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Auntie Sewing Squad Bonds Multiple Generations Together to Fight COVID-19

In the very beginning, Gayle Isa and family pick up their first batch of fabric to cut from friend turned Auntie "Overlord” Kristina Wong. | Photo by Gayle Isa/Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad
In the very beginning, Gayle Isa and family pick up their first batch of fabric to cut from friend turned Auntie "Overlord” Kristina Wong. | Photo by Gayle Isa/Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad
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In households from California to Indiana, some 40-plus kids gather in front of their respective computers (some with “Auntie” and “Uncle” squad-member parents or grandparents beside them) on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-June to attend the first day of the inaugural Auntie Sewing Squad Summer Camp. Led by self-professed “Sweatshop Overlord,” performance artist and elected official Auntie Kristina Wong, facilitated by Auntie Cyndi Wang Brandt and taught by Auntie Gina Rivera (with her daughter Isabella assisting), Wong stresses at the onset to the campers, ranging in age from six to 14, that this is a family affair: “You are all my nieces and nephews and non-binary kids I love.”

The cuteness of the young, enthusiastic faces in the virtual camp is overwhelming, but its underlying motivation over the next four Wednesdays and the Auntie Sewing Squad itself — a network of now 800-plus volunteer home “sweatshop” sewers — is a matter of life or death. COVID-19 continues to take the lives of people every day, and these kids are joining the ranks of their elders by learning how to sew face masks for vulnerable populations without access to them. Many of the campers have already helped cut fabric or sew masks over the past few months to help meet the numerous requests the Auntie Sewing Squad receives daily. The squad has now produced more than 55,000 masks.

This camp, however, is just one line of attack for the grassroots organization that started out of Wong’s Koreatown living room in mid- March. What began with just rallying some of her friends who had basic sewing skills and were also incensed (to use a gentler word) by the government’s failure to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for those working in the frontlines to fight the disease, the Auntie Sewing Squad has produced tens of thousands of free masks that have been distributed all over the country, not only to hospitals, but also to grocery-store employees, several tribes and numerous other essential workers. They’ve also expanded into collecting other goods, most recently for the Navajo Nation, including diapers, surgical gowns, thermometers, equipment and supplies needed to construct clean-water stations and, in collaboration with friends from the 3D PPE Artist Network, face shields.

Uncle Van Huynh sews masks for the Auntie Sewing Squad with his mom. | Sam Huynh
Uncle Van Huynh sews masks for the Auntie Sewing Squad with his mom. | Sam Huynh

And from the beginning, the Auntie Sewing Squad has involved multiple generations of sewers. Wong herself grew up visiting her grandparents’ laundry and alterations business in San Francisco: “Fabric and garments and thread are in my blood,” she says in a Facebook post to the group. Her mother and her mother’s friends are also part of the squad as well, helping to produce masks for people in the Bay Area.

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Among the summer campers is eight-year-old Davina, daughter of arts professional Gayle Isa, “Auntie Care” as she is called, who has been coordinating the distribution of all sorts of donated items beyond sewing supplies — from homemade baked goods and meals to fresh fruit from aunties’ trees and poems and encouraging letters — to share among the invisible labor force. “I’ve helped to facilitate over 350 Auntie Care offers or requests logged on the Community Care spreadsheet,” says Isa, who often does drop-offs and pickups with Davina. “It is always very exciting to see the diversity of neighborhoods where people live — it made me feel closer and more a part of this city.” 

The mother-daughter team alone has also sewn nearly 400 masks. “Davina learned from her dad how to use a 1943 Singer sewing machine, and then she taught me how to use it,” shares Isa, who sees the sense of community among Auntie Sewing Squad members as the silver lining to this dire situation. “I love the humor and lightness and passion for cookies and treats that individuals and the group are able to embrace simultaneously with commenting on and tackling huge issues of societal inequity and systemic racism and injustice. And that with community care and so many other aspects of how the group engages with each other, we are creating the kind of world that we want to live in.” 

Uncle Van Huynh, who befriended Wong last year through their involvement in API Rise, has been averaging 200 masks a week since March, and shares similar appreciation for the group and its mission. It is his eponymous mask pattern, the “Uncle Van Huynh,” which he adapted from an existing pattern online, that kids of the summer camp and most of the squad are using. “My family used to sew for income back in the day, and I helped with the sewing as a kid, [but before joining Kristina], the last time I sewed with a machine was at 14. I’m almost 43 now,” he says. “I started sewing these masks by myself in the garage … my brother started to help me cut the patterns and sew when he dropped by the house. Then the second week my mom and sister wanted to help.”

The experience of being part of the Auntie Sewing Squad and, specifically, sewing with his mom, has not been without its difficulties: “I’ve been away from my mom for 25 years in the least gentle way,” shares Huynh, who was released from an ICE detention center 15 months ago after being ordered to be deported and, prior to that, serving a long prison sentence. “I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with her even though it was she who took me and my sisters on a little boat to escape Vietnam when I was four. It was she who found the hidden juvenile hall and came and visited me when I was facing a long prison term even though she couldn’t speak any English. This is the long answer to how my mom and I feel when we are spending time next to each other sewing in the home that the police stormed in and dragged me away from years ago.”

Eight-year-old Auntie Davina and the vintage sewing machine that she taught her mom, Gayle Isa, to use. | Photo by Gayle Isa /Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad
Eight-year-old Auntie Davina and the vintage sewing machine that she taught her mom, Gayle Isa, to use. | Photo by Gayle Isa /Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad
Trays of homemade cookies for the Aunties baked by eight-year-old Davina and her mom, Auntie Care coordinator, Gayle Isa. | Photo by Gayle Isa/Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad
Trays of homemade cookies for the Aunties baked by eight-year-old Davina and her mom, Auntie Care coordinator, Gayle Isa. | Photo by Gayle Isa/Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad

Huynh is not taking any time he has now for granted, nor the personal connections he’s made through the Auntie Sewing Squad, knowing his time in the U.S. isn’t guaranteed: “I’ve been involved with social justice work since I’ve been released from prison, and the Auntie Sewing Squad is doing that work. I prize the personal connections I have with Kristina . . . the whole squad community, just knowing it exists and so alive with the passionate beating of so many warm hearts of all the members,” he says. “I’m only out here because caring strangers advocated for change, so it feels great to be able to contribute and do the same for others (in any way possible). It feels great to not feel powerless. It feels great to not feel alone.”

To learn more about the Auntie Sewing Squad, visit them on Facebook or Instagram or donate to the cause here. You can also follow Overlord Kristina Wong, who has performed a number of virtual shows inspired by her experience running the Auntie Sewing Squad.

Top Image: Van Huynh’s mother, sister Rita and nephew Willy sew masks for the Auntie Sewing Squad. | Courtesy of Van Huynh

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