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The Warrior

SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340

Date: May 15, 2003
No: 03-18

Function for fashion

NATICK, Mass. -- Although they're called clothing designers, the eight-member staff of the Design and Prototype Facility at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center here mixes science into the artistry of not just vests, coats, shirts and trousers, but any textile-related military item worn or carried by warfighters.

From helmet covers to socks, they design it all, yet their work is rarely about fashion and primarily a matter of function.

"What we do is more innovative engineering," said Heather Cumming-Rowell, senior clothing designer. "We often have to figure out how to work with experimental fabrics with the goal to provide improved protection, mobility, comfort and fit. We're looking to give warfighters the capability they need in the field."

Furthermore, the designers need to ensure their design integrates with the rest of the warfighter's existing battle ensemble.

Working for a variety of military customers, the facility makes new designs and less frequently modifies an existing design with improved features.

Scattered around the work space, hanging dress forms display a wide scope of projects the designers have created, including the Air Warrior microclimate cooling garment, a protective body armor set used by combat engineers to clear mines, the Marine Corps utility uniform in the new camouflage pattern, and a reversible Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) constructed with desert camouflage on one side and woodland on the other.

"This particular uniform went through several design generations, and each generation was a learning experience," Cumming-Rowell said about the two-sided uniform. "It uses a single-ply of fabric, and the original version had pass-through pockets with offset flaps. It was a challenge, but we did it."

The design process begins with a hand-drawn or computer-drawn sketch so the customer can visualize the final item. Upon approval, the design is entered into a Computer Aided Design (CAD) system that enables electronic storage and modification of the pattern.

"There are times when you really need to decipher every design detail to visualize what the customer is actually looking for in a prototype," said Rachel Rizoli, a clothing designer. "Once the pattern is digitized, you never have to repeat the complete process. Say someone doesn't like the location of a button or the angle of a pocket. A designer can change this in the CAD system."

The facility's Gerber CAD is compatible with many other CAD systems, and the designers can send electronic files of finished designs to manufacturers to reduce the turnaround of initial samples from weeks to days, according to Rizoli.

Each design drawn into the CAD system is in the master size and then graded to accommodate larger and smaller sizes.

Over the years, body shapes have changed, and designers have taken that factor into account by acquiring new "central-sized" dress forms for measuring or draping. The Army-specific dress forms were created as a result of the research on body shapes compiled in the Army's anthropometric database, said Steven Paquette, anthropology coordinator in the Science and Technology Directorate.

Once patterns are entered electronically, a mechanical cutter precisely slices pieces of fabric for assembly or can cut out oaktag patterns for designers, customers and contractors. Ballistic materials are still cut by hand with a circular power knife.

"Before the mechanical cutter, we cut all prototypes to be fabricated by hand," Cumming-Rowell said, noting the time and fabric savings with the machine.

Once the pieces are cut, Rizoli compared the construction process to an engineering project. "It's as if you're building a bridge, connecting a series of parts that lead up to the final result."

For example, the standard BDU consists of a coat and trousers with 53 fabric pieces and four different sewing stitches. Chemical-biological protective clothing designs are tricky because of the emphasis on minimizing or sealing seams for leakproofing. The Chemical Protective Undergarment project incorporated a knitted design to aid in eliminating seams.

The facility owns a collection of machines to help designers make rapid prototypes.

Sewing machines complete various tasks, fusing machines create stiffness, an ultrasonic cutter slices fabric without fraying edges, and pneumatic machines set plastic and metal snaps, grommets and eyelets. Seam-sealing machines and heavy-duty presses are also available.

"Even while sewing the pieces together, designers can find ways to make an improvement better," Rizoli said.

The facility typically constructs 10-18 prototype copies for initial fit and wear tests, according to Cumming-Rowell.

The design team participates in first article inspections and field fit tests to develop patterns for use in technical data packages supporting large-scale procurement.

For more information about the Soldier Systems Center, please visit our website at

This page last updated on 28 February 2003.