The story behind Unbelts' face masks (and no, we didn't call them Unmasks)

Us in March: Make masks? Nope, not us.

When COVID-19 started to make headlines in North America, I started to get texts and jokey emails from friends: “You guys should just quit the belt business and start making masks.” “I need a mask lolz can I hire your seamstress?” But I was adamant - Unbelts was obviously NOT going to be sewing cloth masks; the CDC and Health Canada were firm in their guidelines that masks did more harm than good - that they gave wearers a false sense of security, caused more germ-spreading face-touching, and were useless at best, and dangerous at worst. I wasn’t interested in making a product designed for cash, not actual utility. 

Us in April: Whoa. Um, okay.

Then, literally overnight, those guidelines changed. On April 3, the CDC released a public recommendation that Americans wear cloth masks in public. Health Canada followed suit on April 6, issuing a statement that, while wearing a non-medical mask doesn’t necessarily protect the person wearing it, it’s “an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you.” Those ha-ha messages I’d been receiving turned to serious ones with more than a little urgency attached. “I can’t sew. Could your seamstress even just make a few for my family? I can hire her” was one of them.  

In the meantime, our March trade shows had been cancelled, and our belt retailers were closing up shop under government orders limiting business operations to essential services only. Wondering how long we could sustain our small team without the wholesale belt orders we count on every spring, I checked out the cloth offerings already available online - and saw backorders stretching to early June. I saw homemade masks with scratchy ¼” elastic that I knew would feel terrible behind the ears. And I got on the phone with our sourcing manager in Hong Kong. 

Positioned to benefit two economies

I started Unbelts eight years ago now from my Shanghai living room. There’s a lot of growing left to do, but we’ve come a long way, and collected a lot of experience getting here - including close relationships with our component suppliers, or, as the apparel industry calls them, “second-tier suppliers.”

When you run a stretch belt business, you’ve got to have a lot of faith in the people who make your elastic, your buckles, your labels, thread, and packaging - and because creating living-wage jobs is one of Unbelts’ chief purposes, it’s been really important to me to find suppliers that shared those values. Percy, our sourcing manager, has helped us build and maintain those relationships, especially after I moved back to Canada in 2014 and could no longer hop on a train every couple of months to visit our factories in person myself. 

When I called Percy about masks, my question for him was whether our elastic factory could make soft, comfortable elastic, and whether or not our other suppliers could get us what we needed to make masks that echoed our belts’ design principles: comfort, washability, and quality. In that conversation, I learned that our component factories badly needed our support. With department stores and retail giants closed, the brands that supplied them had cancelled their orders, and smaller factories like the ones we use were facing total closure. If we wanted the living-wage supply chain that had taken eight years to build to live through COVID-19, we needed to give them as much business as we could. 

Where should we sew?

Sewing masks in China instead of in Canada was a swift team decision that was based on the demand we were experiencing for a high volume of quality product - and quickly. With physical distancing in place in Canada, we could only have one person at work in our Edmonton studio, producing *maybe* 50 masks per day - and we’d have to wait for our components (soft elastic; moldable nose bridges; fabric) to be shipped from our suppliers. 

By manufacturing at the physically larger studio in China, where COVID-19 cases were declining instead of climbing, we could put 20 staff to work to produce 1,000 masks per day - and we could work with deadstock fabric (leftover material from other brands’ production runs, which provides a great opportunity to reduce textile waste).  

Our plan was to complete our first manufacturing run there, ship masks together with components, and slowly boost our inventory from our Edmonton studio. Just like with our belts, we’d focus on maintaining quality employment, regardless of geography, knowing we’d be supporting workers who’ve relied on us for years. 

Building community through cloth masks

We reached out to other local companies producing masks, and learned that a lot of them needed supply chain help. Textile wholesalers were selling out of elastic, and instead of actual nose-bridge adjusters, manufacturers were using wire from Home Depot. We decided to bring in extra supplies to sell to colleagues at-cost - if ever there was a time to operate in “coopetition,” this was it. We’re trying to solve a community health problem.

We also knew that we needed to build in a giving program, just as we’ve done with our belts - but that the donation channel was going to have to be different. Local non-profits weren’t able to accept in-kind donations for liability reasons, and we suspected that many of the individuals and families we wanted to serve might not be “plugged in” to community organizations if their economic hardship had come from sudden layoffs or the need to stay home to homeschool kids. We set up our donation request page and decided to open it to Alberta organizations and to individuals anywhere in Canada.

Finally, we decided to make mask components available to all the home sewists we know are happily unfurling stashed materials for masks but needing straps and nose adjusters. We’re not in competition with DIYers; we’re collaborators in a community health project. Also added laundry bags to help keep masks safe and healthy, too, and we’ll soon have wet bags for safer transport of used work uniforms home.

The fun part: design

Just like with our super-duper comfy stretch belts, comfort was our guiding principle with cloth masks. They had to fit humans of different ages, shapes, and sizes. They had to be easy to wear, and easy to wash. Choosing a water-resistant shell with a little stretch, plus an organic cotton liner, turned out to be a perfect lightweight combo. (We tried Tencel as a lining and rejected it after testing a prototype and realizing that soft jersey really just wants to be breathed right into your mouth and up your nose.) Soft foldover elastic that wraps around the back of the head and neck and adjusts with a toggle meant serious adjustability - and because we weren’t stitching the elastic into the masks, we could offer interchangeable straps. Fun!

And here we are.

Masks have been sewn and shipped, and we’re standing by with shipping envelopes at the ready so we can pop these in the mail to you as soon as they arrive. We’re 98% sold out of this first production run, but we’ll be making more in both our studios. We’re ready to make design adjustments and even new products as your feedback comes in, so let us know what you need. Thank you for taking this leap of faith with us!

Our masks come in adult standard, adult XL, and kids' sizes, and they're sold in value packs starting at 3 for $49. Check them out here, and browse the complete Better Together collection here.