Volcano Pants: The Latest Fashion Trend from MU Geologists and a Graduate Student
What do you wear when exploring a volcano?
This is a question that professors and students in the MU Department of Geological Sciences face regularly.
In 2010, Alan Whittington, then an associate professor in the department, and a student, Genevieve Robert, now an assistant professor of geology at Bates College in Maine, were unexpectedly stuck overnight on a volcano in Guatemala. To take their minds off of being tired, cold, and hungry, they began griping about things that were bothering them, including the kind of clothing they typically wore during fieldwork. For example, side pockets tended to be located low enough on the leg that their field notebooks rubbed against their leg.
“At the end of a week of field work I usually end up with a pretty sizable bruise on my leg,” he says. “I also tend to lose weight during fieldwork, so I have to tighten my belt and end up with pleats. We needed something that is easily adjustable, something that is not too heavy, and something with abrasion resistance, which is a huge deal when working on lava, which is really sharp.”
A Chance Meeting, and a Solution
Whittington, now the E.B. Branson Professor of Geological Sciences and department chair, says he would think about the kinds of things he and his students would like to see in rugged, outdoor clothing during field trips over the next few years, but would forget about it once the trip was over.
Then in 2017, Whittington happened to be talking to Professor Pam Norum, chair of the Department of Textile and Apparel Management in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences. She told him she knew someone who might be interested in creating the type of clothing Whittington was seeking for geological fieldwork: Abby Romine.
“She introduced me to her, so I talked about the original idea and what our complaints were, and Abby just ran with it,” he says.
After serving with the United States Army, Romine received her bachelor’s degree in interior design from Mizzou in 2011 and then worked as a residential interior designer for five years. Romine had just started her master’s program in textile and apparel management in fall 2017, and her original goal was to design military or tactical apparel or equipment.
She and Whittington brainstormed ideas about what was possible and it became Romine’s research project for her degree. She also interviewed nine male and female students to get a sense of the functional, expressive, and aesthetic qualities of the clothing she planned to design.
Romine originally was going to create a unisex protective garment, but her advisor, Kristen Morris, suggested she should participate in a design competition in China last October, so she created one prototype for men and three for women. Romine won the Golden Shell Award for User-Centered Design at the competition.
When she returned, she took measurements of Whittington and a couple of graduate students, and using materials donated from FirstSpear in Fenton, Missouri, she began to perfect her prototypes. Romine credits MU alumna Katheryn Knight, BS ’11, at FirstSpear for providing her with the materials, including Kevlar for abrasion resistance, that she needed to complete her project.
‘They were asking for fewer seams, so all of the Kevlar patches are attached on top of the pants so the wearer does not feel the bulk of all of the pieces sewn together, and I did the same thing with the jacket,” she says. “Where you see top stitching—it serves functionality by holding that seam against the apparel so it’s not brushing against the skin, but it’s also an aesthetic thing that looks put together well.”
A Knack for Sewing
Romine did all of the sewing and serging (the binding-off of a raw edge of cloth) herself, an impressive feat considering the first time she had ever sewn was while taking a costume-construction class at the MU theatre department in 2011. She says “sewing is luckily an inherited talent.” She used red serging through the garments “so they have lava pouring through their souls.”
Whittington and a group of graduate students (Emily Cunningham, Stuart Kenderes, and Brenna Halverson) tested the clothing during a recent fieldwork trip in Colorado. “They were about the most comfortable field pants I’d ever worn,” he says.
“The weight savings alone is tremendous,” Kenderes agrees says. “Imagine having to lift your feet as you’re walking around and scrambling on boulders—the movement was very easy, and they are very light and comfortable and functional.”
Kenderes says geologists typically carry a field notebook, pens, markers, a hammer, a compass, a chisel, sample bags, and tape when doing fieldwork, and the clothing Romine designed has numerous pockets that are strategically placed for comfort and functionality.
“With most geology-oriented field equipment, they just add a tool belt, so you start to look like Batman,” he quipped.
Cunningham echoes Kenderes’ praise.
“Even women’s pants geared toward outdoor activities have itty bitty pockets,” she says. “One of the things I like about these pants is the roomy pockets—plenty of space for all of our things.”
Romine says the final stage of her master’s project is to implement her design into manufacturing, so she is going to turn over her patterns and her technical specification package to FirstSpear in case the company wants to produce the clothing.
Stylish, Comfortable & Practical
Whittington says although there are not a lot of volcanologists in the world, he thinks the clothing could be a good long-term investment for a company if it was marketed as “Volcanologist Approved.”
And that investment would have the support of the Geological Sciences department.
“In outdoor gear, people always want to buy something that is expedition-level quality and over-engineered, so I could see this being a good marketing idea,” he says. “I go through a pair of field pants each season, so given a choice, I’d go with Abby’s every time.”
Romine will host an exhibit of her new, “field-tested, volcanologist-approved’ outdoor clothing on June 25, 4:30–5:30 p.m. in Gwynn Lounge, 117 Gwynn Hall on the MU campus.