Coronavirus: No dramas as German theatres produce protective masks

‘We checked if we were allowed, then got straight to work’ says head of wardrobe

Costume chief Stefanie C Calm presents the first batch of protective masks to Marcel Tschurer, head of the Malteser (Order of Malta) in Düsseldorf.

Germany’s theatres and opera houses are no strangers to drama, but now the virus that has forced their stages to fall dark is keeping the lights on in their costume departments.

Hundreds of seamstresses have switched gears from period costumes to protective masks needed urgently in the growing coronavirus pandemic.

It all began by chance 10 days ago in the western city of Hagen. Christiane Luz, head of wardrobe in the city’s state theatre, heard from a work colleague that her doctor son’s hospital was running out of masks.

Eleonor Fischer and Wofia Winniger of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein wardrobe department, in Düsseldorf, producing protective masks.

“We were asked to help, we checked if we were allowed, then got straight to work,” said Ms Luz. So far they have turned out 1,500 masks in 10 days – for hospitals and the local fire brigade – with a target of 4,500. They have uploaded a mask pattern to their website and hope others follow their lead.


The cotton masks are washable at high temperatures to sterilise them and offer basic protection, saving the dwindling supply of medical masks offering full virus protection for frontline hospital staff and others most in need.

Following Hagen’s lead, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf came on board last Tuesday and, in four days, its 40 seamstresses have produced 400 masks for local medical organisations.

“Everyone was delighted to be able to help and do something worthwhile,” said Monika Doll, spokeswoman for the Düsseldorf opera house.


Not to be outdone, the Opera Bonn is hoping to produce 1,000 a week while the Berlin Staatsoper is also joining the sew-a-thon.

“We were all released from work but now we are delighted to be producing again,” said Isabel Theissen, deputy head of wardrobe at Berlin’s state opera. “Doctors are in desperate need so it’s great we can do something to help ease the pressure on supply.”

Ms Theissn estimates her 25 sewing staff will each turn out a mask every 15 minutes – 80 a day, at least 400 a week – made of washable cotton from the opera’s own fabric stores.

Like all other countries, Germany is battling to secure adequate supplies of protective equipment on world markets. Earlier this week, six million protective masks destined for Germany were stolen from an airport in Kenya.

Urgent orders

Now German manufacturers – of clothing, underwear and even mattresses – have switched over to protective gear production, filling empty books with urgent orders.

“In the next week we are ramping up production to 70,000, the week after next we can manage around 100,000,” said Wolfgang Grupp, head of clothing company Trigema, based near Stuttgart. German chemical companies are ramping up disinfectant production in the emergency – even liquor firm Jägermeister has joined in the effort.

German doctors have welcomed pragmatic efforts to correct what they see as dangerous over-reliance on globalised supply chains.

“We used to have big stores of equipment, and sterilise a lot ourselves before we switched to disposable,” said one senior consultant at Berlin’s Auguste-Viktoria Clinic. “Everything was rationalised away by managers and now we’re struggling with the consequences of these decisions.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin