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Mililani woman on a mission to create fabric face masks

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Mililani resident Aki Shin has stepped up production of fabric face masks at home since taking a voluntary furlough from her job at Hawaiian Airlines. Pictured with her is her husband, Shawn, and children Adam, Aileen, Andrew and Amiee.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

Mililani resident Aki Shin has stepped up production of fabric face masks at home since taking a voluntary furlough from her job at Hawaiian Airlines. Pictured with her is her husband, Shawn, and children Adam, Aileen, Andrew and Amiee.

When Aki Shin started sewing face masks in February, it had nothing to do with protection from the coronavirus.

The Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant who lives in Mililani was preparing for a trip to Japan, during which she would visit with missionary friends James and Mona Lam … in the middle of pollen and hay fever season. Every year there at that time there is a run on masks in Japan, and the Lams told Shin to bring her own if she could.

“People in Japan wear masks because of the pollen.” Shin said. “The day before I was to fly to meet them, they told me there are no masks available in Japan, so make sure to bring because I wouldn’t be able to buy any there. So I decided to make some for them, too.”

Shin, 37, had never made masks before, but it came naturally to her.

“God told me, ‘Try, I’ll show you.’ I kind of figured it out, no pattern or anything, just started cutting my fabric and it worked,” she said.

It probably helped that she had learned how to sew at an early age, from an expert: her mother, Mieko.

“My mom graduated from dressmaking school. When I was growing up (in Japan) she’d take me to the store to buy fabric, and she began to teach me. She never praised my project until it looked perfect. I appreciate her so much now.”

Soon after Shin’s return to Hawaii, word of the coronavirus spreading to Hawaii started getting serious; so Shin made more masks. People at her church and other friends liked the designs, and demand soon grew faster than she could make them.

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On April 1 she took a voluntary furlough from the airline, with a scheduled return in September.

“I did it to help the company and it’s the best for the family, too,” she said.

She and her husband, Shawn, have four children, ranging in age from 2 to 8. Shawn is a Department of Defense analyst and a captain in the Army Reserve. He can’t discuss his work, but it is quite possible at least some of it involves fighting the virus, and as a reservist he could get called to active duty if things get bad. He is also an elder at their church, The Gathering, in Mililani.

Aki Shin cares for her young children, and makes masks as quickly as she can.

“Oh my gosh, I just made a list, I only make them when I’m contacted personally. I’ve made 80 so far,” she said last week.

She charges $15 for each one, which is just a little bit more than the cost of material.

“My wife, Julie, first noticed the masks Aki made and ordered for her, my daughter and me,” said James Shiroma, pastor at The Gathering and the Shins neighbor. “We have enjoyed wearing these masks. They are high quality and styling at the same time. Aki makes each mask with a lot of love and care for the person who will wear them.”

The woman who sewed her first masks for people who were on a mission in her home country feels like she is on one herself now.

“As our island and most countries are shutting down, I miss my family in Japan very much,” Shin said. “Especially my mom, who has a medical condition that makes her immune system lower than for healthy people. But sewing gives me joy and purpose. My mom was very precise and made me redo projects. But she was very patient, gentle and kind with me. Her box full of shiny buttons and colorful threads looked to me like jewel boxes.”

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