The seamstresses behind NASA's space suit

This is a photo of Hazel Fellows, one of the women who sewed and assembled the first American space suits produced by the International Latex Corporation—a company better known for making Playtex girdles and bras.

Nicholas de Monchaux, an architecture professor, has a new book out about the design process that went into making a wearable life-support system that could protect humans in space. He gives a special focus to women like Ms. Fellows, whose sewing skills kept astronauts alive. It's a fascinating bit of untold history.

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.

... 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.

Via Txchnologist


  1. it is still somewhat of a ‘couture handicraft’  I’ve worked with the women who will be working on the next gen of space suit at Oceaneering Space Systems (that is if they make it through the project/contract remodel alive).  Imagine going into the back room of an Asian tailor accept that everyone is wearing bunny suits and gloves. If you want more info on that let me know.

    1. TJ, 

      That would be pretty awesome. Can you drop me an email? maggie (dot) koerth (at) gmail

  2. I met several of these ladies!  I visited ILC more than a decade ago, and they were still hard at work creating custom-fitted gloves for individual shuttle astronauts.

    I was impressed by their small-town warmth and politeness, as well as their calm competence.  Very nice people.

  3. This is Amazing!  As a costumer and seamstress for a living, I make a lot of Space/Sci-fi Inspired outfits, but all for fashion, nothing for function.  These women are truly inspirational!

  4. Brilliant. More something we have never thought about.  The highest technology the species ever made depends on the handicraft of women. Neglected and vastly under-praised.

  5. Sigh, what a great book and I would LOVE to order it from MIT Press and give them all the money but it’s $35 from them and only $22 from Amazon (and free shipping). My respect for the independent sellers isn’t worth $13.

  6. My step father worked at Dover AFB, Delaware and would tell us after the astronauts would leave.  He couldn’t tell us before they came or while they were here, he said it was classified, but would tell us when they left that they had been in the area getting fitted for their space suits.  The suits were made in the Dover, Delaware area, I believe it was in Frederica, DE where they were made.

    1. Frederica, yes.  ILC (uhm, I think International Latex Corporation originally) is headquartered in Delaware and has a shop in Houston, too, near the Johnson Spaceflight Center.

      Nowadays the astronauts only have to be custom-fitted for gloves, the rest of the suit is assembled from standardized parts.  The suits are amazing – articulated steel and miles of wire and tubing underneath those bland white exteriors.

  7. Wow, speaking as a seamstress, 1/64″ tolerance with no pins is really impressive.

    I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. Now I want to be a fashion designer… clearly, my ultimate dream job must be making space suits!

    T.J., I totally want to hear more about this as well, please! I’m ekbond on gmail.

  8. 1/64″ tolerance with no pins is really impressive.

    They’re clearly not making those suits out of velvet.

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