Seamstresses to the Stars- International Women's Day
Updated: Mar 25
Written by Jess Unsworth
(Credit: ILC Dover, LP)
Space travel isn't easy- an obvious statement to make, but what isn't always thought about is an activity far older than space travel. An activity that without, we wouldn't have made it through the earth's atmosphere. That is of course; sewing.
Now, travel back to 1962, The United States have announced they'll be popping to the moon and a competition is held for who will make the Astronaut suits. ILC had already had its engineers (whom were all strictly male) working on fully functioning space suits since 1955. These engineers had perfected the science behind these space suits, but ALAS they could not make their visions a reality as sewing was merely a WOMANS job. Enter the females; the factory doors fly open, a bright light shines through, the women of Dover, Delaware immerse in formation through a cloud of smoke- this is how I like to think this happened and I wish not to be told otherwise. Yes, that is right a group of extremely talented women were the ones to machine and hand sew the Apollo space suits.
(Image from space.com)
Having been taught the sewing trade by their mothers, these seamstresses were taken on by NASA and put through various training such as: how to read blueprints, working with engineers and precision sewing. After completing these training sessions, they headed to the sewing machines to bring these blue prints to life. Each person was assigned to a different section of the suits, some of the sewing was so intricate that the only way to get it accurate was to do it by hand. The women had to make various seam samples which were then sent to labs and tested until they tore, whole days were spent making these samples for them to just be destroyed. They didn't mind though as they knew what they were creating was a matter of life or death for the men who were to wear these suits.
Once completed the suits were sent to a local hospital where they went through 2 x-rays to check there were no pins etc. left inside of the suits. Jeanne Wilson a seamstress at ILC recalls "There were nights we'd go home, worry and think, ‘Oh my God, did I leave a pin in it?’ And you would lose a little bit of sleep at night. Sometimes you actually broke down and cried – I know I did.”.
To this day the basic premise of space suits hasn't changed, and they are still hand stitched in the hard to reach places, or where the fabric is simply too thick for a machine. So next time you watch Jeff Bezos jetting off to space just remember, it wouldn't be possible without the ladies of NASA sewing the suits (it also wouldn't be possible without his millions of dollars, but that isn't quite the wholesome story I wanted to write about).
If you want to find out more about the seamstresses of NASA I recommend listening to the documentary podcast 'Hey Sew Sisters' available on BBC.
Written by Jess Unsworth for The Craft Cotton Co 2022.