From ball gowns to bulletproof vests: The volunteers crafting armour for Ukraine’s defenders

Sparks fly as a circular saw slices into metal, while welders nearby work feverishly to the sound of blaring heavy metal.

Upstairs, sewing machines clatter as women mark patterns on cloth being shaped into bulletproof vests.

An old industrial complex in the south-eastern Ukrainian riverside city of Zaporizhzhia has become a hive of activity for volunteers producing everything from body armour and anti-tank obstacles to camouflage nets, portable heating stoves and rifle slings for Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russia’s invasion.

One section specialises in vehicles — some armour-plated, others being converted into ambulances.

man in camp-style industrial setting prepares meals More than 400 volunteers work in the old industrial facility.(AP: Francisco Seco)

Another organises food and medical deliveries.

With the front line about 50 kilometres from the city, some sections of the operation, such as the stitching of bulletproof vests, are working around the clock in shifts to meet demand.

Crowdfunding has brought in enough money to buy steel from Sweden, Finland and Belgium that is lighter than local steel, organisers say — a crucial quality for body armour.

The operation is the brainchild of local celebrity Vasyl Busharov and his friend Hennadii Vovchenko, who ran a furniture-making business.

They named it Palianytsia, a type of Ukrainian bread whose name many Ukrainians say cannot be pronounced properly by Russians.

More than 400 volunteers involved

The operation relies entirely on volunteers who come from all walks of life, from tailors to craftsmen to lawyers.

Apart from those involved in production, there are also drivers delivering humanitarian aid and medical equipment bought through donated funds.

“I feel I am needed here,” said fashion designer Olena Grekova, 52, taking a brief break from marking fabric for vests.

Two women cutting large swathes of fabric. Fashion designer Olena Grekova made backless ball gowns before styling bulletproof vests.(AP: Francisco Seco)

When Russia invaded on February 24, she was in Thailand seeking inspiration for her spring collection. Initially, she said, she wondered whether it was a sign from God that she shouldn’t return.

Her husband and two adult sons urged her not to.

“But I made a decision that I had to go back,” she said.

She had known Busharov for years. Arriving home on March 3, she gathered her equipment the next day and by March 5 was at Palianytsia. She’s been working there every day since, bar one, sometimes even at night.

Shifting from designing backless ball gowns to creating functional bulletproof vests was “a new experience for me,” Grekova said.

But she sought feedback from soldiers for her designs, which have armour plates added. Now she is helping to produce several versions, including a prototype summer vest.

Man in a blue shirt and woman in a red shirt adding leaves to camouflage net in an industrial warehouse Camouflage nets are woven by hand.(AP: Francisco Seco)

In another section of the industrial complex, 55-year-old Ihor Prytula was busy making a new camouflage net, winding pieces of dyed fabric through a string frame.

A furniture maker by trade, he joined Palianytsia at the start of the war. He had some military experience, he said, so it was easy to get feedback from soldiers on what they needed.

“We speak the same language,” he said.

For Prytula, the war is personal

Prytula’s 27-year-old son was killed in late March as he helped evacuate people from the northern town of Chernihiv.

“The war and death, it’s bad, trust me, I know this,” he said. “It’s bad, it’s tears, it’s sorrow.”

The call for volunteers went out as soon as the war began. Busharov announced his project on Facebook on February 25. The next day, 50 people turned up. “Next day, 150 people, next day, 300 people. … And all together, we try [to] protect our city.”

They started out making Molotov cocktails in case Russian soldiers advanced on Zaporizhzhia. In 10 days, they produced 14,000, he said.

Then they turned to producing anti-tank obstacles known as hedgehogs — three large metal beams soldered together at angles — used as part of the city’s defences.

Soon, Busharov and Vovchenko said, they discovered another pressing need: there weren’t enough bulletproof vests for Ukraine’s soldiers.

But learning how to make something so specialised wasn’t easy.

“I wasn’t actually connected with the military at all,” said Vovchenko. “It took two days and three sleepless nights to understand what needs to be done.”

From cars to bulletproof vests

The team went through various types of steel, making plates and testing them to check bullet penetration. Some didn’t offer enough protection, others were too heavy to be functional. Then they had a breakthrough.

“It turns out that steel used for car suspension has very good properties for bullet penetration,” Vovchenko said, standing in front of four shelves of test plates with varying degrees of bullet damage.

The one made of car suspension steel showed dozens of bullet marks but none that penetrated.

The vests and everything else made at Palianytsia are provided free to soldiers who request them, so long as they can prove they are in the military.

Close-up of soldier's hands holding a piece of armour with the number 294 an a Ukrainian inscription A Ukrainian soldier holds his body armor metal piece with a personal inscription that reads in Ukrainian: “To my good friend from Hennadii. Come back to get some hugs”.(AP: Francisco Seco)

Each plate is numbered and each vest has a label noting it is not for sale.

So far, Palianytsia has produced 1,800 bulletproof vests in two months, Busharov said, adding there was a waiting list of around 2,000 more from all over Ukraine.

Vovchenko said they had heard up to 300 lives had been saved by the vests.

Knowing that is “incredibly inspiring and it keeps us going,” he said.

A man sitting holds a guitar and is surrounded by others who are sitting around a table with food, singing. Volunteers sing Ukrainian patriotic songs after having lunch at the end of their shift.(AP: Francisco Seco)


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