All Research Starts With a Question. What’s Yours?
Fabrics and textiles are as essential to humans as shelter and food. Ancient fabrics were made with materials like flax fibers and colored with dyes extracted from plants. Since then, industrialization has given birth to the production of a variety of synthetic fibers and textiles – oftentimes with detrimental effects on the environment. Researchers like Becky Flax, assistant professor in Textile Design in Jefferson’s School of Design and Engineering, are trying to find ways to develop unconventional fabrics that are more eco-friendly. Read on to find out more about Professor Flax’s research story and the questions she’s trying to answer.
Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?
A: I am passionate about everything textiles. I dabbled in every type of fabrication method as well as spinning, plying and yarn development. The more techniques I learned, the more I realized that the commercial textile industry is only scratching the surface of materials with dye and fiber potentials. Investigations into unconventional fibers and dyes generally devolves into extractions and synthesis of petroleum-based products that are “greenwashed” to appear natural. More work must be done into the extraction of dyes and fibers that retain the original characteristics of the plants. I wanted to contribute to that work that will eventually create greater potential for recycling and re-integration into a circular economic model.
Q: How long have you been at Jefferson?
A: This is my second year as a full-time faculty member, but I completed my Masters of Science in Textile Design in May 2017. During that time, I was a graduate assistant in the Textile Design Program working directly with Program Director, Marcia Weiss.
Q: What is your research focus?
A: I have three primary focuses:
1: Sustainable + small supply chain development in textile industry.
2: Aggregating data on woven structures and constructions to analyze performance characteristics.
3: Smart textile development and innovation.
Q: What are some questions that you’re investigating?
A: I have several. Are there invasive plant species that have applications in the commercial textile industry? Can we use invasive plants that are waste items from the agriculture and forestry industries for natural fiber and dye potential? Following that, how can we replace them with native plant species to prevent the continued growth of invasive species?
Q: What’s a cool fact about your fabrics and textiles?
A: The Jacquard loom was the earliest predecessor to the standard computer processor. Woven fabric is a sequence of raisers and sinkers, ones and zeros. Therefore, the fabric that it creates is a beautiful, functional representation of binary code sequences.
Q: What’s a unique research practice or tool that you use?
A: When I teach weaving, I have a mantra that I make my students recite to remember the weave pattern to create multilayer cloth fabrics. “We raise our face ends over our back picks. Raise our face ends over our back picks. Face ends over back picks.” While we might get some strange looks in the studios, this recitation of the weave pattern helps students cement their practice, and ultimately successfully create complex fabrics.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: The endless opportunities for learning. Every day, I strive to learn about textile practices. Every class, I learn more from my students. Every semester, I learn more about myself as a teacher. Every opportunity to attend a seminar, workshop, or presentation I take it!
Q: What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I worked as an overnight baker and a barista for 10 years and regularly bake for my students.