Puna seamstress creates masks to help keep county workers safe

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Bridget Milligan stands in front of one of her paintings on a sheet that will be cut and sewn into masks outside her home April 17 in Pahoa. Milligan has felt blessed to be able to help while staying safe at home.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Pieces of unfinished masks sit in Bridget Milligan’s sewing room April 17 in her Pahoa home. The masks are made from fabric that is breathable, but impenetrable.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Bridget Milligan puts on one of her handmade masks April 17 at her Pahoa home. Milligan got new ideas for mask cuts as she continues making hundreds of masks.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Bridget Milligan paints flowers April 17 outside her home in Pahoa on a sheet that will be sewn into masks. Milligan has put aside many of her other projects to focus on making masks to donate.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Stacks of masks sit on a table April 17 in Bridget Milligan’s home in Pahoa. Milligan uses her own paintings and fun fabrics to create the masks she has donated.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Blue masks are stacked by Bridget Milligan’s sewing station April 17 in her home in Pahoa. Milligan was gifted her first sewing machine when she was 13 and has been sewing for as long as she can remember.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Bridget Milligan on April 17 outside her home in Pahoa paints a sheet that will be sewn into masks. Milligan paints the sheets before cutting and sewing the pieces into masks.

As a need for masks has grown, a lifelong seamstress found her own artistic way of making them for the community.

Bridget Milligan, 75, has used her talents of painting and sewing to create hundreds of colorful masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Milligan paints intricate designs on white bedsheets, then cuts and sews her artwork into cloth masks.


Milligan, an on-and-off Pahoa resident, has been sewing for as long as she can remember.

“My grandmother gave me my first sewing machine at 13,” Milligan said. “This has been who I am for a long time.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and a need for masks skyrocketed, Milligan had an idea spurred from part of her past.

In 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill near Alaska, Milligan developed the idea of using nets and booms made of geotextile, a fabric that absorbs 20 times its weight in oil while allowing water to pass through, to help clean the oil out of the ocean. Milligan and several other volunteers from Kodiak, Alaska, began sewing 1,500 feet of boom a day.

Using similar fabric, Milligan has painted and created more than 300 masks in the past few weeks. The multi-layer masks are nearly impenetrable, yet breathable.

“This is really a blessing for me,” Milligan said between brush strokes. “I can help by using my talents and staying safe.”

Milligan has been delivering the masks to Tom Olson, a staff officer with Hawaii County Civil Defense.

“We’ve already distributed about 200 of her masks to county workers,” Olson said. “We’ll get the next batch to people who need a new size or an extra.”

When Gov. David Ige’s stay-at-home order began March 25, Milligan reached out to Civil Defense to see if her skills could be of service.

“I just thought it was so kind of her to ask how she could help and if we needed masks,” Olson said “She is just one example of a community that has really stepped up together.”

Milligan said she will continue making masks until the pandemic ends.


“I’m happy to be doing my part,” Milligan said. “It’s nice to be able to create something that can help keep people safe while they continue doing their jobs.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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