By Melinda Munson

Billi Clem of Klondike Tours is running something akin to a sweatshop in her home. 

“If they’re sitting here, they’re doing something,” she said, referring to her family. Complaining is not allowed. No one is remunerated for their time.

In two weeks, the Clem clan produced around 250 cloth face masks. The masks are given to Skagway’s residents free of charge. Clem’s first priority is to cover workers employed by essential businesses such as the bank and grocery stores. The Remedy Shoppe, Skagway’s marijunana dispensary, was the first entity to receive the handmade masks.

Clem was already producing the masks when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines on Saturday, recommending all individuals wear face coverings when out in public as carriers of COVID-19 may be asymptomatic.

Greg Clem helps assemble masks with his family. Photo provided by Billi Clem

“Alaska is always pretty much prepared for the apocalypse. That’s the way we live,” Clem said. A quilter for over 20 years, she already had plenty of material. “Luckily, I’m a fabric hoarder,” she said.

Alaska Mask Makers, a Facebook group dedicated to producing and distributing face masks, started March 22. Clem began her assembly line the next day.

Clem describes quilting as “sewing a straight line.” Constructing the masks was more complicated.“ I was overwhelmed by learning but I had enough time.”

The first masks took up to two hours. Now, Clem and her crew can create a mask in 20 minutes.

The patterns have changed six or seven times as the CDC comes out with updates regarding materials, mostly changes to the filtration system. Newer versions include a paperclip in the nose seam to help prevent eyeglasses from fogging. Ideally, each person has two to three masks to allow for laundering. (The masks can go in the dryer.) There are three sizes: adult, medium and child. The material Clem is currently using features airplanes, chickens or Coca-Cola.

Jessie Baker of Fairway Market wears a mask made by Billi Clem. Photo by Melinda Munson

Each mask requires 14.5 inches of quarter-inch elastic, which can’t be found in stores. Donations of elastic can be made to Clem or Alaska Mask Makers.

The masks are not intended for medical use and are not utilized by the Dahl Memorial Clinic. The CDC continues to urge members of the public to stick to homemade masks and reserve medical grade masks for health workers. When wearing masks, individuals should refrain from touching their faces, maintain social distancing and frequently wash hands. A tutorial for handling face masks can be found at

Those without access to a cloth mask could use scarves or bandanas. The CDC website features directions for no-sew masks, including one that uses a cotton T-shirt.

When President Trump announced the new CDC guidelines that all Americans wear masks in public, he was not wearing a face covering. 

“I won’t be doing it personally. It’s a recommendation,” he said.

Clem said she’d be happy to send a mask his way. 

She’s pleased she found a way to help the community. It “makes isolation bearable,” she said. “If we weren’t doing this we’d be arguing with each other.”