Hazel Fellows

An interview with curator Emily Margolis

Large drawing of the moon, with an astronaut in a spacesuit floating in the lower left corner.
Seamstress Hazel Fellows sewing the thermal micrometeoroid garment of the ILC A7L Apollo spacesuit

Part One

There’s a really iconic photo of a woman at a sewing machine who was working on one of the Apollo spacesuits. And this woman is Hazel Fellows, but we actually don’t know a ton about her beyond this iconic image.

So I love talking about the seamstresses who worked on Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, and all of the spacesuits for Project Apollo, because they essentially created a personalized spacecraft that could keep humans alive on another planetary body. And its creation was no simple feat. The spacesuit has layers, some of which are made of completely novel fabrics, that were designed to keep humans alive on a place that no human had ever been before.

Illustration of the arm of a spacesuit with panel in the forearm opened showing the layers of textiles in its construction.
Illustration of the Earth with a needle and thread coming out of it.

Part Two

Many of us know how to sew or have seen people in our families sew. It’s not necessarily thought of as something that is very high tech, but in fact the work they were doing was high tech. They collaborated with NASA engineers on the design of the spacesuit. And they brought their years of experience working with textiles to bear on the conversation.

Part Three

There is a mythology within science and technology that there’s a lone genius who accomplishes all of these things by themselves, or of the explorer who reaches the moon. But we know that that work is highly collaborative and dependent upon the labor of many people.

Part Four

There’s this wonderful video from the early 1970s, when astronaut Charlie Duke, one of the Apollo astronauts, is at ILC Dover to be fitted for his spacesuit. And you see the women who are working on it: working on his gloves, working on the joints, the elbows. But at the time that NASA produced this video, they didn’t think to include the women’s names, right; the only name that actually appears is Charlie Duke’s.

Video Image Descriptions

The title graphic “Moon Spacewear” opens the video followed by a montage of closeup images of spacesuit components alternating with video of a room of women working at tables and sewing machines. Plastic tags with the words “arms,” “legs,” “torso,” and “boots” rhythmically flash, then a man wearing a full spacesuit turns around and walks forward. A man wearing headphones watches in the background.

Two men use tools to measure the shoulders, head, knee, and foot of a man and record the figures on a worksheet.

A woman stands at a worktable cutting stiff red plastic-like material with scissors. A man wearing a spacesuit and large backpack tests the suit by kneeling, standing straight, and bending over. He is assisted by a man who holds two large black hoses that connect to the front of the spacesuit.

Beginning with one woman working at a sewing machine, the focus widens to show a group of four women of various ages, including an African American woman, working at sewing machines. The video sequence shows two different women working at sewing machines with an inner lining of a boot is in front of them; a woman assembling a glove; and ends with a complete white spacesuit laying on a table.

A closeup of hands near the needle of a sewing machine widens to show the woman pull a finished piece away from the machine and trim the attached threads with scissors. The video cuts to two women using scissors to cut delicate silver material, then cuts to a closeup of hands trimming a different, white fabric with scissors. A woman sits at a table marking several cut-out pattern pieces, followed by another woman carefully folding a silver mylar suit layer as it lays on a table.

A video sequence shows a woman's hands assembling silver mylar fingertip pieces; a man working with three models of a hand labelled “Duke”; and a glove being dipped in gray liquid latex.

A man tests the spacesuit by wearing it while walking on a treadmill and picking up large black equipment cases by a handle on top. Two technicians conduct pressure tests by inflating and manipulating an empty suit laying on a table. A man hangs a finished spacesuit on a rack full of spacesuits waiting to be used.

Two men assist Charles Duke in putting on his inner, gray/green colored suit and placing the clear helmet on his head. A man wearing headphones sits at a control console and gives Duke instructions. Duke bends forward at the waist and moves around to test the fit of the suit. The video cuts to Duke and the men working with the integrated white outer and inner suit. Fully suited, Duke bends down on one knee and places his hand on the ground.

Wearing his spacesuit without his helmet, Charles Duke sits as he comments on the fit of his suit.

A video montage that moves from a spool of thread to a group of four women at sewing machines to a woman assembling a glove; the boots of a spacesuit as a tester walks on a treadmill; a woman's hands guides fabric through a sewing machine; seen from behind a man works with one of five hand models sitting on a table; three men assist Charles Duke in putting on his complete white spacesuit and helmet. The video ends with hands pulling the reflective shield over the face of the helmet.

Part Five

You know, we’re seeing their work made visible, but they’re also erased at the same time. And I think there are a lot of sources that we have in history where you have to look really closely or read them in a different way to be able to unearth women’s stories, because they’re present, but you have to be able to read into those silences.

And in this case, they were silent, right? There’s no audio of them speaking in the video, their names are completely absent, but you can see them hard at work. So it is important to pay attention to that.

Emily A. Margolis is a social and cultural historian of spaceflight with expertise in women’s history. She is responsible for the contemporary spaceflight, Mercury, and Gemini collections at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Margolis served as Curator of American Women’s History at the National Air and Space Museum and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 2020-2023. She is writing a book on the history of space tourism.