How A Kansas City Furniture Maker Recruited Refugees To Make Thousands Of Masks
John Pryor's furniture business was just three years old when the pandemic struck. He put away his saws and sandpaper, and enlisted the help of Kansas City's refugee community to produce thousands of masks in the interim.
It almost sounds like a joke — what do you get when you cross a furniture maker, a high school math teacher, an opera singer, and Kansas City’s refugee community?
In the case of Madison Stitch, the answer is a whole lot of masks.
The furniture maker, John Pryor, owns Madison Flitch in the Crossroads. When shutdown orders came in March, he knew he had to pivot hard and fast to keep his business afloat. He jokes that he was so close to OSHA and other government buildings that “I didn’t feel like I could secretly stay open and make furniture.”
Pryor, who has advanced degrees in history and theology, opened Madison Flitch three years ago with the idea that he’d transform urban and suburban trees — and all the markings unique to the diseases, fungi, and pests of the Midwest — into high-end furniture.
“A boutique furniture artist isn’t in high demand during a time of crisis,” he says.
After considering several options related to personal protective equipment, he decided that masks would be the most in-demand item he could produce under the circumstances.
When he introduced them on his website in late March, he sold 50 in one hour. The next day the CDC announced that everyone should invest in a mask.
“Then things got crazy. We got thousands of orders in,” Pryor says.
So, he had to find a way to deliver. He says he reached out to anyone and everyone who might be able to sew, including three groups that work with refugees: Rightfully Sewn, Catholic Charities, and Refugee Employment Services.
His request spread quickly by word of mouth.
“We started having refugees show up at our door from Burma and Afghanistan, those were the main two countries we connect with,” Pryor says. “We’d give them materials and training on the face mask construction, they’d go home, make it, and then they were paid per mask.”
Pryor rapidly assembled a team of 60 remote “stitchers.”
Among those remote stitchers, though not refugees, were Kim Dicus and Amelia Clark. Dicus is a math teacher at Olathe North High school and knew Pryor from college. Clark just finished a PhD in music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and quickly lost so much work that a friend sent her Pryor’s social media post about his need for people who could sew.
Clark and Dicus eventually took up more than stitching. They began helping with both the operations and the design side. The mask business had been so brisk that Pryor decided to add aprons, cloth bags, and leather bags that incorporate his artisan woodcraft into their design.
This new part of Madison Stitch will formally launch July 14 with 18 bag and four apron designs. It will eventually have a retail space next door to the existing business and include smaller handmade items as well.
Like the other stitchers, neither Clark nor Dicus had experience in design, but they were willing to learn.
"I’ve done a lot of costuming,” Clark says. “I haven’t done a lot of handbags, and the leather has been a learning curve, but it’s been kind of fun and interesting and neat to learn.”
Pryor has begun to think of the new enterprise as a fusion between local and global.
Pryor says, “We wanted to keep our connection to the community, because they were highly skilled people who were looking for work and could work.”
In searching for appealing ideas, they came across furoshiki bags from Japan. Pryor describes them as linen bags that fold like origami and have leather or wooden handles. They’re popular in several Asian countries but not yet in the United States.
Pryor really liked the idea of incorporating a design that comes from the continent that was once home to many of the refugees they’re working with.
“We’re trying to use local materials like local leather, but at the same time we’re using global ideas and global skills that are just located in Kansas City,” Pryor says. “It’s a fusion that exists right around us.”
After the online launch of the new line of items, Pryor plans to hire two full time employees from the refugee community, and will employee more on an as-needed basis depending on how many orders they receive.