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‘Protegete’ Improves Agriculture Through Textile Design

By Susan Fandel

Wilson College of Textiles Fashion and Textile Design student Ashley Maurice has created garments designed to protect tobacco field workers from work hazards including UV radiation, heat stroke and Green Tobacco Sickness. Her project, Protegete, is an interdisciplinary project with the NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. After countless hours examining the topic over the course of the semester, the final result is a balance of research and design.

The Inspiration for Protegete

The line stemmed from a project Maurice worked on for her Fashion and Textile Design menswear class, working under the guidance of Textiles professor Dr. Katherine Annett-Hitchcock. “The prompt for the menswear final project was to design something that addressed an environmental concern in the workplace and develop a functional and aesthetically-pleasing workwear look,” Maurice said. “I am passionate about environmental science, so I took the ‘environmental’ aspect very literally.”

Field worker in protective garments

Tobacco is the number one cash crop in North Carolina and is extremely labor intensive to farm. Tobacco is coated in nicotine, a natural pesticide, that causes Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) in the workers who labor in the fields. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, workers are at especially high risk for developing this illness when their clothing becomes saturated from tobacco that is wet from rain, morning dew or perspiration.

Maurice worked with Dr. Bob Patterson, a professor of Crop Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, as part of her research. He stressed how little protection is currently in place to protect migrant workers from pesticide exposure, which further moved Maurice to bring awareness to the issue. The line’s title, Protégete means “protect yourself” in Spanish. The inspiration came from the majority of migrant workers whose first language is Spanish. Maurice added that “this language barrier is one of many contributing factors that makes it difficult for migrant workers to seek help when needed. It seemed only right that the name be in Spanish and serve as a reminder to ‘protect yourself.’”

Field worker in protective garments walking through field

About the Collection

The collection features pants, a t-shirt and a long-sleeve button down. “Each item was carefully selected to combat various issues these workers face in the fields,” says Maurice. The pants are made from a 5.48 oz 100 percent hemp midweight, which is half the weight of the traditional cotton denim that workers wear in the field. For added durability, the garment has knee reinforcement and triple topstitching. There is also a knife pocket for added convenience. The button-down shirt is made from sun protective fabric (UPF), sourced from Patagonia, with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish that is used on the back yoke, sleeves, sleeve cuffs, collar, and collar band — areas of the garment that are most exposed to sunlight. The DWR finish on the sleeves works to prevent nicotine from mixing with sweat and leading to dermal absorption of the chemical.

Field worker in protective pants

Ashley received a grant from the Undergraduate Research Office at NC State to continue researching this topic in the Spring of 2018. Collaborating with a student from Textile Engineering, she will continue iterating garment designs that better protect migrant workers with an added surface finish to protect against certain pesticides. “The issue is closer to home than we think,” she said, “and I hope that by creating a discussion around migrant worker safety, there will be more accountability for these workers in the future.”