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Protective Fashion

By Aimee Swartz
Jill Andrews, a graduate of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, made her first wedding gown in 1990. Now the wedding dress designer has used her couture skills to help design a better Ebola suit.

Creating one-of-a-kind wedding dresses is not all the Fashion Institute of Technology graduate and proprietor of Jill Andrews Gowns, a custom atelier in Baltimore, is known for. She’s also a member of the winning team that engineered a safer, more comfortable protective suit for physicians, nurses, and other health care workers on the front lines of Ebola treatment.

Working alongside a group of 80 Johns Hopkins researchers and students during a weekend hackathon in October 2014, Jill leveraged her patternmaking and garment construction skills to help create a suit that was cooler, easier to put on and take off, and had fewer points of potential exposure to the deadly virus. The hackathon was launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the lead organization coordinating the U.S. government’s Ebola response. The prototype beat out more than 1,500 entries and made its public debut on the runways of New York Fashion Week in 2015. DuPont is now manufacturing the suit with the intent of its hitting the marketplace this year.

Are there similarities in designing wedding dresses and an Ebola suit?

More than one would think. Both have to fit. Both have to be comfortable. Both have to have some ventilation. And you have to be able to get it on and off easily. Finding solutions to these challenges is part of the design process, whether I’m designing a costume for an actress who has 15 seconds to change or, in this case, someone who wants to get out of a protective suit safely and as fast as possible.

Right away, you saw flaws in the protective suits currently worn by doctors and nurses treating patients with Ebola. Can you tell us more about them?

At the start of the hackathon they had a demonstration of what health care workers who wear the suits actually go through. As soon as I saw that demonstration, I could see problem number one, problem number two, problem number three, and so on.

One of the first things I saw is that they’re extremely hot—even in an air-conditioned auditorium, much less the hot and humid climates of West Africa. They overheat so quickly that you can really only wear them for a matter of minutes. This really limits the time health care workers can care for their patients.

I also saw that they provide poor visibility, making it hard for doctors to see their patients and scary for patients who cannot see the person trying to help them. And they have several coverage gaps, each of which can expose health care workers to the deadly virus.

But the biggest problem I saw right away is that it’s difficult to safely doff the suit. The way the current suits are designed, with the zipper in the front, means that to disrobe you have to pull the zippers from under your chin while still wearing rubber gloves; this really increases a person’s chances of coming into contact with infectious fluids.

Why is safe doffing so important?

How a person removes their suit can be just as crucial as wearing it to prevent exposure. The process is a struggle that usually requires two people, takes up to 20 minutes, and
requires extreme care not to touch any part of the suit that might have come into contact with bodily fluids that may carry Ebola. That’s really hard to do—particularly when workers are physically and emotionally exhausted after caring for patients.

Tell us a bit about the design process. Did you start from scratch or did you build upon the current design?

A big part of the challenge was getting a new and better design out there as fast as
possible, so we tried to work within the parameters of what already exists. We stuck with Tyvek or Tychem material currently used to make the suits and then focused our efforts on how we could improve upon that with things like zippers and fasteners—how to get people in and out quickly—and other innovations, like an integrated hood and cooling features.

At first glance, your prototype may look similar to other Ebola suits. What are some of the main improvements in your suit?

The biggest change is that we moved the zippers to the back of the suit so the workers are less likely to come into contact with infectious fluids. To take off the suit, you pull apart the tabs on the upper back, which releases a breakaway zipper. Then, you step on tabs on the sleeves and stand up, emerging in one clean motion. This reduces the steps of taking the suit off from 31 to 8, and the time of taking it off from about 20 minutes to 5, which significantly reduces the risk of infection.

We also made a number of other changes. We integrated the head onto the suit rather than its being a separate piece. We created a fingerless glove liner between the inner and the outer glove so that when you take the suit off, it automatically pulls off the outer glove while at the same time keeping the sleeves from riding up. We reworked the face shield; it’s extra large now to give patients a clear view of their doctor or nurse—and vice versa—and vents keep it from fogging up. And we added a small battery-powered cooling pack that straps on the worker’s belt, allowing them to work longer and more comfortably.

Illustration of Jill Andrews
Illustration by A.E. Kieren

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