How to Sew a Spacesuit

The Apollo Spacesuit is one of the most intricate garments ever assembled, way harder to make than your last cos-play project and nearly too difficult for even NASA. In his new book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux shows how Playtex helped to put a man on the moon.

When she arrived at ILC's [International Latex Corporation] spacesuit plant in 1965 or 1966, likely transferred from making bras, girdles, or diaper covers for Playtex, a new seamstress would be greeted by her shop-floor supervisor, and "taught to sew again from scratch."

While the practice of spacesuit sewing was in many ways identical to sewing a bra or girdle — the sewing machines and patterned templates were identical — much of the process was, by comparison, out of this world. A garment assembly line manufactures to a tight tolerance, and a couture house even tighter. The tolerance prescribed for ILC's suit assembly line, however, was derived from NASA-mandated systems engineering guidelines, and was much stricter than any normally brought to bear on a handcraft. NASA's standards pushed the very limits of the equipment used by ILC, as well as the very limits of the seamstress's own technique. The tolerances allowed — less than a sixty-fourth of an inch in only one direction from the seam — meant that yard after yard of fabric was sewn to an accuracy smaller than the sewing needle's eye. To achieve such precision, many women used a modified treadle that, instead of starting and stopping the Singer's operation, fired one stitch per footfall through the multiple layers of a suit's surface. For the hundreds of feet of seams in each suit, this meant venturing stitch by tiny stitch across the length of a football field, with a single misstep leading to a discarded suit.

At the same time ILC's seamstresses were being asked to meet unprecedented precision, they were denied the traditional tools used to maintain sewing accuracy — pins and other fasteners. To a garment whose reliability depended on an impermeable rubber bladder, mechanical aids like pins were an inherently risky proposition. In 1967, after a single pin was discovered between the layers of a suit prototype, an X-ray machine was installed on the shop floor to regularly scan the suits for errant fasteners. Especially thereafter, the use of pins was highly discouraged and, where allowed, highly regulated. The most valued seamstresses were those like Roberta Pilkenton, who could sew together the outer Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment's (TMG) 17 concentric layers, with hundreds of yards of seams, without a single tool except her own guiding fingers. Those who persisted with pins as an aid to assembly were required to check out a numbered set from a supervisor at the beginning and end of their shift, each accounted for daily. Those flouting such regulations and bringing extra pins from home could, notoriously, find one of them pricked into their backside by an irate supervisor.

How to Sew a SpacesuitS

If the precision involved in sewing concentric suit layers seems fastidious, then the task facing the "gluers" — who assembled each layer of the suit's concentric surfaces together before final sewing — was even more finicky. Layering flexible latex, and whisper-thin layers of Mylar, Dacron, and Kapton, they used paintbrushes and specially formulated glue to assemble diaphanous sheets into man-shaped assemblies. The tolerance for assembly was no more than the thickness of a single Mylar layer. Each of the 16 glue-assembled layers needed not just to fit the astronaut's body shape, but, like dolls in a Russian matrushka, to be infinitesimally larger than the layer it contained. Any visitor to ILC's Dover plant — or the new Frederica, Delaware facility into which operations expanded in 1966 — could observe the care and craftsmanship of those who glued and sewed the A7L's layers together. What they could not freely observe, however, was the most closely guarded craft of ILC's suit assembly process, the "dipping" of layers of rubber to form the ribbed sections, or "convolutes"; it was these assemblies that gave ILC's suit its essential mobility. The "dippers" who accomplished this task were, like their colleagues behind sewing machines, using skills found elsewhere in the Playtex organization. Until 1966, pipes of liquid latex ran to the dipping room from the same tanks supplying girdle and bra assembly lines. As with the rest of ILC's assembly workers, however, their skills were brought to an extraordinary level of craft and precision.

The elaborate craft of assembling a convolute started with a collapsible formwork around which layers of natural rubber were formed through repeated baths in a latex-bromine mixture. Into this layered surface were imbedded the caterpillar-like restraining rings, which allowed the convolute to retain its shape along the arm or leg's axis when several pounds of pressure inflated the suit against a vacuum. Imbedded above and below the restraining rings was a thin layer of nylon tricot-the same cloth that formed Playtex's brassieres. The sheer fabric, imbedded in the rubber, allowed the convolute to be flexible while pressurized, without ballooning in volume. This delicate assembly had been the key to ILC's suit designs since the early 1960s, and its equally delicate manufacture was the company's most closely guarded industrial secret. Even so, it was more a craft than a science, and only three or four employees had the right "touch" to consistently produce usable components.

In retrospect, however, ILC's unique skill seems to have gone beyond these individual crafts, and into the delicate art of their collective synthesis. Crucial to this larger success seems to have been the professional respect accorded to, and practical collaboration engaged in with, ILC's craftswomen. Indeed, some of ILC's most effective engineers, such as Robert Wise, took weeks of sewing lessons from the seamstresses to better understand how fingers, fabric, and thread interacted to build up the suits' complex assemblies. And the craftswomen were allowed, and even encouraged, to suggest improvements in procedures and assemblies as they were continually developed.

Emblematic of this culture were the late-night collaborations between seamstress Eleanor Foraker (pulled from Playtex's diaper cover assembly line in 1964) and Leonard (Lenny) Sheperd, project head of Apollo suit development for ILC. Striving to meet deadline after deadline, Foraker would often be sewing late into the night at the Dover plant. In the final stages of a suit's manufacture, the multilayered, man-shaped assembly could not be folded or squashed into a normal sewing machine, and instead had to be sewed on one of two Singer machines — dubbed "Big Moe and "Sweet Sue" — modified to have an elongated arm and massive sewing bed so an entire suit could be moved under its needle. For each of these early deadlines, Sheperd himself would stay up with Foraker, helping to slide and rotate the suit during the final stages of assembly, and quizzing the seamstress on her technique and expertise. (The moment would be akin to Simon Ramo or Dean Wooldridge of Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge [TRW] assisting in the soldering of a guidance system circuit board.) And yet, even as ILC managed to integrate technique and technology within its own corporate body, it proved enduringly incapable of fully adapting to the organizational atmosphere of Apollo. The most prominent failures surrounded the procedures of systems management, pioneered by Ramo and Wooldridge with Bernard Schriever in the ICBM programs of the 1950s, and translated directly to NASA.

From the time of its June 1965 victory over Hamilton Standard, to well into the first flights of Apollo spacecraft in 1968, these problems taxed the patience of NASA managers even as they led to a series of important shop-floor adaptations on the part of ILC.

Excerpted from Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux published by MIT Press in 2011. Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2010. All rights reserved.

How to Sew a Spacesuit

Nicholas de Monchaux is an architect and urbanist focused on issues of nature, technology, and the city. He received his B.A. in 1995, with distinction in Architecture, from Yale University, and his Professional Degree (M.Arch.) from Princeton University in 1999. Since 2006, he has been Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Berkeley.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is available from Amazon.com