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The Seamstresses Behind the Apollo Spacesuit | Profiles in Sewing History

How remarkable sewing skills helped an unlikely company get a contract with NASA

When you think about NASA and space exploration, you might picture brilliant engineers, scientists, and mathematicians hovering around computers crunching numbers day in and day out. But did you ever think about the role seamstresses played in making sure Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon safely in 1969? This edition of Profiles in Sewing History is dedicated to the exceptional seamstresses behind the Apollo spacesuit.

A 1968 Apollo spacesuit. Photo: courtesy of ILC Dover.

A brief history

Before the Moon walk, astronauts only needed to wear suits that would keep them protected inside a spacecraft. However, in 1962, the government started its search for a spacesuit manufacturer that could meet its strict need for a more protective, life-sustaining suit. The reason is that plans were being made to have the astronauts leave the lunar lander and step onto the Moon. 

Suit requirements

The ideal spacesuit had several prerequisites that would be difficult to incorporate into a single garment. First, the suit needed to be especially tough to withstand the Moon’s extreme temperatures, which range from minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. It needed to protect the wearer from solar radiation and micrometeorites (fast-traveling particles that move faster than a bullet). In addition to being extra strong and durable, the suit needed to be flexible so astronauts could move their arms, rotate their hands and shoulders, bend their elbows, twist and bend at the waist, etc. Furthermore, the suit needed to be inflated with air and pressurized in order to sustain life. Clearly, making a spacesuit was not going to be easy.

Identifying the competition

Ultimately, NASA received spacesuit prototypes from eight companies, including several of NASA’s recurring contractors: Hamilton Standard, BFGoodrich, and the David Clark Company. There was one company, however, that made an unexpected entry. It was ILC (International Latex Corporation).

ILC was best known for its women’s underwear brand, Playtex, at the time, which sold several rubber-based products, including rubber diaper covers and rubber girdles. But when World War II resulted in rubber rationing, ILC almost went out of business. To help keep the company afloat, company officials created an industrial division, which manufactured goods that could be sold to the government. When company officials heard about the spacesuit contest, they jumped at the opportunity.

Announcing the winner

ILC was just what NASA wanted—for the most part. It was determined that ILC designed the best suit, but the contract actually went to Hamilton Standard. The plan was to have ILC make the suit, but Hamilton Standard would be responsible for inspecting the suit and delivering it to NASA, simply because Hamilton Standard had a history with NASA.

A rocky relationship

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. For nearly three years, Hamilton Standard and ILC tried working together, but there were too many disagreements. Eventually, Hamilton Standard requested ILC be removed from the contract, and NASA obliged.

The drama continues

Now NASA was left without a spacesuit. So the federal agency put together a final contest in which Hamilton Standard and the David Clark Company were invited to see who could make a better suit. When the head of the ILC team heard about this, he flew to the NASA headquarters in Houston, Texas, to complain. Suddenly, ILC was allowed to enter the contest. However, they had to pay their way and only had six weeks to build their suit. 

This didn’t deter ILC. Instead, the company worked nonstop to meet the deadline and, once again, delivered. The ILC suit was proven, by far, the best.

During tests to determine which suit best satisfied the rigorous specifications, the helmet of the David Clark Company suit blew off and, when the Hamilton Standard suit was inflated, the shoulders expanded so far that it could no longer fit through the spacecraft’s door. These test results, paired with the limited mobility afforded by both competitors’ suits, made ILC the clear winner.

This time, ILC got the spacesuit contract all to itself, although Hamilton Standard ended up supplying the life support system attachment.

An illustration of the Apollo spacesuit highlights just how much detail goes into the protective garment. Illustration: courtesy of ILC Dover.

ILC’s advantage

While ILC was an unexpected winner, it was the perfect company for the job. For one, ILC had an unbelievably talented team of seamstresses. In fact, some seamstresses and technicians from the Playtex department were asked to work in the industrial division to help with the spacesuits. The seamstresses even had a say in how the spacesuits were constructed. In an interview from the “Outer Space & Underwear” Sidedoor podcast, retired ILC employee and Apollo spacesuit seamstress Jean Wilson said the engineers really took the seamstresses’ feedback into consideration when creating the spacesuit.

“[The engineers] always worked on it with us very closely,” she said. “When they felt it was something that was really difficult for us to do, then they would go in another direction . . . Our jobs all connected together.”

In addition, ILC knew a thing or two about strong, supportive, yet flexible materials. Believe it or not, the very “joint” they created to make sure astronauts could bend at the necessary places was made with the same materials found in Playtex women’s underwear products. More specifically, these joints were made with the type of webbing found in bra cups, latex used in girdles, and nylon found in bra straps.

This close-up shows an ILC seamstress sewing a spacesuit. Photo: courtesy of ILC Dover.

The final suits

In the end, the suits consisted of 21 layers of material, including rubber, neoprene, synthetics, nylon tricot, and more. With so much to account for, it’s no surprise the suits had a regimented construction process. First, the suits were created using blueprints instead of patterns, and each suit had to be sewn as precisely as possible. To be more specific, a stitch that was 1/32 of an inch off wouldn’t pass inspection. In fact, every stitch of every layer of each spacesuit had to be counted for safety purposes.

Joanne Thompson, another ILC seamstress who worked on the spacesuit, said in an episode of the Teamistry podcast, published by Atlassian Work Life in 2020 that there was a lot of testing and training even before the final suits were made.

“We were given pieces of fabric that we were supposed to cut into certain sizes and stitch them together and make seams on them and copies of the seams that were projected for the suit,” she said. “Every seam you had to make sure you had the right amount of the stitches for that seam so that it could bear the load.”

If that wasn’t enough, the price of the fabric used was so high, it had to be locked in safes. All in all, the suits were estimated to cost $100,000 at the time.

ILC seamstresses hard at work. Photo: courtesy of ILC Dover.

Exceeding expectations

While everyone expected the seasoned engineers from companies NASA had collaborated with in the past to acquire the spacesuit contract, that wasn’t the case this time around.

ILC had just what NASA was looking for, and it made its way to the top fair and square. The fact that the company had a background in women’s underwear gave it a great advantage when it came to developing a unique way for the spacesuits to bend and move easily. ILC’s team of seamstresses had the skills, foresight, and determination to create NASA’s ideal spacesuit, which ended up meeting all the space agency’s requirements. It was a perfect match, and the two entities have been collaborating ever since.

Did you know how important skilled seamstresses were in helping to land astronauts on the Moon? Were you aware of how strict the sewing guidelines were for the Apollo spacesuits? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Sources:

Chaikin, Andrew. Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Was Made by a Bra Manufacturer. Smithsonian Institution, 1 Nov. 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/neil-armstrongs-spacesuit-was-made-by-a-bra-manufacturer-3652414/.

Cowperthwaite, Gabriela. “The Team that Fashioned Apollo 11,” June 21, 2020,  Teamistry Season 1 Episode 8, an Atlassian Work Life podcast, https://www.atlassian.com/blog/podcast/teamistry/season/season-1/the-team-that-fashioned-apollo-11.

Fishman, Charles. The Improbable Story of the Bra-Maker Who Won the Right to Make Astronaut Spacesuits. Fast Company, 15 July 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90375440/the-improbable-story-of-the-bra-maker-who-won-the-right-to-make-astronaut-spacesuits.

The Museum at FIT. “Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.” Designing Spacesuits, 15 Nov. 2017, https://exhibitions.fitnyc.edu/expedition/designing-spacesuits/#more-108.

“Outer Space & Underwear.” Smithsonian, 4 Mar. 2020, https://www.si.edu/sidedoor/ep-1-outer-space-and-underwear.


Illustrations: Steven Fleck, based on photos courtesy of ILC Dover.

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