Facemask Q&A with Shapeshifters Eli Coughlin-Galbraith

First, let me (Sue) apologize to our readers. One question I submitted to Eli used gendered language that is inaccurate. Eli addressed the issue in their response. I did apologize privately, but want to hold myself accountable. It was a careless error caused by sloppy proofreading, but I realize that the impact could be very harmful. I resolve to be more careful moving forward. I hope Eli and you will forgive me, and help me to do better ~ Sue

person with short hair wearing a purple face mask

Going outside and dealing with people during a pandemic is stressful enough; doing it while trans and trying to stay safe is worse; getting misgendered constantly while under that much stress can be unbearable.

We make masks with pronoun sets in big bold letters, which helps for some of us. I also quite like the ones that just say ‘LEAVE ME ALONE’.

One important part of the Pittsburgh MasQUe ProjecT is highlighting safe and affirming places for trans and queer folx to purchase masks. In addition to this Q&A series, we maintain a list on the project homepage. This Q&A was crafted to highlight some unique aspects of the participating businesses and explore related issues, including the manifestation of racial justice in the LGBTQIA+ community and the real struggles of running a small business in this economy.

Next up is Eli from Shapeshifters. I was introduced to their company by a colleague and intrigued by the general awesome queer aesthetic. You won’t regret browsing their store and reading the website. They very thoughtfully made the transition to producing masks in response to calls for help by local hospitals and adjusted their production staffing to protect everyone. It sounds like a thoughtful, constructive business model.

Name: Eli Coughlin-Galbraith
Pronouns: They/Them
Your Business Name: Shapeshifters

How do you describe your identity? Queer and queerer.

Tell us about your company. Shapeshifters has been making custom-sized chest binders and sports bras to-order since 2014. We work with customers individually to tailor the perfect fit and aesthetic. We’re here to prove once and for all that chest binding can be stylish, comfortable, effective and safe.

How did you decide to create and sell facemasks? Our local hospital put out an urgent call in mid-March for volunteers: they didn’t have the masks they needed to get through the coming weeks. We’d closed our production for shutdown, our employees were at home, and we needed some way to help. So we started sewing masks from the hospital’s pattern and dropped off the first several batches right on their doorstep. We figured out design, production chain, private pricing for the long-term, and ways to employ folks working at home as we went.

Please describe your mask style for our readers. What inspired the design? Over the first few hundred we modified the design a half-dozen times, reworking it to fit our faces and our needs, and the needs of the folks who gave us feedback. That’s how we did binders, too: we kept changing the patterns until they really worked.

Our current mask style is a three-pleated rectangle mask with an optional flat nose-wire and four different options for fastenings. We offer classic ear loops, long around-the-head loops, cord ties, and a hybrid style that’s my personal favorite: a cord tie on the bottom and a long loop on the top. It’s easy to adjust without touching the body of the mask, pulls on and off without a lot of fuss, doesn’t hurt the ears, and doesn’t fog up glasses, either.

We offer dozens of different colors and prints, including a custom pick-your-own print option. Also, you can add spikes.

The Pittsburgh MasQUe ProjecT was established to connect trans and queer community members with facemask vendors that are respectful & safe. We live in a world where bakeries go to the Supreme Court to deny us wedding cakes and health care providers want to deny care to transgender neighbors. It is not a big leap for those of us who are queer to imagine being refused a chance to buy a mask when that is legal, like in most of Pennsylvania. That’s why I want to highlight your masks. Being safe isn’t just about wearing the mask, it has to be about securing the mask in the first place. Your thoughts? Luckily we’re in Vermont, where getting masks to wear hasn’t been too hard. We offer contactless pickup as well as shipping, so folks can get them from us entirely anonymously if they so choose.

However, in conversations with our customers and the wider trans community, we’re hearing a frequent safety concern that when many of our folks wear a mask, we find we’re misgendered more in public.

Going outside and dealing with people during a pandemic is stressful enough; doing it while trans and trying to stay safe is worse; getting misgendered constantly while under that much stress can be unbearable.

We make masks with pronoun sets in big bold letters, which helps for some of us. I also quite like the ones that just say ‘LEAVE ME ALONE’.

Some of the mask selections

It is also important for all of us to support a local small business owned by queer women. How have you and the business been navigating these past months of plague, economic uncertainty, and demands for racial justice? First, I do need to correct the record: our business is entirely owned by non-binary and genderqueer people. We’re certainly both queer, but “woman” is iffy!

(There IS a queer woman-owned mask-making business in our town, too – Warp and Weft, run by the inimitable Allyson Wendt, who I’m happy to get you in touch with if you’d like!)

Shapeshifters is nothing without our people. We closed down studio production in mid-March, spent a few weeks giving our staff full paid time off while we made masks and reconfigured the studio, and very slowly restarted production with fully staggered shifts. Since March 13th, no two people have worked in the Shapeshifters studio at the same time unless we’re already quarantining together. We moved operations to a smaller studio with an external entrance so there’s no neighboring foot traffic. We all clean a lot. It’s slow but it’s safe, and we’re prepared to go on with staggered shifts for the forseeable future.

Vermont has been good to its small businesses; we’ve applied for and received state-based grants to patch us through and keep our employees paid during downtime. We’ve been paying it forward as best we can by donating face masks to local schools, shelters, social service offices, protests, rallies, and racial justice organizing groups. We’ve also worked with Out In The Open, our local LGBT+ community organizers, to offer a Rural QTBIPOC Binder Giveaway for queer POC in rural areas who need a chest binder that fits. So far, we’ve filled every request and still going strong.

You are known for your “fashionable, size-inclusive, gender affirming clothing.” How are those values reflected in your masks? I mentioned the pronoun masks, which are a popular way to assert gender right on your face! And our range of fastening options is geared towards fitting every size and shape.

We treat our mask fabrics in the same way we treat our garment fabrics. We stock by aesthetic — neutrals, florals, rainbows, space, Halloween, and so on — and firmly encourage folks of any gender to play with whatever aesthetic they like. Wear flowers! Wear stripes! Wear a weird print that looks like the static patterns on old televisions! We will always defend everyone’s right to dress in ways that make them feel good.

How long do you plan to offer face masks? For as long as folks are interested! We fully plan on just stocking them in our accessories line, Hooded Stranger, even after the plague has been vaccined into submission. Personally, I may never go out without a face mask again.

What else can people buy from you? There’s our custom-sized, hand-made, made-to-order binders and sports bras, of course; our famous binder dress, which will come out of hibernation again soonish. And under our Hooded Stranger line, we also offer various accessories! Headbands, wristbands, sleeves, and dice bags all made from spandex scraps left over from our garments; door hook keychains for hands-free door opening, 3D printed right here in town; quippy pin-back buttons designed by us and pressed by indie custom button press Portland Button Works; and one-of-a-kind tote bags made from cork and lined in recycled fabrics.

Where can our readers find you online and on social media?

You can find our store at https://shapeshifters.co/

Tumblr https://shapeshiftersinc.tumblr.com/
Twitter https://twitter.com/shapeshifterscb
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/shapeshifters.binders/
Instagram https://www.instagram.com/shapeshiftersinc/?hl=en
Youtube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC93nSccyX–cFU7LqroNj-w

Anything else you’d like readers to know? Yes. Here in Brattleboro, workers’ rights have been under attack all year. As police violence grows and customer-facing work becomes increasingly risky, several businesses in our local community are choosing to fire people rather than listen to them. It’s grim. I’m sure the same story is playing out all across the country as cases rise and workers realize they won’t risk their lives for their boss’s Tesla payments.

Those of us in Queer Community(™) throw the word ‘community’ around a lot, but it’s in scary times like these that we truly learn how mutual aid and support will save us where capitalism fails. If you have a mutual aid network in your area, please seek it out. Help if you can. Accept help when you need it.

We want to see you make it through this.

Thank you, Eli.

The Pittsburgh MasQUe ProjecT connects members of the trans and queer community with face masks to protect them during the coronavirus. This includes identifying safe vendors for purchasing masks as well as offering mask distributions. To sign up as a featured vendor, please email us at pghmasqueproject@gmail.com


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