Behind the Mask-Making with Jonson Li

by Elizabeth Rubenstahl

Before March 22, Jonson Li had never sewn a stitch. Not. One. Stitch. By mid-May, he and his wife, Lilya, had sewn and donated over 1400 masks to facilities requesting personal protective equipment (PPE) from Sewing Masks for Area Hospitals (SMAH). How could someone without previous sewing experience become so proficient so quickly? Jonson attributes his mask-making success to a combination of practice and process.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The overwhelming demand for PPE in the form of home-sewn masks started Jonson on his sewing journey. Even in January, masks were difficult to come by. By March, the demand was astronomical and growing.
A Facebook post led Jonson and Lilya to SMAH, and a friend further recommended the group. They became involved two days after Kirsten Hawkins, Kayla Hittig and Gina Livingston came together to create the organization.

When Jonson began sewing for SMAH, he had no idea how many masks he and his wife would create. He originally assumed they would make between 50 and 100 masks. After all, he had never sewn before and was simply looking for a way to get involved with a great cause. SMAH fit the bill: The organization provided essential PPE through a zero-contact distribution network. All volunteers were encouraged to stay home, stay safe and get sewing.

Jonson and Lilya certainly got sewing.

On March 28, Jonson saw an open request from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) for 4000 N95 mask covers. CHOA decided to use SMAH exclusively for distribution, which meant all hands on deck for SMAH volunteers. Undaunted by the large request, Jonson and Lilya pitched in to help fill the order. “That’s a lot of masks,” Jonson remembers telling Lilya. “We better get started.” Jonson’s statement captures the urgency felt to help those on the frontlines, but his emphasis on speed was not at the expense of consistency.

How can one make a mask faster without sacrificing consistency? Revamp the process.

Don’t Trust the Process: Fix It

As he became a proficient sewist, Jonson started improving the process for making masks. “Find a process, and make it more efficient and faster” was his mantra. With backgrounds in engineering, Jonson and Lilya’s interest in improving processes comes as no surprise. The process for making surgical masks was one begging for improvement.

Many people, especially newer sewists, avoid making surgical masks because the pleating can be difficult and time-consuming, Jonson explains. Pinning, in particular, takes a long time. To combat the daunting and time-consuming nature of pleat-making, this engineer-turned-sewist created a YouTube video demonstrating how to make pleats for surgical masks in under 45 seconds. Focusing on consistency and speed, Jonson and Lilya are able to sew 400 surgical masks in less than a week using their process.

As he became a proficient sewist, Jonson started improving the process for making masks. “Find a process and make it more efficient and faster” was his mantra. With backgrounds in engineering, Jonson and Lilya’s interest in improving processes comes as no surprise. The process for making surgical masks was one begging for improvement.

Many people, especially newer sewists, avoid making surgical masks because the pleating can be difficult and time consuming, Jonson explains. Pinning, in particular, takes a long time. To combat the daunting and time-consuming nature of pleat-making, this engineer-turned-sewist created a YouTube video showing how to make pleats for surgical masks in under 45 seconds. Focusing on consistency and speed, Jonson and Lilya are able to sew 400 surgical masks in less than a week using their process.

This outstanding productivity has contributed to SMAH’s total of over 40,000 donated masks in under two months. Jonson and Lilya’s emphasis on processes matches that of SMAH. He complements the organization’s efficient, contactless pickup of materials and drop-off of masks. When asked how he stays motivated to sew, Jonson cites setting time aside to sew and a deep appreciation for the cause.

Yet Jonson and Lilya are known not only for their speed and efficiency but also their kindness. One healthcare worker reachout out personally to thank the couple for their efforts, exclaiming “What a morale boost! Their care and compassion has [sic] made a difference to us. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!”

Likewise, SMAH decided to salute the efforts of Jonson and Lilya with a gift any sewist would love.

They Don’t Make ‘em Like They Used To

To celebrate their astounding efforts, Jonson and Lilya received a beautiful 1953 Singer sewing machine and cabinet, generously refurbished and donated by Evan Pitman. Evan, an engineer and sewing-machine hobbyist, describes the 1953 Singer Model 15-91 as a “workhorse.” The manual for the model 15-91 similarly states that the machine will provide “practically life-time service.” With Evan’s help, this machine has the chance to provide such service once again. Jonson and Lilya demonstrated how well their new 1953 Singer works after Evan’s refurbishment in a Facebook video.
For those interested in getting involved with SMAH, Jonson reminds that you don’t have to be a sewist. After all, he wasn’t when he first started with the group. Like the Nike tagline, Jonson recommends new sewists “just do it.” In true Atlantan fashion, he encourages all current sewists to “keep sewing, y’all.”