Behind the Face Masks
Set Design Company Becomes Face Mask Machine
By: Fabiola Esqueda
Packagers seal the packages, this is the final step of the production line. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
Compton, California — In a remote industrial street in Compton, owner and CEO Megan Duckett, closed the doors to her set design company for the first time since its opening in 1998.
Duckett didn't have a single order to make or ship; every customer had canceled their order. She had run out of money to pay her workers. It was Friday, March 20, the day after Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the Safer at Home order mandating the shutdowns of non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We went from a full set of books with orders, rentals, [and] custom packages to nothing in a ten-day window,” Duckett said.
Duckett had always made sure her staff was paid before she took her salary and was dismayed when she knew she’d have to tell her workers she couldn’t make payroll. She had no choice but to tell her 35 employees not to return to work.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” she said. “To think, in those 22 years, I never said to my employees, 'I cannot pay you.’
Adding certainty to an urgent issue, that same Friday night, Duckett’s dedication to pay her workers helped her spin frustrated emotions into a brainstorming session on how to save her company. She noticed how civilians worried about the shortages of face masks. Duckett saw this as her solution; producing face masks was the key to saving her company.
“I thought to myself, ‘what is my problem’? I am surrounded by an amazing team of people,” Duckett said. “Look at the sewing room; years and years of sewing experience.”
Megan Duckett poses for a picture in her office. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
The United States’ lack of preparedness during coronavirus was an opportunity for Duckett to save the jobs of her employees and help alleviate the burdens of face mask shortages.
Duckett decided she would do anything to keep her business afloat. On Sunday, Duckett spent the day on her computer reaching out to everyone she knew. After posting on Facebook and sending emails to people in her community, she had orders of 230 face masks. The only problem was, she had no idea how to make one.
Duckett’s small company broke the mold. By Monday morning, four employees had returned to the factory to learn how to produce a face mask. Luckily, seamstress skills are sensational in the sewing room.
Don Vicente Torres, 65, is one of the four who received a call from his boss. He has worked for Duckett for 13 years as a seamster. Since his childhood in Guatemala, Torres had never stopped working. So, when Duckett called him, he felt relieved; he needed to return to work.
Don Vincente Torres fixes the lining of a face mask. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
Without a job, “there would have been nothing for rent, for food, and I would have lost my mind being at home,” Torres said.
Megan Duckett admitted the challenges in production work. “The team has put all the pieces together. It is very miraculous,” Duckett praised.
Yet, she said, the job came with a few catches for those who decided to rejoin the Sew What team.
The first day back to work, no one would get paid. All the proceeds would go to different non-profit organizations that faced greater burdens during COVID-19; this was a one-time deal. Additionally, the pay would be less and the workdays longer. But within a week, all 35 employees agreed to come in.
1. Seamstress workers heading to work after their lunch break 2. Workers wait in line to get their temperature checked. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
Going into the factory, workers must get in line. There is a mandatory temperature check every morning and afternoon.
The workers directly walk to their stationary sewing-machine, start sewing, and sit in the same position for 11 hours.
Noone hardly looks up.
Before she began producing face masks, Duckett ran an award-winning entertainment and event company that manufactured custom theatrical drapes for the concerts of famed superstars like Lady Gaga, along with prestigious award-shows like The Oscars. But when COVID-19 hit, the company suddenly had no requests for drapes and hundreds of orders for face masks.
Seamstresses hard at work in the sewing room. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
A look into Sew What before and after COVID-19. Produced by: Fabiola Esqueda
The transition from creating massive pieces of artistic drapery to face masks did not come easy to the team. The task of making facemasks is rigorous and more demanding than handling theatrical textiles.
Amelia Martinez, 48, prepares her breakfast at her home before an 11-hour workday. Like many other workdays since COVID-19, her Monday - Saturday days start by waking up before the sunrise and driving to work. She has worked for Sew What for eight years as a seamstress.
For Martinez, the changes have not been easy. She said face masks require more precision and attention to detail than drapes. Before they moved around lifting material or helped a coworker, but now they sit on the same chair for 11 hours a day.
“You only get up to use the bathroom, and go to lunch,” Martinez said.
With the coronavirus, the demand for face masks rapidly outran the time that workers could produce face masks. And with many California states making face masks mandatory in public, the team was forced to work at a rapid pace. On average, the workers make 1,000 masks a day.
“It was a drastic change, and it came out of nowhere,” Martinez said.
And yet, despite the physically demanding labor, Martinez had never felt more determined and proud to work alongside her “family.” “I wanted to help the boss because she means a lot to us,” she said. “She helps us, so we need to help her.”
Amelia Martinez focuses on making material evenly for the face masks. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
Some of the restriction’s workers face include no longer having lunch in the break room. The room was a place of laughter and gossip. Most will share their food, asking around to see what everyone brought. Now all employees must eat separately. Most eat in their cars, but during hot days some go outside and find a shady tree. It is a procedure meant to keep everyone safe.
By April, two weeks after the transition, everyone received their starting salary; this was good news, but for Duckett, it meant having to furlough some of her workers again.
Susana Lopez and Don Vincente eat lunch outside the factory next to trees to cool down. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
“The tough decisions are gut-wrenching,” she said. “But they are made so that when things come back to normal, we can be our complete family again.”
Duckett was born in Melbourne, Australia, where she started working as a production driver for concerts. In 1991, she moved to Los Angeles with no plan to return home. Seven years later, she founded Sew What.
As the coronavirus spread, Duckett began rethinking her role in the company.
Beyond managing a small business Duckett is now the web developer, sales director, order tracker, negotiator, and even the model for her new product. Duckett said the only reason she models her own face masks is to save money. "I don't have to pay myself," she laughed.
Megan Duckett models the face masks for the companies social media pages and website. Photos by: Sew What
Before photoshoots, she draws on her signature eyeliner. When she does not work on her makeup, she looks over her outfit. Her sleeve tattoos match her gothic style.
When she is not running an enterprise or modeling, she is working on the floor alongside her employees. During the first couple of weeks of business, she spent her time cutting material, and now she runs the embroidery machine. Duckett said she feels like she is attending design school. "I am excited by how much I am learning right now,” she said.
Despite her successes, Duckett’s employees worry about the well-being of their boss.
Susana Lopez, 54, has worked with Duckett for 14 years as a seamstress. Lopez said she has never seen Duckett work as hard as she has since COVID-19 began. Yet she is grateful for the amount Duckett has done to keep the business afloat.
“She never gave up, she hustled every day to find us work,” she said. “Thanks to god and Megan, we are here.”
In the early stages of reopening, Duckett slept in her office; if she slept at all.
Aracely Flores, a 15-year employee at Sew What, works four feet away from Duckett’s embroidery station; Flores said one day she turned around and saw Duckett crying. “Some days, I couldn’t tell if she had just cried or just hadn’t slept,” Flores said.
Yet, Duckett seemed more determined than ever to keep the sewing-machines running. She had zero intentions to close her business. “You hammer at it until you get there. I cannot imagine seeing something happening to the company, not after all this time,” she said.
Duckett gets to work before anyone else. When the clock strikes six, she leaves the office to say good morning, she repeats it twice once in English and another in Spanish.
These days, she is finding new innovative ways to improve the lives of everyday people by trying to solve the problems that come with having to wear a face mask. Part of that includes inventing an ear-safer system that gives face mask wearers a break from wrapping a mask behind their ears.
“When you're wearing a mask, plus with glasses, it is claustrophobic, plus your ears get sore,” she explained.
Duckett also created a level-3 medical grade surgical scrub cap for the medical field.
Megan Duckett and medical professionals model Sew What products. Photo by: Sew What
Still, the company’s future is shaky, because Duckett can only guarantee everyone’s employment for May. She applied for government aid, but the manufacturing contract will end in a month. After that, the future of the company is unknown.
The company typically relies on the business of concerts and events, as of now cancelations and postponements of concerts could last until fall 2021, according to medical professionals and California Governor Gavin Newsom. But despite the many difficulties brought on by the coronavirus, Duckett shows no signs of slowing down.
“We are here that I can tell you. And we are going to continue full steam ahead. And I will continue to make the tough decisions as they arise entirely with the focus and the goal that we will all be back together and that the Sew What story gets to continue.”
Lola Salcedo stitches together material. Photo by: Fabiola Esqueda
Back on the sewing floor, Martinez, Torres, and Lopez hemmed fabric through the production line. Each person had a task that requires perfection.
Traditional Mexican music fills the entire factory, some singalong. The speaking has dialed down; you can only hear the packagers speak; the others are too busy looking down on their sewing machines.
A look into the production line of face masks. Video produced by: Fabiola Esqueda
Megan Duckett and her employees do not speak much. There is a language barrier. But it does not stop her from showing everyone how much she appreciates them all.
“I have never really felt a lot of worth alone,” Duckett says. “I get support and energy from a family environment. And that is what we have here. So, I feel like I am the fortunate one.”