“We better be cute, right?” Creative mask making helps burlesque dancer/lingerie designer pay the bills

Masks | Provided photo


By Charlotte West

The sewing skills Amanda Payne learned as a kid at theater camp have paid off in the midst of a global pandemic. “I had some really terrible costumes in the first few plays that I was in,” she says.

She thought she could do better. After learning how to design her own costumes for youth theater, she first started sewing professionally as a costume designer for Mountain Community Theater in Ben Lomond. Then she started sewing her own costumes as a performer in Sin Sisters Burlesque, which is Santa Cruz’s longest running monthly show.

Payne started a lingerie label, Never Nude, two years ago. “I wanted to make the things that I couldn’t find in a store, because I could never find things there weren’t for tiny people, or people who are a different body shape,” she says.


Amanda Payne | Provided photo

Now she’s turned her sewing skills to mask making. Payne has sold almost 2,500 masks since she launched the business in March. Her masks are for sale at the Felton Mercantile and online at her Etsy shop. This week, she’s donating 50 percent of her proceeds to The Loveland Foundation and NAACP to help support the protests.

It’s not easy to be working in the arts during a pandemic, according to Payne. “All of my more regular work just disappeared,” she says.

Payne says that she’s been able to pay her rent the last few months due to her mask business, especially as it took a few months to receive the COVID-19 unemployment assistance. “This is pretty much the only thing keeping me afloat now,” she said.

"The cloth masks I make are pretty similar to vintage bra cups [...] It was an easy skill transfer." Amanda Payne

After selling out her existing stock of lingerie, she tried to figure out how to make ends meet. A friend asked her to make masks for a senior care facility where she worked, and other friends and family kept requesting masks. She realized it might be a viable business idea because “everyone needed a mask” after Santa Cruz County issued guidance requiring face coverings in restaurants, grocery stores, and other essential businesses.

At first, she had a hard time keeping up with demand. “Masks are the season’s hottest fashion accessory, right?” Payne said with a laugh.


Masks | Provided photo

When she first launched her new venture, Payne sewed batches of 200 masks at a time. “When [the pandemic] first started and demand was so high, I was just sitting in front of my sewing machine at my kitchen table for 12 hours a day,” she said. “It was grueling. I have so much more respect for people who just sit in an office all day now, because it is hard.”

Now she spends one day cutting out the pieces of the masks and then limits her sewing to 20 at a time.

Payne created her own pattern after doing some research online and then experimenting with her own design. It took her awhile to figure out how to get the angle of the nose bridge right, but she thinks she’s figured it out.

Making a mask is not all that different than making a bra cup. Friends kept sending her videos of people cutting up bras to make masks. “While cutting a cup out of your modern foam cup bra will give you something akin in shape to a n95 mask, the cloth masks I make are pretty similar to vintage bra cups in the way that they are put together,” Payne says. “It was an easy skill transfer.”


Embellished mask | Provided photo

Payne’s masks are a universal adult size that will fit most people. (She also makes smaller masks for kids). “For someone like me, who has a pretty small head, it’s not uncomfortable, but it would still work on a pretty large man’s head,” she said.

She has used materials she had on hand from her lingerie business. “I started making them out of crushed velvet recently on a whim,” she said. “And then it immediately sold out. A lot of my resources, like elastic, and stretch fabric have been reallocated to mask making.”

Some of her fancier masks pay homage to her burlesque background with touches such as black fringe or silver horseshoes and pom poms. “It feels more like costume or lingerie construction when I get to velvet or put fringe on them,” she says. “If we gotta wear a mask, we better be cute, right?”

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.



Charlotte West

About Charlotte West

Charlotte West is a freelance journalist who covers education, criminal justice, housing, and politics. She is a member of the Education Writers Association and was a 2019 Kiplinger Fellow.