Sewing Tips

“How do I send masks?”

My last post was about where to send masks. But do you know HOW to send them….without making a trip to the post office?

(Clue: you can NOT send a mask as a “letter”).

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From what I hear in the many sewing groups on social media, most mask-makers just want to find the easiest, affordable way to ship out masks…without leaving the house. The United States Postal Service (USPS) doesn’t necessarily make that so simple. There are many rules and regulations within the USPS, you can often get conflicting advice at different post office counters, the website is somewhat confusing, and it’s easy to make mistakes and choose the incorrect postal CATEGORY (size and shape) ….which can lead you to pay the incorrect postage RATE.….or even have your shipments returned. Some makers say the counter clerk advised them it’s okay to just use a single stamp…others were told that they must pay Priority rates.

For many mask-makers, shipping is the most expensive aspect of volunteering. I’ve spent well over $100 over the past month shipping masks. But I have the advantage of lots of experience: over the years, I’ve shipped over 2,000 packages from home for my shops on Etsy and Ebay. I’ll share with you what I’ve learned.

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You’re probably familiar with the basic postal RATES, which determine speed of delivery:

  • FIRST CLASS: 2 to 5 days delivery
  • PRIORITY MAIL: 1 to 2 days delivery
  • EXPRESS MAIL: overnight delivery

You may not be as familiar with postal CATEGORIES, which are determined by the thickness, which in turn determines processing….LETTERS and FLATS are sorted mechanically with high-speed zipcode readers, PARCELS are sorted by hand so that costs more:

  • LETTER (under 1/4″ thick)
  • FLAT (over 1/4″ thick but under 3/4″ thick)
  • PARCEL (over 3/4″ thick)

Here’s a further explanation from the United States Postal Office:

https://pe.usps.com/BusinessMail101?ViewName=SizeAndShape

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What happens when you combine the postal CATEGORIES together with the postal RATES? You can look up any combination on USPS.com. Here’s what it costs to send something from the east coast to the west coast, by weight (this is simplified to exclude specialty rates like regional boxes etc). Let’s assume 3 scenarios:

  • 2 oz: sending a couple of masks to a friend
  • 8 oz: sending a small pile of masks to a doctor’s office
  • 16 oz: sending a larger quantity to a hospital

Let’s simplify: drop Express, way too expensive. For anything under 14 oz, drop Priority, also expensive for saving 1 day in delivery. But for over 14 oz you can’t use First Class so you must use Priority:

Notice the price savings if you could use LETTER or FLAT instead of PARCEL for lightweight items? However, you cannot send a mask out as a LETTER, since it is over 1/4″ thick. A letter envelope is meant for a paper letter, not lumpy merchandise. Letter envelopes get sorted through rapid-feed machinery (check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB7QOK1bd3U). I hear people online say they put a mask in a letter envelope, stick on 2 stamps, and it’s fine. But it can seriously jam the sorting machines, can get torn up, can be forwarded with postage due, or could come back to you.

So let’s rule out the LETTER category for sending merchandise:

Sad because you wanted to use stamps and avoid going to the post office? You can still use stamps for the FLATS category: 1/4″ to 3/4″ thick, flexible but not lumpy. You can use a cardboard mailer envelope or padded mailer to even out the bumps. Both are readily available at office supply stores (Staples) or big box stores (Amazon). Why the USPS concern over “lumpiness”? Remember FLATS go through automated sorting machinery, just like LETTERS.

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Now you’ve got your options narrowed down:

  • 2 oz (a few masks): FLAT
  • 8 oz (a dozen or so masks): can’t squeeze that small therefore PARCEL
  • 16 oz (a whole lot of masks): definitely PARCEL

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Look at a real life example. I have a few masks to send to my sister. Together they weigh 2.2 ounces (you must round up , not down):

I have these packaging choices:

Left to right:

  • cardboard mailer
  • padded mailer
  • clasped document envelope
  • letter envelope
  • plastic mailer

If I use the plastic mailer the shipment automatically becomes a PARCEL because it cannot go through the automatic sorting machines. I could choose to use it, but postage will cost more and I can’t use stamps:

I can’t use an envelope because of lumpiness and thickness. Even a single mask is over 1/4″ thick and too lumpy for the rapid-speed auto-sorting machinery:

The clasped document envelop is studier, but still lumpy. The padded envelope is a good choice because it smooths out the lumpiness. Even 3 masks inside can be classified as a FLAT since it’s under 3/4″ thick, and it can take stamps:

Or, I can use a cardboard mailer because it’s under 3/4″ and flattens out the lumps. All set to go out BUT keep in mind that stamps have no “tracking” service.

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What about PARCELS? If your mask package is thicker than 3/4″, then according to the USPS online calculator, it automatically moves into the PARCEL category.

  • If it’s under 14 ounces, it can still be sent by FIRST CLASS rates.
  • If it’s over 14 ounces it moves up to PRIORITY rates.

A “parcel” cannot be shipped with stamps. Have you noticed that the street-corner mail boxes no longer have the pull-down opening? They’re being replaced with rigid slots that allow LETTERS or FLATS but not PARCELS. Parcels must go either to the post office counter for printing a postal label, or be picked up by your letter carrier. If you try to send a parcel with stamps, it could come back to you with one of these messages:

You can purchase non-stamp postage labels from your home computer through several online sites:

USPS.com does not allow printing First Class rate postage (only Priority rate or Express rate) but the others do. Probably 90% of my mail goes out FIRST CLASS rate/ PARCEL category, using postage purchased online, shipped in a very inexpensive poly-mailer.

(Once it’s going out as a PARCEL, it can be all sorts of lumpy! That’s because it’s not going through a letter-sorting machine.)

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I often hear that people are reluctant to use online shipping services, but they have improved so much over the past few years and are really easy to sign up for and use. I would not recommend Stamps.com for personal use as it requires a monthly fee. My daughter’s favorite is Pirateship. My favorite is Paypal: it is quick and simple to open an account and link payments to your credit card. From there you just fill in the prompts, preview your shipping label, and print on any home printer.

For example, today I’m sending out these masks to a nurse in New York. They can’t be squashed into a FLAT, they must ship as a PARCEL. First I check the weight:

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Log into Paypal Shipping, enter the name and address, fill in the prompts for package weight and size, and the system will automatically calculate shipping and let you choose from the possible options:

You can pay the USPS for your label online through your Paypal account \, and print it to any home printer:

You can then go into USPS.com and schedule a free pick-up.

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PS: One more thing to consider….another reason to NOT try gaming the system by mailing masks as “letters”:

I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion about shipping from home. Stay safe!

Happy sewing, Janet

2 Comments

  • Marsha

    Fortunately, my local post office has a self-service machine in the lobby area that’s open 24-hours. I’ve started sending my parcels very early in the morning before the full service area opens. I disinfect the surfaces I’ll be touching before starting, and I wear a mask. I’m a high school mathematics teacher, and I’m usually sending materials to those students who have limited internet service. So far, I haven’t had a parcel returned.

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