Outer Space Garments
The powers of clothing are profound. Clothing communicates identity, demarcates time and drives economies. Not only this, clothing enables humanity to thrive beyond our atmosphere. Lab-blended fibres, tightly packed seams and high-strength materials have made space a survivable reality. At Petit Pli, we use space as a probe to seek innovation and find inspiration in the complex systems that allow exploration beyond our Earth.
[The Petit Pli structure stems from a project about deployable space satellites, a project that you can explore here.]
In this blog, we will be looking at the space suit - the clothing and materials that allow us to transcend the human condition.
Astro and cosmonauts were made to live on Earth, not in the extreme conditions found in space. In space, astronauts are exposed to temperature conditions which vary from a chilling -120 degrees Celsius in Earth’s orbit, and a searing 120 degrees in sunlight. Not only this, by leaving Earth’s protective shield they are exposed to high levels of space radiation. This can place astronauts at significant risk for sickness, disease and has the potential to damage the central nervous system. Without the protection of the ozone layer, a year spent in Earth’s low orbit, where the International Space Station resides, results in a dose of radiation 10 times that of the same time spent on Earth.
In addition to radiation, the absence of atmospheric pressure and oxygen has the ability to weaken muscle performance. Without gravity, the body is more susceptible to fractures, fatigue, and bone demineralisation. In the vast vacuum of space, the dangers also comprise of the unpredictable and blistering movement of space debris - travelling at harmful velocities.
To survive in these vast and intimidating conditions, astro and cosmonauts rely on the space suit as a protective tool. To guard against micrometeorites and debris, the space helmet is constructed from the same material found in bulletproof glass, a flexible polycarbonate. The material is used with the aim of absorbing the energy and preventing fatal penetration.
No space suit has ever ruptured in the vacuum and at most astronauts will suffer some discomfort and bruising from the harder components of the suit. The construction of each suit requires careful stitching of seams, sewing and cementing the various high-strength composite materials together – attaching metal parts to intersect the different components. One spacesuit alone weighs approximately 280 pounds on the ground - while in space, a suit weighs nothing. Each part, from upper and lower torso to arms and legs, is made in different sizes to accommodate the individual astronaut and their varying body-types. Every Apollo mission requires 15 suits, custom tailored for each astronaut. While on Earth, the tailored suit is a formal dress for the everyday, in space, the bespoke space suit is a 24/7 survival necessity.
The process of dressing for space is laborious and involves several strict stages of dress. For Apollo 11, the mission that placed Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969, the astronauts had to first apply a layer of salve, followed by maximum absorbency garments - a rubber bag, tube and waist-mounted collection sac for urine. Next, they would dress in stretched cotton long johns and then ‘don’ their bespoke, multi-layered space suit. After this, they would add two layers of gloves and headgear, the first being a nylon pair for comfort followed by heavier gear that would lock to the suit with aluminium rings. Finally, the astronauts would wear their tight ‘Snoopy Caps’ that held the communication system under a wide, bubble helmet.
Surprisingly, the risks of space walking often occur within the suit itself. In some cases, spacewalkers have been known to cough on the water from their drink bag, and one astronaut experienced temporary blinding after he spluttered on his water, a droplet hit the soapy material of his helmet visor (to prevent fogging) and bounced back into his eye. As tears do not fall in zero-gravity, it can take half an hour for the droplets to evaporate and for vision to return. In 2013, astronaut Luca Parmitano experienced a serious suit malfunction. While on a spacewalk, the helmet of his suit started to fill with water, posing the danger of drowning. Though he made it back to the airlock, there was an excruciating wait for the hatch to repressurise before they could remove his helmet. At mission control, they considered advising to carry out an emergency repressurisation to speed up the process and get off Parmitano’s helmet, but this could have seriously damaged his hearing. In the end, Parmitano made it out and his helmet was removed – with over a litre of water estimated to be inside. Engineers found that contamination had clogged one of the suit's filters, causing water from the suit's cooling system to back up.
Despite the dangers of space exploration, with thanks to innovation and technology humans can now survive and succeed in these conditions. Here, clothing is designed to support observation, discovery and future pioneers. At Petit Pli, we share this desire to clothe the future of humanity, but instead starting with our little pioneers - the next generation. Our mission is to provide a protective and transformative tool for exploration on Earth. To reduce our environmental impact by applying this innovation to garment design, extending the life of our clothes and encouraging the next generation to value their second skin - our original technology.
On the southernmost tip of the planet, human life is sparse. The icy continent of Antarctica is the only landmass on Earth without a native human population. However, the windiest and driest place on Earth is now a temporary residence to a chiliad of polar workers, a population of operatives that quadruple in the 0°C summers, surviving and working in the 200 mph winds and bitter conditions. While the solitary human has not evolved to survive the cold extremities and perilous landscape of Antarctica, with thanks to composite materials and the transformative power of clothing, inhabiting the boundless polar desert is now possible. Humanity can now rely on versatile clothing that encourages limitless exploration - designed to support movement, to protect from the outer elements and that is made to last.
With temperatures that can plummet below -60°C, surviving and working in the numbing condition of Antarctica requires careful consideration of clothing and gear. Antarctic apparel and equipment must reduce the risk of injury from the harsh temperatures, severe winds and UV radiation - as well as consider the threat of avalanches, cornice collapses and copious crevasses. Before the introduction of technical fibres and materials, now the second skin to modern-day polar workers, Antarctic explorers would wear natural fabrics - camel-hair fleece suits and leather jackets covered with layers of fur from reindeers and wolves. The biggest problem with these materials was the moisture retention as clothing and sleeping bags would retain liquid and perspiration which would then freeze into solid cocoons of ice. With the sweat from man-hauling and dog sledding, as well as the moisture from the surrounding icy surfaces, clothing from early exploration would quickly become uncomfortable and dangerous once it started to freeze.
In the Arctic, the Inuit inhabitants would reduce the danger of perspiration by wearing loose fitting furs for ventilation while working, that could then be drawn tighter in colder conditions when at rest. For protection against sea spray and sleet, Inuit men and women would dress in parkas constructed from sea mammal intestines. The intestines and membranes would undergo several washings, peelings and scrapings with a blunt tool before being constructed with a waterproof stitch to minimise exposure to the outer elements.
Meanwhile, in the southern polar desert, explorers quickly became prone to frostbite, hypothermia, cold water shock and non-freezing cold injuries – the Antarctic version of trench foot. Without effective equipment, the extreme cold climate causes the body temperature to drop dangerously low, and as the body responds by narrowing blood vessels - blood flow to the extremities is decelerated and the tissue fluid freezes into ice crystals - resulting in frostbite.
The need to develop effective polar clothing became a question of survival, not just comfort.
The most significant change in Antarctic clothing came with the development of the layer system. Established in the Heroic age, the layer system is still practiced today as an effective protective structure and method for controlling body heat. The idea is to have a base layer that wicks away sweat, followed by a comfortable insulating layer designed to trap air, and a windproof outer shell to protect from the elements. Today, the layer system has developed with the introduction of man-made fibres, technical insulating materials and zip fasteners. Using man-made materials has become vital to ensure safe and successful operation in Antarctica. Polymer fibres reflect moisture and perspiration, therefore reducing the risk of freezing.
With thanks to the power of moisture-wicking materials and technical ventilating fabrics, Antarctic conditions have become hospitable and accessible for discovery. Antarctic clothing acts as an armour for those who seek to understand and solve our planet’s environmental situation. While effective polar clothing has made these conditions survivable, right now - the survival of humanity depends on slower consumption and the need to extend the life of our clothes. At Petit Pli, our suits have been designed with this in mind. Designed to support movement, to transcend the average garment use and to protect from the outer elements. Like the layer system, Petit Pli is created with durable, versatile materials - acting as an effective tool to support exploration and encourage a more innovative, sustainable and wearable future.
Over & Out
The Petit Pli Team