VANCOUVER -- An army of volunteer sewers in B.C. has made over 15,000 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and organizers are now planning to create a non-profit organization to be able to organize and fundraise for the effort.

Vancouver residents Tanya Faire and Britt Dolleren Wutschnik started the group Protect Frontline Workers on Facebook, after Dolleren Wutschnik posted that a friend who works in health care was looking for a mask.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the world, personal protective equipment, or PPE, became hard to find – and people stuck at home to prevent the spread of the virus were looking for a way to help.

"The comments were starting to pile up very, very quickly and it was getting kind of overwhelming. I sent her a direct message saying, 'Do you need help?'" Faire said. "We decided to start the Facebook group together and it just exploded."

In addition to the 15,000 cloth masks, the 1,480 members of the group – who range from beginner sewers to professionals – have sewed 650 laundry bags for nurses, 200 scrubs and isolation gowns, and 8,700 scrub caps and ear-savers (headbands with buttons to hold face mask straps).

Requests for the items have come in from hospitals, individual workers, care homes, organizations in the Downtown Eastside and other essential and frontline workers, Faire said. All of the items have been made by volunteers and donated to the organizations.

Most of the cloth masks have gone to groups doing work on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Faire said. While cloth masks don't provide the same level of protection as medical-grade masks, "our policy from day one is that we trust front-line workers to make the decision that are best for themselves."

"We have put a tremendous amount of effort into providing educational material, sanitation and safety guides, encouraging people to include care instructions with their PPE. There's also been a lot of effort put into which types of materials are best for certain types of PPE," Faire said, adding that some of the volunteers put in up to 60 hours a week making the items.

Beyond the Facebook group where members post sewing tips and organizations make requests for certain items, there's a group of around 10 people in the background handling distribution, product management and other administrative tasks.

The group has now created a website with forms that organizations that need PPE can fill out.

The next step, Faire said, is to create a formal non-profit organization to be able to accept donations in a transparent manner.

"It's been very challenging – but it's also been very rewarding," said Faire, who works as a project analyst for Musqueam Nation. "It's almost like we've just created this organization overnight."