A student at the University of Missouri, US, has created a breathable lava suit by blending fashion with functionality.
A volcanologist’s office often comprises lava flowing at 1,300-2,000°F, tough weather conditions and tricky terrain, and so typical outdoor wear is just not going to make the cut.
This type of protective clothing needs to be flame retardant, abrasion-resistant and durable, while also providing plenty of features for the amount of equipment that is taken into the field such as notebooks, hammers, helmets, GPS devices and rock samples.
But now, with the help of Abby Romine, a graduate student in the Department of Textile and Apparel Management at the University of Missouri, these design specifications are finally being met.
“My designs are based on functional, expressive and aesthetic elements,” says Romine.
“For my first prototype, I gathered ideas from students in geological sciences and wanted to make something that was not only functional in all types of environments, but aesthetically pleasing as well.”
Using fabric donated from the university’s alumna Kathryn Knight at FirstSpear, a tactical gear company in St Louis, Romine created her second version of the prototype suits for Alan Whittington, chair of geological sciences, and his team of three graduate students in the Department of Geological Sciences at the MU College of Arts and Science.
Romine’s four custom suits feature ripstop nylon, lightweight fabric for breathability and movement, interwoven with large strips of Kevlar for abrasion and flame resistance.
Additionally, the jacket was made of nylon that is water repellent and flame retardant, with the Kevlar laced material utilised at the elbows and thumb hole extensions.
“The suits were constructed in a way to increase the durability of the garment,” adds Romine.
“This included minimising seam intersections at high-stress points and using gussets. Durability was also reliant upon the material properties.”
As previously mentioned, volcanologists carry a lot of stuff in the field, and “ideally, we want it to be available without taking off our backpacks”, adds Whittington.
“But we also need to be able to carry this comfortable while moving over rough terrain and potentially carrying heavy rocks in our packs.”
With this in mind, Romine’s protective garments also feature multiple functional pockets that are located on the body to maximise the mobility of the user as well as fit the items volcanologists often carry in the field.
The pants have a specific rock hammer carrier attached to minimise the movement of the tool against the body, a crotch gusset designed to maximise mobility as well as minimise the possibility of ripping out, and waist adjuster straps to accommodate the changing body composition in the field.
Furthermore, the jacket featured flame-retardant and moisture-wicking mesh materials to allow protection for the face as well as ventilation at the armpits.
“The high placement of the thigh pockets so that my field notebook didn’t saw into my leg the whole time was a huge improvement on all my previous field pants and the custom hammer holster also worked really well,” says Whittington.
“The women’s pants had a stretchy waistband, which in retrospect I would have liked on the men’s too, since a heavy pack can be uncomfortable with the leather belt I usually wear.”
Earlier this year in May, Whittington and his team field-tested Romine’s prototype suits in an obsidian quarry in Colorado, looking at some unusual spherical bundles of crystals, called spherulites.
“A group of us tested the pants on a field trip for about five days, working in an obsidian quarry, with a lot of very sharp volcanic glass,” he says. “We found the pants were very durable, they certainly fared better than our legs did.”
In fact, Whittington goes on to say they were ‘the most comfortable field pants’ he had ever worn.
“I’ve been into outdoor gear since the 1980s,” he continues. “People want to buy gear that is expedition-level engineered, so I can see this as a good marketing opportunity beyond just volcanologists. If I had to choose between a commercial brand of work pants and these pants, I would pick them every time.”
Nearly a decade ago, while Whittington was stuck overnight on a volcano in Guatemala, he began thinking about what would make the ideal protective clothing for volcanologists.
At the time he was going through at least one pair of commercial work pants during a single season of fieldwork around volcanos.
“I forgot about it for a few years but a chance meeting with Pamela Norum, chair of the Department of Textiles and Apparel Management, led me to ask if there is anyone in her department who might be interested in working on some better ‘volcano pants’,” says Whittington.
From here, he was put in touch with Romine, who enjoyed designing the rugged outdoor gear.
“She started talking to a lot of my current and former students and so the input came from a lot of people, and importantly from a lot of women,” he adds. “Most work pants are designed with men in mind, but the field of volcanology is about 50/50 men and women, at least for people under the age of 40.”
In addition to the pants and jackets, Romine has also designed a mini skirt that can be used as a heat shield when sampling lava.
“She has come up with some really innovative stuff and it looks cool, too,” Whittington adds.
“We got several compliments while waiting for it to stop snowing in a coffee shop one morning during fieldwork.”
Romine is now aiming to give her design details to FirstSpear to implement into production.
She says: “The conversation is still in the works, but I am hopeful that these garment systems, as well as additional user-centered protective garment designs specific for rugged outdoor activities, will be available for a future purchase to meet the needs of consumers that seek protective garments much like volcanologists.”
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