INDUSTRY UPDATES: COVID-19

YaY Novelty Builds a Better Facemask

“I feel like everything that happened in my life was for me to learn and use right now”

Who sews 300-400 facemasks a day – by herself? Sunchea Phou, founder of YaY Novelty, has set that goal, sewing 15 hours a day and shipping masks for 3 more. “If I start to fall asleep, I know it’s time to stop,” said Phou. “I pay attention to my body clock. And then when I wake up I start sewing again.”

Famously driven, Phou often worked around the clock at NIKE’s headquarters during her Seattle Seahawks Superbowl uniform design project, and has juggled as many as four jobs at once. But it was Phou’s NASA astronaut wearable technology design job that was the inspiration for her mask project. “I had been thinking about doing a mask in January, but at that point the CDC hadn’t recommended it,” said Phou. All that changed when Phou had a conversation with her longtime client Sonal Tambe, CEO of Nimble Heart. Phou had helped Nimble Heart develop and produce a heart rate monitoring harness for NASA astronauts (the harness is now FDA approved and is going into production for clinical use).

“Our harness involved electro-mechanical parts and industrial sewing, and Sunchea helped solve all those challenges. Her mechanical aptitude and inventive capabilities are matched by her understanding of biomechanics and how to fit different sizes and bodies,” said Tambe. “But the most important quality that Sunchea has compared to other industrial designers is her desire to help people. That’s what makes her different, and that’s why I thought she was the ideal person to invent a new mask design.”

The YaYmask is designed to wear over an N95 mask or a surgical mask, to increase the longevity and enhance the performance of both. But it can also be worn by itself for protection during ordinary errands. “I spent a lot of time engineering this mask so it’s simple to produce without compromising performance,” said Phou. “I feel like everything that happened in my life was for me to learn and use right now.”

Phou is particularly proud of the mask’s comfortable air-pocket design, gap-free fit, multiple attachment options (including a button headband for healthcare workers and others who need to wear the mask for longer periods of time) and high-performance fabric. “If fabric is too close to your nostrils, or the filter material is wrong you feel suffocated. I engineered it so there is an air pocket so you feel comfortable, which is especially important for people who already have breathing conditions,” explained Phou. “Everyone is sewing cotton masks, but there are performance fabrics that help reduce the condensation inside your mask by wicking away the moisture from your breath, and reducing gaps as the fabric moves and stretches.” Sourcing the right fabric was a particular challenge. “I found a 1 mm high-tech three-layer knit made with Micro-air technology. Having three layers is important, so when the knit stretches, the layers cross each other to prevent droplets from getting through,” said Phou. “That knitting technique also has a wicking effect, which draws moisture from the inside to the outside of the fabric. So, it’s quick drying because if its design, not because of a chemical treatment.”

Travel Goods Showcase profiled Phou’s philanthropic work in Cambodia, in articles about her 2018 TGA Community Service Award and Corporate Social Responsibility. So, it will be no surprise that Phou’s first question was “Can I make something that is more high performance and not sell it for profit?” Phou has hired additional sewers and is aiming for an initial production run of 50,000 masks, with a total production of 1 million masks. She will donate some YaYmask to frontline workers, and sell the rest at her cost ($5 for mask, $6 for headband). “I hope my customers will help me get these masks out to those who need them. My wish is that people will see this as a way of promoting their business during this downtime. Since I’m selling this mask at my cost, I want people to not resell it at a profit. But they can give it to their customer or sell it at cost.” To help cash-strapped travel retailers Phou is distributing through Tundra, which offers a $50 credit for new customers, no minimum order, free shipping and 60-days dating with approved credit (use referral link https://www.tundra.com/invite/sunchea-2db5t to get the $50 credit). The general public can also order masks through yaymask.com.