Protection by Design
By Cameron Walker
North Carolina has the sixth largest migrant worker population in the nation; conservative estimates number these farmworkers and their dependents at 150,000 per growing season. Migrant laborers face on-the-job hazards like UV radiation, heatstroke and pesticide poisoning, yet they work long days in clothing ill-suited for the fields. New Fashion and Textile Design graduate Ashley Maurice challenged herself to help these workers through a project she calls Protégete, Spanish for “protect yourself,” and Textile Technology major Ngoc Nguyen joined the team to search for a protective fabric finish for these garments.
During the 2017 fall semester, Maurice took Dr. Katherine Annett-Hitchcock’s menswear class, FTD Studio II, for which she had to design a menswear look that addressed an environmental concern in the workplace.
“Usually (students) create workwear garments for the office, but the people who are most affected by changing environments are not people in offices — it’s people who work outdoors, like farmers,” she said.
An environmental science minor, Maurice took the literal approach. She set out to design a garment that would help protect migrant workers — especially those harvesting tobacco, which, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, is still North Carolina’s top crop.
“When Ashley first started thinking about the project…I thought it was intriguing,” said Annett-Hitchcock. “I was impressed by the amount of background work she did for the first part of the brief, which was to find out as much as possible about the potential user’s lifestyle and work requirements. She dug deep into the problem and came up with a very functional and attractive outfit.”
As part of her research, Maurice contacted Dr. Bob Patterson, a professor of Crop Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She spoke with members of the Agronomy Club and reached out to fellow student Amy Arnold, whose family owns a North Carolina tobacco farm.
“I was so pleased when Ashley informed me that she and Ngoc wanted to design a set of garments that would provide a measure of protection to farm employees, including migrant workers, who are so vulnerable to the broad range of potentially toxic pesticides they are expected to dispense in crop fields — often under very disturbing circumstances, including supervisors who demonstrate too casual a concern for the health of the field workers,” said Patterson.
The Garment Design
“When I was designing the functionality of the garment, I wanted to focus on functional values and symbolic values,” said Maurice. “With regard to functional values, I wanted it to protect, cover and have longevity.”
Many migrant workers wear raincoats — or frequently, just plastic trash bags with holes cut for their head and arms — to protect against pesticides and Green Tobacco Sickness, nicotine poisoning caused by contact with leaves wet with rain, dew or the worker’s own perspiration. Raincoats are waterproof, preventing evaporation of perspiration, which can lead to overheating; trash bags are insufficient for protection, as they only cover the torso. According to Patterson, the workers have little recourse to obtain protective garments.
“Farm workers apply a broad range of chemicals potentially noxious to humans, while wearing garments quite inadequate for (protection),” he said. “I also have observed the migrant farm worker health consequences, both physical and mental, resulting from inadequate protection from solid, liquid, and gaseous toxic chemical applications intended to suppress pest severity in a range of field crops. And all too often, when a farm worker expresses reluctance to apply the synthetic chemical in ways that clearly can be hazardous to his/her health, that worker is fired, or at least demoted to a less-financially-remunerative task.”
Maurice sought a design that protected workers like a raincoat but was more breathable. She constructed the garment of hemp summercloth for its durability and light weight, ensured the sleeves and pants were long enough to cover areas where skin could be exposed to the sun and chemicals, and added details especially for tobacco workers — namely, a standing collar for UV protection, a gusset under each sleeve, clasps around the wrists and plackets at the zippers.
“The migrant workers do a process called topping, which is done by hand,” she said. A worker walks through the rows and picks the flower off the top of the plant. Basically, you are reaching your arm out at a 90 degree angle and pulling upwards; with a normal sleeve, your shirt would lift. But the gusset prevents your shirt from lifting and provides you better movement. The less your shirt lifts, the more protection you have. There are also clasps around the wrists, which go around the gloves and make sure that no pesticides go up the sleeves. There are also placket details on the zippers to make sure no pesticides would be applied to the zippers or clasps.”
Maurice designed for symbolic value by emulating the look commonly worn in the fields.
“We wanted the migrant worker to feel like they belong and have respectability,” she said. “Often people in agriculture typically wear jeans and a t-shirt in the fields and we wanted to get that denim sort of look.”
Maurice applied for and received a grant from the Undergraduate Research Office at NC State to continue her research. Ngoc Nguyen joined the team at the beginning of the 2018 spring semester at the recommendation of Dr. Stephen Michielsen, professor in the department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science, due her initiative, background knowledge and eagerness to learn.
“The team between the two departments, between the students at different levels in their careers — one from the design perspective, one from the technical perspective — worked together to address a problem that is really overarching,” said Michielsen. “(The project) really pulls knowledge together from both departments.”
When Nguyen joined the team, her mission was to find a fabric finish that would bond with flumetralin, the most commonly used pesticide in tobacco farming, and prevent its penetration through the garment to the skin.
The Surface Treatment
As a fabric finish, Nguyen tested a solution of polyacrylic acid (PAA), an absorbent polyelectrolyte also used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
“I made the solution and padded and cured the acid to the cellulose fibers,” she said. She measured the amount of PAA on the fabric, sprayed flumetralin and then measured the amount of PAA left after a period of time. “There was actually a decrease in the amount of PAA that was left on the fibers, which meant that the PAA that went away had absorbed with the flumetralin — so we did prove that it prevents the pesticide from having dermal absorption.”
In other words, the PAA finish grabs onto the flumetralin and sheds, keeping it from passing through the fabric and to the wearer’s skin.
“There are a lot of questions left to answer,” said Nguyen. “We want to know how (the pesticide) can be destroyed, what happens after you wash the treated fabric, will it get transferred to other things, will it penetrate through the fabric and if so, how much… hopefully it didn’t, but these are things that we would have to figure out.”
There are also some questions left to answer on the design side.
“I have actually received this question a lot: how much would it cost to produce this garment?” said Maurice. “Also, comparing the strength of the hemp against other fibers — and maybe finding one that is more cost-effective than hemp, because hemp is so expensive.”
These questions and others will be passed on to new project leader Victoria Luong Vu, a graduate student earning her Master of Science in Textiles. She is approaching the project with an eye toward sustainability.
“I’m very excited to be working on this project,” said Vu. “Sustainability is something that I really wanted to focus my research on and I think this is a really great opportunity to tackle an issue in social sustainability. I hope that this project will be able to impact a part of the industry that is not often talked about.”
The complexity of the problem demands an integrative approach, which Annett-Hitchcock believes the Wilson College of Textiles is uniquely positioned to provide.
“The project represents a perfect harmony of technology and design, natural fibers and chemistry, that covers the gamut of what we do here at the College,” she said. “It truly represents Think and Do. Above all, it shows the quality and amount of work that undergraduate students can undertake, which is why our graduates stand heads above those from other programs.”
Nguyen has completed her sophomore year and is headed to a summer internship with Precision Fabrics Group in Greensboro, North Carolina. Maurice graduated this spring and has accepted a position as assistant technical designer with UnderArmour in Baltimore, Maryland. Although they are both moving on from the project, they are proud of their work and the progress they have made together toward creating protective clothing for migrant workers.
“The keen interest Ashley and Ngoc have demonstrated in providing a strong measure of health protection to our most vulnerable (i.e., migrant) farm workers is extremely gratifying, and deserves our strongest praise,” said Patterson. “My sense is that the garments they have designed will work, and work well!”