Bras, Girdles, NASA Space Suits – All From the Same Hands

by Erina Davidson

Think you have out-of-this-world sewing skills? Well, no offense, but they probably are no match for the skills of the ladies who created the Apollo space suits. (Unless your hobby is to meticulously craft suits capable of withstanding space travel and landing on the moon. If so, I commend you.) The space suit was stitched together from 21 layers of different materials as varied as Teflon and Lycra, and each layer served a specific purpose. Here’s the big surprise – before sewing for NASA, these super-seamstresses worked on the floors of the International Latex Corporation, better known as Playtex. Before helping make history as a part of the Apollo program, they sewed bras and girdles. In the 1960s, Playtex subsidiary ILC Dover had a contract with NASA to produce their space suits. Architecture professor Nicholas De Monchaux is the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press), which explores the creative process, problem solving, and the making of the American space suit.

Above: Seamstress Hazel Fellows assembles a suit 

Txchnologist’s Matthew Van Dusen talked to De Monchaux about his book. Here’s a short excerpt of the interview:

Txchnologist: Your book is a history of the spacesuit that shows how, in the midst of NASA’s mania for systems engineering, this technical device was created largely by seamstresses.

Nicholas de Monchaux: They had to sew to a 1/64th of an inch tolerance without using any pins. So there was no question that it was kind of a couture handicraft object versus something made according to more conventional military industrial principles.

Txch: Did the public know that Playtex had created this suit?

NdM: I think it’s hiding in plain sight. There wasn’t a huge publicity effort by NASA around it mostly because there wasn’t a focus generally on identifying general contractors. Nobody was allowed to put their own logo on anything. It was all a unified effort. By the same token, within the larger culture of the military industrial complex that NASA was a part of, having a girdle manufacturer was, if not embarrassing, than certainly less than totally expected.

Txch: Do you think that the Playtex seamstresses are the unsung heroes of the early space program?

NdM: In my imagination they certainly are. Like few others in the whole process, they really had the lives of the astronauts literally in their hands. They had a skill and dedication that was unparalleled. The same women have made U.S. space suits all the way up to the shuttle and space station era, so the skill is by no means obsolete.

Txch: You explore a lot of false starts and abandoned designs by other companies involved in the spacesuit race. What did you learn about NASA from the ideas it jettisoned?

NdM: To NASA’s credit, I think they were fundamentally interested in performance, otherwise the suit never would have been successful. That said, there was a tendency in the broader engineering culture of the time to imagine that the problem of interfacing a human being into this larger technological system of the space race was an analogous effort to systems integration that drove the various components and interactions.

What became abundantly clear to me was that, not only was it not like any other design problem in the larger space effort, but it was precisely the opposite of any other design effort. The false starts were false starts that tried to design for the body from first principles as you might design a thrust nozzle or guidance system where you reduce something to a set of variables, put them into a systems engineering diagram and produce a component that met all the qualities of that diagram. That’s where you have Playtex drawing on a very different corpus of expertise: on couture sewing, on garment assembly, on stitching and biasing and all of the very different and special modes of expertise that fashion has always had in designing for the body.

I never thought I’d see ‘couture’, ‘Playtex’, ‘bra’, and ‘NASA space suit’ together in the same article. Also, I couldn’t help but think about what it’d be like to hand-sew something like the Apollo space suit. Oh, the blisters and the eye-ball twitching!

Released March 18, 2011, you can find Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo on Amazon, the MIT Press site, and at your local bookstore. Check out the book’s web page to download the first chapter and read excerpts and reviews.

Sources: The New York Times, BoingBoing, Txchnologist

Photos: MIT Press



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