Need a COVID-19 Mask? Oakland Activists and Artists Can Help

Photo: fashionable face mask with Towngirl brand label

Alameda County Public Health Department issued a new order requiring face coverings in the public settings that some police departments began enforcing on April 22, 2020. Everyone is now required to wear a mask—which can be made of cloth, fabric, or other breathable material—that covers the nose and mouth. Whether you are riding the bus, waiting in line at your local taco truck, or visiting a healthcare provider or facility, you are required to wear a mask.* But masks have been hard to find, due to global shortages and high demand. Oakland’s local activists and artists are stepping up to meet the community’s needs as best they can. Below are some of the Oakland-based mask makers who are helping to ensure we stay safer during the pandemic.

Masks for the Movement Empowers Garment Workers from LA to the Bay

In March 2020, when a friend of Kimi Lee asked her to make cloth masks destined for a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border, Lee recruited five of her friends and they sewed 250 masks that were donated to the camp. This effort planted a seed that would evolve into Masks for the Movement.

Lee’s experience as an activist stretches back twenty years to when she helped form the Garment Workers Center in Los Angeles. After sewing 50 masks personally back in March, Lee, who is now based in Oakland, had the idea to tap the workers at the Center to produce masks at a larger scale that would benefit essential gig-economy workers who rarely receive any type of protections from the corporations that employ them. 

The production model of Masks for the Movements ensures that for $10 (plus shipping) the mask you receive ensures garment workers are being paid a fair wage. By partnering with the Garment Worker Center Los Angeles as well as Bay Area-based organizations including Mujeres Unidas y Activas, La Colectiva, and Chinese Progressive Association, with every mask you purchase from Masks for the Movement for yourself, another mask will be produced and donated to a gig economy worker. 

Photo: Kimi Lee dropping off packages for shipping at the USPS
Photo: Kimi Lee dropping off packages for shipping at the USPS (Source: Masks for the Movement Facebook page).

The next day she created a Facebook page and Google order form. Within 24 hours, she had received over 200 orders. By Day 3 of the order form going live, she had received thousands of orders. 

Masks for the Movement is scaling up quickly and partnered with Gig Workers Rising to help distribute masks. Since Gig Workers Rising announced the program, over 500 gig workers have signed up to receive a donated mask.    

Lee’s innovative approach to match the skills of unemployed garment workers to the overwhelming demand for face coverings has its own logistical challenges, especially related to sourcing enough fabric and elastic to meet demands. But within a few weeks, Lee says they are now operating at full capacity. 

Informed by her years of worker advocacy, Lee cautions individuals to make thoughtful purchasing decisions when it comes to masks, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. As individuals, “we should not be buying the N95 masks that healthcare workers desperately need and this movement is about making our own.” Your purchase should be about “respecting this essential skill and not exploiting our garment workers,” Lee added. 

“This moment is a resurgence for local garment workers being valued. We are seeing how some people who had been garment workers twenty years ago but lost that livelihood due to global trade agreements, are now sewing masks for us. Garment making is something workers traditionally did at home before globalized trade shifted the work to sweatshops in other countries in order to lower the cost of mass production.” 

Lee encourages Oaklanders to make their own face coverings, too. “Be creative and come together with your friends and family—just make them. You can make them out of old sheets and clothes and towels and 5 or 6 patterns you can choose from.” She added, “anything is better than nothing, so please just cover your face.” 

Masks the Town Girls and Kids in Your Life Will Love

Yasmin Arreola is an artist based in East Oakland known on Instagram as @hellacrafty. Arreola makes apparel and accessories for women under the brand name Town Girl. She makes Town Kids children’s apparel, too. Before the pandemic forced the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, Arreola also taught the art of sewing to high school students part-time.

“The mask making started because my suegro, or father-in-law, has been working this entire time as a maintenance manager. A few weeks ago he asked me to make him a mask. I made a little sample and I like to experiment. My mother-in-law suggested making more.”

“Then my cousin reached out asking for some masks, too. I spent a day and half creating new versions, modifying pre-existing templates, experimenting so I don’t have to use adjustable cords, or how I can use nylon instead of cotton. Thinking through the design process, what would I wear?”

The high demand for masks combined with the loyal following of Town Girl apparel (@hellacrafty has over 14k followers) means Arreola’s masks go fast. “My first batch of 20 masks sold out in 3 minutes. My next batch [of] 30, sold out in 5 minutes.” It’s become a family project with an Instagram photo showing Arreola’s husband Daniel Silva and his parents helping out. “I am now making about 20 to 50 masks a day with the help of my mother-in-law,” she said via a phone interview, while the sound of her sewing machine churned in the background.

Arreola’s optimized design includes 3 layers, including a water-resistant nylon outer layer and an internal muslin pocket for inserting replaceable filters. She was able to ramp up her mask protection by spinning a disappointment into an opportunity. “My son’s first communion celebration was cancelled so I used some of that money on supplies instead,” she said.

Using her Town Kids brand label, Arreola also offers smaller-sized masks for children. “I have an 8 year old. When I make stuff for me, he wants stuff too.” 

Given the anxiety many children and their parents are going through due to the pandemic, Arreola wants her children’s masks to evoke lighter and more joyful feelings. “I wanted to make sure these colors are bright. Because everyone is scared, these kids are paranoid because they hear their parents talking about the virus. Let’s not make these masks medical, let’s keep it fresh so kids want to wear a mask. The bright colors, the straps, the Town Kids label. Make it art.”  

Her mask colorblock designs echo the 90’s vibe and colorways you can expect from her Town Girl aesthetic. “I’m a 90s baby so I love those colors. My father was a painter and color was a such a huge part of my life. I am not shy about color and grew up in a house with lots of color.”

Arreola has faith that Oakland will emerge stronger than ever from this crisis. “Town girls get exposed to a lot—whether we like it or not. All this pressure gives us an attitude like a shield. Every town girl has this in them and they don’t know it is a good thing because society tells them they aren’t good or they are a bitch but I see through that. Just like pressure makes a diamond, Town Girls come out and shine.”  

She has advice for Oaklanders, too. “I had my reservations and opinions about the virus, how people reacted freaked me out more than the virus. But wearing a mask is something we can do to protect ourselves and each other.”

Arreola’s face masks are $20 each and she also offers tagless, gender neutral masks for sale. Visit her @hellacrafty Instagram and turn on notifications to know when she posts a new batch of masks available for sale. As soon as the batch is sold out, Arreola updates the photo caption with “SOLD OUT.”  You can also visit her website shop, but her Instagram account will reflect the most current availability. 

Face Masks with Eye-Popping Patterns from SONSON

a yellow background with a ring a colorful, printed fabric masks.
Masks by SONSON. Image via SONSON’s Instagram.

Originally from New Orleans, Oakland-based designer Rashima Sonson said, “I’ve always been one of those individuals who wants to help.” For the past six years, her business making formal and freestyle bow-ties has included a seasonal back-to-school giveaway. 

Sonson has a degree in textiles and industry awareness of international textile trade. She was also already familiar with the common use of masks in Asia. “Before the masks were recommended here, I was already thinking about how to donate.”

In the beginning, Sonson posted to LinkedIn and Twitter asking for ways to donate to medical professionals. “I didn’t hear much from hospitals, but I can’t tell you how many emails I received from individual medical professionals who were interested.” Sonson sent care packages to hospital workers at Kaiser Oakland, New Orleans East Hospital, and Johns Hopkins. 

“Then people wanted to buy masks. Demand is so high, I have to cap the amount of masks available in batches, so people can expect to receive their mask within two weeks of placing an order.” Each batch Sonson has posted has sold out within a day. Recently, in honor of Mother’s Day, she offered a selection of masks with matching head wraps and a crown pin accessory that sold out within hours.

Sonson’s designs are high quality, with multiple layers of protection. Some designs are reversible using a mix of traditional and modern African fabrics. “I am trained pattern maker, with decades of experience. I’ll see a fabric and know instantly that this pattern fabric will be amazing in a mask.” 

Photo: woman wearing face mask and headwrap made from the same patterned fabric
Oakland-based SONSON created reversible face masks in light of COVID-19. Image via SONSON’s Instagram.

Sonson started her custom bow-tie business with a mission to select visually stunning fabrics that highlight cultural heritage and serve as a conversation starter. Sonson said, “People will go through their day without talking to each other but sometimes a piece they wear can create that connection. It’s like art, both the bow-tie and face mask are at eye level, just like how you hang art on a wall. It’s a way to build relations and create a dialogue.” 

She encouraged Oaklanders to think of the new face covering rule in Alameda County as an opportunity to look out for fellow neighbors. “It’s something small, but we have to start somewhere. It is not just protecting you, it is protecting other people, too. We have to make sure each and everyone of us is doing to our part to stay safe.”

Sonson’s slogan for this time is “Stay safe and cover your face.” Her masks are one way people can stay safe in style. The best way to get one of her mask designs is to visit the SONSON website and sign up for email mailing list. Sonson email subscribers will get the notice first before masks are posted on Instagram. Face mask prices range from $9.25 to $19.50 each and matching headwrap and mask sets are listed at $45. 

More Mask-Makers and Community Programs to Check Out

Spirit of Oakland Mask Drive

Spirit of Oakland is a fiscally sponsored volunteer project to support the city’s most marginalized. Founded by DeeDee Seren, Spirit of Oakland organizes awareness campaigns, benefit concerts, trainings and more. Through donations and the purchase of apparrel, Spirit of Oakland raises emergency funds that can be used to purchase face masks for medical staff and un-housed people. Spirit of Oakland has already distributed over 600 N95 masks and disposable jumpsuits to Highland Hospital, Kaiser Oakland, and UCSF Hospital. Learn more on the Spirit of Oakland’s website

Indigenous Folk Art with a Function  

Laura Y.O., an Oaklander with the Instagram handle @Lauris5816 provides face makes with the traditional Indigenous embroidery of artisans based in Mexico. The masks have different options, including a pocket for inserting additional filters. Each mask has unique embroidery representing floral designs or iconic birds in vibrant woven threads of color. The sales of these masks benefits artisans in Chiapas, Mexico. Currently sold out, she hopes to have more masks available soon. Follow her on Instagram.

Beastmode’s Birthday Give-Away

NFL Pro running back Marshawn Lynch remains undefeated in the hearts and minds of Oaklanders, even during a pandemic. Lynch celebrated his birthday on April 22nd by donning a crown and cruising around Oakland in a cargo moped distibuting masks in Beastmode-branded packages to individuals and small businesses, including Ideal Cleaners in downtown Oakland.

Now Beastmode is offering a complimentary Beastmode mask with every purchase. Proceeds from apparel sales will be used to purchase PPE for essential workers. Check out the Instagram post to learn more.

*Exemptions to the Mask Order

*You are exempt from wearing a mask if a medical professional has advised you against it due to a health-related reason. You also do not have to wear a mask if you are vigorously excercising or while alone in your car.

Author Profile

An Oakland resident for over 25 years, Kat Ferreira's local Fruitvale area roots skip back a few generations to the early 1900s. Active in the community, she has volunteered with a variety of Oakland-based nonprofit organizations and neighborhood groups, including the Eastlake Music Festival, Friends of the Oakland Fox theater, Wardrobe for Opportunity, and more. Her professional background spans the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, with an emphasis on community advocacy, nonprofit fundraising, social policy research, online marketing and social media. You can follow Kat on Twitter and Instagram.

1 Comment

  1. Do you know of local agencies needing sewn cloth masks still? I have donated 800 so far and would like to keep them here locally, if possible.

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