In May 2020, Art2Action became the proud fiscal sponsor of the Auntie Sewing Squad, a group of self-sufficient volunteers, including artists and folx of all genders, organized by performance artist Kristina Wong, giving time, talent, materials and labor to sew, ship and deliver fabric masks to people who need them most. The following article is by health journalist Lisa Mummy-Wallig, about her experience as an "Auntie" in the Squad.
Radical Hospitality and “Rage Sewing"
in the time of Coronavirus
By Lisa Mummy-Wallig, MA, RD
January. Long before local government stay-at-home orders, I began “rage sewing” in January, when I first read of a mysterious flu outbreak in China. Following the World Health Organization (WHO) on social media, on January 4, 2020, I read that WHO was investigating a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. My personal journal documents that even from 10,000 miles away, I braced for the coming storm.
In healthcare as a medical professional, I’ve followed news of Ebola, SARS, and MERS; worked with Pediatric AIDS patients; followed patients with community-acquired pneumonia and novel influenza A subtype H1N1; and even those diagnosed with flesh-eating bacteria. So, even before the first Covid 19-infected person traveled to the US, I buckled up because I was absolutely certain that we were in for a very bumpy ride. I’ve learned to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Hospitals struggled to get much-needed PPE and without the proper equipment, fellow medical professionals risked their personal safety to treat patients. By sewing, I knew I could get masks into the hands of vulnerable and marginalized groups, while offering hope to fellow humans.
As a Medical Gerontologist, Registered Dietitian, and health journalist, I work full-time by day and at night I “rage sew” for the Auntie Sewing Squad, a Facebook group founded by performance artist, Kristina Wong. The squad is based in Los Angeles, with groups of members throughout the state, and a few “Aunties” and “Uncles” outside California as well. My connection to Los Angeles is as a University of Southern California (USC) alumna, growing up playing the Los Angeles junior tennis circuit, and as a lifelong competitive tennis player. Beginning in January, I sewed and tweaked a self-designed mask pattern several times. Continuing to sew, scouring YouTube videos, and on the hunt for an even better mask design online, in March I stumbled on the newly formed Auntie Sewing Squad.
The Auntie Sewing Squad is a cohort of talented, generous folx. Our group’s radical hospitality includes providing masks to vulnerable communities across the country with no access to face masks. We are a group of people of all genders who have turned our living rooms into "sweatshops" because of the federal government’s failure to provide proper PPE to essential workers and vulnerable communities. We give our time to make masks to stop the spread of Covid-19. We believe in a system of community care and having a direct connection to our recipients. We share resources on patterns, fabric, and elastic. Our squad has grown to 727 members, with 277 new members in the past 30 days. Many of us are in Los Angeles, but we are everywhere.
Personally, “rage sewing” continues to be a way to deal with the frustration, anger, fury, anxiety, and sadness of the daily news reports of Covid-19 deaths and of loved ones falling ill. When a friend in another state was diagnosed and my friend’s spouse was presumptive for Covid-19, the surreal quickly became very real. Sewing is a coping mechanism. Making masks is an therapeutic outlet for many in our squad, one way to channel the pent-up emotions of an uncertain, tumultuous chapter in world history. Rather than giving in to stress-related inertia, squad members channel stress into a positive outlet of mask-making.
Mask-making, tennis, and writing are not only positive, but also cathartic. Hitting a fuzzy yellow tennis ball is its own form of therapy. My journalism background has spanned broadcast and print, from nutrition reporting for television and radio, to writing health and wellness articles and spearheading a state employee wellness and nutrition newsletter for 14 years. I’m also a novelist and screenwriter. My most recent screenplay, Tennis is a Contact Sport, received competition honors. Although the Auntie Sewing Squad sewing has replaced most of my creative writing time, when I’m not working, sewing, or playing tennis, I’ve penned Love in the Time of Coronavirus, finished two other novels, and started a fourth. Truth be told, writing is therapy as well. I look forward to the time when I’ll return to writing in earnest and when we can all, finally, stop sewing face masks in our sleep.
People ask why, as a busy medical professional, I sew face masks. Here’s my answer: Radical hospitality coupled with civic duty. I believed it was within my power to make a difference, so I did. I’m leveraging my skill set for and with a group that aligns with my core values; our squad is helping to flatten the curve and save lives. Sewing since age 4, I have won two sewing awards: one for innovative pattern design for a reversible tennis skirt, and another in a statewide sewing competition in California. When making masks, I use my grandmother’s pinking shears, my mother’s fabric, and my mother-in-law’s lucky sewing tools. I feel a connection to my ancestors as I sew and carry their spirit of giving with me. Because time is of the essence, I push my home sewing machine full-throttle to its limit as I construct each mask, while contemplating the safety of its recipient and their family.
All of this sewing comes with some sacrifices, including volunteering precious time usually spent with family and friends. Personally, I’ve blown through three sewing machines; a large 3-drawer dresser stash of cotton fabric first reserved for quilting; several enormous spools of elastic, and a suitcase packed to the brim with thread. Elastic is hard to come by during the pandemic. Fabric store shelves emptied when local governments required wearing masks in public. We have even offered up our newly purchased T-shirts for the cause. When I ran out of elastic, no new T-shirt was safe around my shears, as I, and many in our squad, made T-shirt yarn as an elastic substitute.
Here’s the new normal and an example of a typical day: Today I sent 175 masks to First Nations, specifically the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, as part of our squad’s 5,000 mask sewing effort. Where once there was cotton quilting fabric, my 3-drawer dresser now holds masks until they are bundled and sent to their destination. My attic sewing space has been transformed into a mask production factory. And there is no rest for the weary, as the “mask asks” keep on coming…
The Auntie Sewing Squad welcomes financial donations. Here’s how you can donate:
Lisa Mummy-Wallig is a USC-trained Medical Gerontologist, Registered Dietitian, and health journalist. Lisa has worked in both television and radio nutrition reporting and as drive-time news anchor. She has served not only as a nutrition segment host on a morning television magazine show, but also as a radio health and nutrition specialist, including regular guest appearances on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio. A nutrition self-sufficiency project Lisa designed and implemented in underserved communities received a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant. Lisa has been a member of the Auntie Sewing Squad since March 2020.
BONUS VIDEO: "Sewing in the Time of Coronavirus" by Valerie Soe
The Asian American Documentary Network, aka A-doc, launched a new series of short clips as part of its Storytelling Initiative, with my clip, Sewing In The Time of Coronavirus, its first featured microdoc. This little short explains how I’ve been spending my time since the shelter-in-place order in California took place almost two months ago.
Valerie Soe is a San Francisco filmmaker and artist. Her productions include The Oak Park Story, art/film/revolution (2007); Carefully Taught (2002); Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re) Educational Videotape, (1992, Best Bay Area Short, Golden Gate Awards, San Francisco International Film Festival) and “ALL ORIENTALS LOOK THE SAME,” (1986, Best Foreign Video, Festival Internazionale Cinema Giovani). With screenings at the Getty Center’s exhibition California Video and the New Museum of Art in New York City, her most recent experimental documentary, The Chinese Gardens, premiered in April 2012. She's a professor in San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Dept., and writes the blog, beyondasiaphilia.