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Noted: The Seamstresses Behind the Space Suit

Aug 11, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

I once had a teacher who delighted in pointing out the human touches in manufactured products. “Hopelessly handmade,” he’d exclaim, his arms wildly gesticulating in front of a projection of an Eames-era, bent-chrome chair. Beyond the perfect right angles and impeccable seams, there was always just enough imperfection to prove his point: behind every good object is an even better person.

Yet when it comes to the exact science and mathematics of aeronautics, “handmade” is the last word to enter my mind. In a new book about the design process of the space suit, architecture professor Nicholas de Monchaux explains how the NASA space suit was assembled by seamstresses who worked for the International Latex Corporation, more commonly known for making Playtex bras. As a symbol of man’s ability to launch himself to mythic proportions, the astronaut was made possible by a talented group of ladies. “They had to sew to a 1/64th of an inch tolerance without using any pins,” explained Monchaux in a recent interview. “So there was no question that it was kind of a couture handicraft object versus something made according to more conventional military industrial principles.”

So often when histories are written, many people and their stories are overlooked in favor of big-name heros. In a subject that tends to highlight names like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, it’s refreshing to see the story retold from another angle that includes someone like Hazel Fellows, one of the women who helped assemble the first American space suit. “Like few others in the whole process, [these seamstresses] really had the lives of the astronauts literally in their hands,” Monchaux reflects. “They had a skill and dedication that was unparalleled.”

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2 Featured Comments

  • VintageEyeFashion

    VintageEyeFashion said 8 years ago Featured

    So often the achievements of women have been overlooked or even suppressed by history. It's nice to see this story brought to the forefront.

  • recycledideas

    recycledideas said 8 years ago Featured

    Such a neat story, and so inspiring to know that behind those monumental achievements there were thousands and thousands of tiny little stitches. I wonder if the suits astronauts wear now are made the same way. One of my friends is an astronaut. And she's a woman, one of the last ever to ride the Shuttle. So proud of her! Very cool to hear the history behind her suit.

91 comments

  • anotherghostquilts

    anotherghostquilts said 8 years ago

    Fabulously interesting!

  • NervousWardrobe

    NervousWardrobe said 8 years ago

    Great!!!! " As a symbol of man’s ability to launch himself to mythic proportions, the astronaut was made possible by a talented group of ladies." Well.. "This is a man's world, this is a man's world But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl You see, man made the cars to take us over the road Man made the trains to carry heavy loads Man made electric light to take us out of the dark Man made the boat for the water, like Noah made the ark This is a man's, a man's, a man's world But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl" :))Great article! Well done seamstress!

  • PaperAffection

    PaperAffection said 8 years ago

    That's an awesome bit of uncommon history. Go handmade!

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 8 years ago

    Have seen those suits a million times and never thought about who sewed them. Yea for Hazel - she's like the Betsy Ross of the space program.

  • Suppliesjungle

    Suppliesjungle said 8 years ago

    yes yes yo!!

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey said 8 years ago

    Such a neat piece of history; thanks for sharing!

  • nonesuchgarden

    nonesuchgarden said 8 years ago

    What a great story!!! Yay handmade!

  • hawthornehill

    hawthornehill said 8 years ago

    To think it all started with bra sewing!!!

  • LaurelCanyonBeads

    LaurelCanyonBeads said 8 years ago

    Wow, inspiring. more unsung female heroes of our culture! Brava!

  • ryy469

    ryy469 said 8 years ago

    Well I guess the old saying is true ! Behind every successful man there is a creative, talented woman. Of course I added the creative and talented.

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 8 years ago

    Great post, yet again! Fashion and space exploration, yup! They can't just go up there in blue jeans and tshirts :D

  • FrayedFuzzies

    FrayedFuzzies said 8 years ago

    I was absolutely fascinated by the space program as a child. Add to the fact that my grandfather worked as an electrical engineer on the Apollo missions and I was hopelessly enthralled :) But never once did I think of who/how the space suits were MADE. Thank you for sharing :)

  • amysfunkyfibers

    amysfunkyfibers said 8 years ago

    It's amazing to think of all that has unfolded in this century alone. Very thoughtful article.Thank you!

  • HouseOfMoss

    HouseOfMoss said 8 years ago

    That's something I had never thought of. Way to go, handmade!!

  • HGStudios

    HGStudios said 8 years ago

    This is amazing to me! I love learning new things. Love it.

  • VintageEyeFashion

    VintageEyeFashion said 8 years ago Featured

    So often the achievements of women have been overlooked or even suppressed by history. It's nice to see this story brought to the forefront.

  • girltuesdayjewelry

    girltuesdayjewelry said 8 years ago

    Awesome story! Thank you for sharing this.

  • adorablebannerco

    adorablebannerco said 8 years ago

    I love this; I've actually wondered before if the suit was sewn and if so by whom. Thank you!

  • bananastrudel

    bananastrudel said 8 years ago

    I like how it specifies that the spacesuits were sewn 'without using any pins'. It wouldn't do to have little holes in the spacesuit now, would it?

  • MissTessaMelissa

    MissTessaMelissa said 8 years ago

    I just got off the phone with my ten year old sister after offering to teach her to sew this year because no one else in the family (alive) knows how besides me. This was the first thing I read after I hung up, and I cannot wait to talk to her about it later! It is amazing to think of the unsung heroes out there that keep the seams of this world (and beyond) stitched together!

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign said 8 years ago

    I have a son who is mad about space but we have never thought about the hands behind the suits. Thank you once again for opening our eyes.

  • DeNovoStyle

    DeNovoStyle said 8 years ago

    Oh I love that! I never really even thought about the fact they were sewn by someone. Yeah, everything would have to be perfect. Super awesome! Hope those women have had years of fun talking about being the astronaut seamstresses.

  • Earthroot

    Earthroot said 8 years ago

    wow thats fantastic!

  • NecessiTees

    NecessiTees said 8 years ago

    I love hearing the 'behind the scenes' stories like this one! Thanks for spotlighting these talented women and Nicholas de Monchaux's book!

  • rarebeasts

    rarebeasts said 8 years ago

    Wow, it makes sense that the spacesuit would be handmade but i would never have thought about it. Great article.

  • AliceCloset

    AliceCloset said 8 years ago

    I love this story!! Really interesting and so cool! Thank you for sharing :D

  • bluebirdluxe

    bluebirdluxe said 8 years ago

    What an amazing and fascinating story! I do want to read up more about Hazel and the seamstresses! I wonder if they stroll through Etsy?! :) Thank you for a great article!

  • salvageshop

    salvageshop said 8 years ago

    i cannot wait to tell my boyfriend! thank you for this tidbit of interesting american history :)

  • recycledideas

    recycledideas said 8 years ago Featured

    Such a neat story, and so inspiring to know that behind those monumental achievements there were thousands and thousands of tiny little stitches. I wonder if the suits astronauts wear now are made the same way. One of my friends is an astronaut. And she's a woman, one of the last ever to ride the Shuttle. So proud of her! Very cool to hear the history behind her suit.

  • KINGxACE

    KINGxACE said 8 years ago

    Interesting article! It's true that behind almost every object is the person's hands who made it, wether in a factory by the thousands, or made painstakingly one by one :)

  • smellyrhino

    smellyrhino said 8 years ago

    Our trip to the Space Center in Huntsville last year surprised me with the story of the seamstresses who created the suits. I definitely didn't expect to read about that amidst the rockets! Great post!

  • tjalaine

    tjalaine said 8 years ago

    What an interesting post! I love little known history (and handmade, of course), so stories like these really make my day!

  • MandyBesek

    MandyBesek said 8 years ago

    This is amazing - thanks for bringing this up!

  • AccentsandPetals2

    AccentsandPetals2 said 8 years ago

    Great post. Thank you for sharing.

  • saracakes09

    saracakes09 said 8 years ago

    Amazing! Woman sadly are overlooked and aren't mentioned as much, but kudos to this writer for bringing this overlooked achievement to the spotlight that it rightfully deserves! If it weren't for these amazing seamstresses Buzz and Neil would've stayed inside the spacecraft!

  • HellYeahISew

    HellYeahISew said 8 years ago

    This. Is. AWESOME. I had a friend who worked for Lockheed as a design engeineer and he could never answer *WHO* makes the space shuttle? He couldn't believe someone could be in awe that it's laborers who used to build houses, fix pipes, or make toys. He said, "Duh."

  • MomsCottage

    MomsCottage said 8 years ago

    Super cool!

  • JulieMeyer

    JulieMeyer said 8 years ago

    Love this little nugget of info! I love to imagine the 'who' was behind everything I use on a daily basis.

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 8 years ago

    Amazing!

  • kararane

    kararane said 8 years ago

    ~wonderful dreams that are built with so many, many hands. Our human gift to be used for L♡ve, with peace, and in space*

  • iAmTheGem

    iAmTheGem said 8 years ago

    Amazing Story! Thank You!!

  • soundsofthesea

    soundsofthesea said 8 years ago

    Interesting tidbit about the suits...shamefully I never gave it much thought. Your story makes me wonder how many other things I take for granted!!?? Thanks.

  • NatalieDrest

    NatalieDrest said 8 years ago

    I would love to see some footage of the spacesuits being made - I bet they had some interesting tips and tricks!

  • lesthings

    lesthings said 8 years ago

    Great article!

  • redemptionart

    redemptionart said 8 years ago

    unsung heroes....how i love and admire these people...just quietly making a positive impact on our world!

  • LavenderField

    LavenderField said 8 years ago

    Amazing! I never thought of that !!

  • GloryBDesign

    GloryBDesign said 8 years ago

    Wow! I guess I had just always assumed that the fabric was somehow fused together, not hand sewn! I've always been in absolute awe of the space program and astronauts in general! Now I'm in awe of these incredibly talented seamstresses that played a big part in making it all possible! Their work provided perhaps the most basic and critical defense for the space explorers! Truly unsung heroes!

  • ElenasLoom

    ElenasLoom said 8 years ago

    Amazing! Thanks for sharing, i didn't know that!

  • Sapucha

    Sapucha said 8 years ago

    What a great angle to write from. We get so caught up in the big picture we forget about the little details! This was fascinating!

  • vianegativa420

    vianegativa420 said 8 years ago

    You really want to go behind the scenes of the US space program? OK, I dare you to research one Dr. Hubertus Strughold, father of aviation and space medicine. We brought him to this country, and gave him immunity from prosecution. At the Dachau concentration camp he was known as Dr. Death for the decompression chamber experiments and extreme cold experiments he carried out on the inmates there. He continued those experiments on US soldiers at Randolph AFB when the USAAF brought him to the US after the war ended. I know this because my father WAS one of those soldiers. Maybe one of your family members was, too. Still think the space program is so bloomin' wonderful? Or maybe you like that it's OK for your government to experiment on people without their consent.

  • magdamagda

    magdamagda said 8 years ago

    I often feel so excited when stitching like I've made a trip to the Moon and back!:D

  • thehappycouple

    thehappycouple said 8 years ago

    My husband will find this so interesting. He loves Space and I love sewing. It's amazing what we humans can do and what skills we require to do it.

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 8 years ago

    Interesting, Never thought about the people behind the suit.

  • leilanibrandon

    leilanibrandon said 8 years ago

    Makes sewing a wedding gown seem easy since there is a little more room for inexactness. Never occurred to me that the suits were sewn, much less sewn by people! Fascinating...

  • YarnUiPhoneApp

    YarnUiPhoneApp said 8 years ago

    What an incredible story...those women will be talking about those spacesuits for the rest of their lives. Forget celebrity gown, girdles...they did something for their country. Go U.S.A.!

  • ItTakesUndertanding

    ItTakesUndertanding said 8 years ago

    I took a field trip to the NASA space center when I was young and was amazed at the intellect behind it all, but now, I have a totally different reverence for a great American advancement. How awesome is that?!

  • IcingOnTheMoon

    IcingOnTheMoon said 8 years ago

    Amazing, to think of how a few pinholes could lead to disaster. I don't think I'll ever get all worked up again over having to pull out stitches! Love the inside scoop.

  • miasole

    miasole said 8 years ago

    Who knew! Interesting fact, which makes it all the more importance when you sew (fix) something for someone and they say thanks you saved my dress! or in this case space suit.

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 8 years ago

    Very true! Never forget the people behind the scenes, the people who got the glory could not have got there if it were not for the huge team behind the scenes!

  • reflectionsjewelry

    reflectionsjewelry said 8 years ago

    Oh my! I never thought of it in that light before...........

  • tribalissima

    tribalissima said 8 years ago

    Terrific article and inspirational take: 'behind every good object is an even better person'

  • Whimbrella

    Whimbrella said 8 years ago

    When I was a pre-teen at the height of the space race-to-the-moon my family visited NASA during our annual trip to Houston from our home in Los Angeles. It was a very different place and feel to now. Two things stood out in my mind: 1) Mission Control was a much smaller room in person than how it looked on tv (due to wide angle lense in the top corner of the room) and 2) how amazing the space suits looked up close. Each was custom made specfically for a particular astronaut. Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

  • JeanB123

    JeanB123 said 8 years ago

    Yes,I did think of it as we have factory here in N.H. the Globe tha nakes firman, military, and other suits and they have to be perfect! Great story!

  • barnheart

    barnheart said 8 years ago

    1/64th of an inch! How amazing and wonderful. Every artist's talent always blows my mind. I wouldn't even know where to begin on a sewing machine. Bravo!

  • AliceSioux

    AliceSioux said 8 years ago

    I do appreciate the article but the term 'seamstress' is anachronistic as it is sexist usage when all other words with suffix 'ess' are being discarded this one seems to denote lowly women in the trade while a man is called a ''tailor', why not a 'seamster'l? I like sewing professional personally. But kudos to the women behind the scene @ NASA~! Garments will always be made by hand b/c fabric is flimsy and must be handled by hands. And pins are a crutch, btw...every good seamster should learn to sew without them~!!!

  • Nativwomn

    Nativwomn said 8 years ago

    Wow! Good to know.

  • ConfettiWestern

    ConfettiWestern said 8 years ago

    Coolio

  • AdoAnnie

    AdoAnnie said 8 years ago

    Take this a step further. In the early 1960s there was a group of thirteen women who trained just as hard and passed all the tests to be astronauts until Valentina Tereshkova flew for the USSR and NASA decided they didn't need to prove anything with women anymore and disbanded the group. Ah, well, we give ourselves wings. Alice Sioux, I am hearing the word 'sewist' used in place of seamstress. Oh, and do you know what Tereshkova's job was before she became a Cosmonaut? She was a textile worker, a seamstress. Life is ironic.

  • SimplyTLee

    SimplyTLee said 8 years ago

    what a neat article!

  • CassidysCottage

    CassidysCottage said 8 years ago

    So interesting! I will have to tell the kids about it. I love stories about the unsung heroes. :)

  • AnnaCreates

    AnnaCreates said 8 years ago

    This is super interesting, thanks! I love knowing this! (says the woman who stapled her sewing badge onto her girl scout sash!)

  • falaahart

    falaahart said 8 years ago

    great article

  • PyxusPassionProject

    PyxusPassionProject said 8 years ago

    What a great story to highlight.. as VintageEyeFashion commented - women are overlooked in so many of history's great accomplishments. 1/64 of an inch.. now that's some skills!

  • VisibilityCloak

    VisibilityCloak said 8 years ago

    Great story!

  • EcoFoto

    EcoFoto said 8 years ago

    I love that the suit was made by a bra seamstress!

  • ashleychilds

    ashleychilds said 8 years ago

    It certainly is all about the details! Wonderful story

  • dankartistry

    dankartistry said 8 years ago

    Hopelessly Handmade! Ah, such is life!

  • bobbijordan

    bobbijordan said 8 years ago

    what an amazing structure--the human hand. Capable of such great things. Another pioneering woman!

  • capriciousme

    capriciousme said 8 years ago

    Great bit of history! :)

  • SouthPawBeads

    SouthPawBeads said 8 years ago

    LOVE it! off to share on my wall

  • AmberGypsySky

    AmberGypsySky said 8 years ago

    now that is amazing!

  • spgtkids

    spgtkids said 8 years ago

    every once in a while ill daydream about the team responsible for the space suit. never thought to actually look it up though

  • thesocialseam

    thesocialseam said 8 years ago

    I had no idea....and I love it! Thanks for the article.

  • SigalFJewelry

    SigalFJewelry said 8 years ago

    This brings us to the old saying: "Behind a great man is a GREAT WOMAN"

  • JennasRedRhino

    JennasRedRhino said 8 years ago

    I attended a very technical school of apparel design and one of my teachers worked on super complex stuff like buoyant survival suits. This sort of work is so incredibly fascinating to me. I love the complexity of the articulated pattern pieces. One of my projects was to make a ski coat that looked like an astronaut's suit.

  • JennasRedRhino

    JennasRedRhino said 8 years ago

    Sewing without pins is something that you get used to. Pins just slow you down and can cause damage to the needle, fabric and machine. You get used to looking at small measurements and now I can quite accurately look at a space less than one inch and tell you the measurement to the 1/16 of an inch.

  • milkandcookies

    milkandcookies said 8 years ago

    wow! that is fascinating!!!

  • tinybabylady

    tinybabylady said 8 years ago

    I always love reading fun things about space and have always been fascinated by the thought of weightlessness. One of my favorite movies to watch while I crochet is Apollo 13. Thanks for a fun read and for giving due to the little people in the background that make all things work out right!

  • metalicious

    metalicious said 8 years ago

    I can't imagine the level of detail and skill she needed to make this, so glad Etsy has found a cool handmade angle in something so scientific as space travel!

  • EvesLittleEarthlings

    EvesLittleEarthlings said 8 years ago

    Another amazing example of how one discovery leads to another and skills learned doing one thing are changed and used to make new things. I love this story and am off to find out more!

  • mylenefoster

    mylenefoster said 8 years ago

    Wow! This is something I didn't know. I wonder what kind of thread and material they used.

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