, and lack thereof. The whole family did cardio, dance, Pilates exercises on video. Now I’m able to look back and smile at how they had to adjust to living in confinement, which I had already been doing.

We learned new skills. My children improved their digital art. Our youngest, Stella, learned how to play the ukulele and starter French classes online. Our older daughters, Sophia and Lily, are creating the most beautiful paintings. One of them enrolled in an online art history certificate course at Harvard. Patrick figured out how to roast coffee from beans harvested from our tree in our farm. He did it all by hand. They all watched Crash Landing on You together in March, while I refused. I couldn’t sit still enough to read subtitles, so I skipped Korean drama altogether until I was ready for CLOY in June. 

One of the most pleasant surprises from quarantine life was CQ Diaries. I created a community group out of my ( Facebook page. While I was sharing a lot about my daily life with my followers, I wondered how they were coping. I needed to know how people were doing in their homes and cities. Much to my surprise, CQ Diaries took on a life of its own with people sharing gardening and cooking tips, music they play on their instruments, creative and craft projects, and simple sunrise and sunset views as far away as Bicol, Dumaguete, London, New Zealand, and Italy. While the world was closing down, our CQ Diaries members were opening their homes and their hearts. It was beautiful. 

I took on the sewing project two weeks into quarantine. I vowed to donate at least 100 masks. I had collected some printed cotton fabric, which I had planned on crafting into pretty projects years ago but never did. My first mask took two days to finish. It had been a while since I worked the sewing machine. Then eventually I devised a system of cutting the fabric in groups, sewing the seams, ironing the creases, and inserting the elastic. When I ran out of elastic bands, I had to find ways to buy them online at the height of ECQ. Now I am collecting more fabric again. The critical period when the health sector lacked PPEs and masks has passed. Frontliners are now equipped with protective gear. I am still sewing. 

Polka dots brightens any day

Like clockwork, after lunch, we’d all go down to our guest room. It is the coldest part of our house with the most energy-efficient air-conditioner. We have converted it into our co-working space. The kids do their art and online classes, Patrick works and watches his shows, while I sew all afternoon. Now I can listen to podcasts or audiobooks while sewing. I take breaks and do Pilates poses every so often to care for my spine. Then when the sun isn’t too hot, we all go out and walk to the park. Then it’s dinnertime. We get ready for bed. Say our family prayers together. And repeat the next day.

When my husband asked me why I was still sewing, I said, “What else am I to do?” Though I had already remained productive during lockdown, including delivering official messages for UNICEF, I felt the need to do something else. Sewing was it. The manual and repetitive nature of sewing had saved my afternoons. I told him, I didn’t want to think, or read, or write. I wanted to work with my hands. I was not designing nor creating. I was just making stitches flow into the next one until it became almost meditative.

The masks I make are not just pretty, they actually sit well on the face. I use 100 percent cotton, while the lining is made of dry-fit fabric. There is a pocket for an extra sleeve of filter. Some people have asked to buy them but I am not selling them for profit. I am taking after my sewing teacher’s efforts of selling them at cost to those who want to donate them to another person. I give them out to friends and to people I interact with. They are what they are—just masks I’ve sewn by myself. 

I’ve read somewhere that in order to even begin to think of changing the world, you have to be able to fix your own life first. The menial tasks of starting your day by making your bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, or sewing repetitively from a pattern, though humble and mundane as they seem, can represent infinite possibilities. You are better off now than yesterday or an hour ago, because at least you’d have done something even if you are just staying home. This coronavirus emergency has taught me just that. While we were compelled to keep still and not move, I didn’t freeze. It is a small thing, that first mask. The humility of having made something by hand at the worst time in contemporary history will always remind me that I am not helpless. That they are pretty and colorful is a bonus.

Daphne Oseña Paez is a TV host, author, and UNICEF goodwill ambassador.