An Evolution Rooted in Empathy
From the time Marcia Weiss ’83 and Mark Sunderland ’84, M’06 first arrived as undergraduate students at what was then the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science at the turn of the 1980s, they knew they found something special. “My father told me that it was the Harvard of textiles, and he was right,” Sunderland says.
For more than three decades, Weiss and Sunderland excelled in their field. They also returned to Jefferson to teach. Today, Weiss serves as the director of the Fashion and Textiles Futures Center, and Sunderland is the Robert J. Reichlin High-Performance Apparel Chair.
What was education like when you studied at Jefferson?
MS: I majored in one of the first transdisciplinary majors: textile marketing and management. It allowed me to interact with professors and industry professionals. It was a very hands-on experience, which is why students chose Jefferson both then and now.
MW: It was also collaborative and interdisciplinary. There were five undergraduate textile majors at the time, and students were mixed together in courses about yarn manufacturing, weaving and knitting. We learned from each other. We also had an amazing wealth of knowledge in our faculty.
What was the industry like when you graduated?
MS: In the mid-1980s, knitting and manufacturing companies had a big presence in Philadelphia. Everybody knew everyone. But the industry was at an inflection point. The next five years were very different.
MW: I joined Burlington Industries at graduation. In 1983, they were one of the “big three” textile firms, with 80,000 employees globally. They made everything in-house, but they soon realized the advantage of partnering with international manufacturers to reduce costs.
How did the industry evolve over the next two decades?
MS: The 1980s and ’90s saw great change in logistics and the supply chain. Goods and products moved to countries with cheaper labor. The transition from Main Street to malls and strip malls began. And cotton was king. In the 2000s, the industry began developing advanced textile manufacturing. It was a resurgence of innovation—embracing digital textile printing; seamless and digital knit apparel; shaping a garment without sewing; and weaving technology from 2-D to 3-D. Athleisure and performance apparel and products have connected diverse functional yarns and fibers to accelerate textile manufacturing technologies.
MW: The industry also accelerated significantly in color, trend and time-to-market. When we graduated, it took a year for trends to move from fashion to home. Today, it’s instantaneous because we’re so interconnected.
MS: It used to be linear. Brands chose the fashions and pushed them through the supply chain. Now, it’s circular, with customer preferences driving brands and fashion forward.
We’re responding to what our students crave. In textile design, students want to learn about sustainability.
— Marcia Weiss
How has education at Jefferson stayed ahead of the curve
MW: We’re responding to what our students crave. In textile design, students want to learn about sustainability. Our students are also interested in the explosion of makerspaces and artisanal heritage. They’re equally interested in new technologies.
MS: Empathy plays a significant role as well. We focus on what the end user, consumer, patient or athlete wants or needs—what delivers value. The students begin to seek out opportunities and explore new pathways, which creates a transdisciplinary learning experience.
What types of jobs are Jefferson alumni getting today?
MW: Companies large and small visit Jefferson to interview students regularly. Nike hires textile designers, textile product scientists and textile engineers into their innovation kitchen. Our graduates take jobs in color-and-trend and print-and-pattern with companies like Urban Outfitters. They design upholstery fabric. They work on biomedical research for firms that are part of Johnson & Johnson.
MS: Our graduates also work at fashion- and technology-forward companies like Everlane and Mountain Hardwear. We have graduates who work on quality, compliance, technology and product development at the Department of Defense and Federal Mogul. As soft flexible textile composites find their way into the technology sectors as products, we expect graduates to work in high-tech firms like Google, Intel and Apple.
What does the industry’s future look like?
MS: Sustainability in fibers, yarns, textiles and apparel is a hot topic. Transparency across all market sectors is increasingly important. We’re not far from the day when all ingredients used in making a textile can be accessed through a QR, barcode or app. And soon, we’ll be asking not what can textiles do, but what can’t they do. Imagine us rolling up our laptops instead of folding them. Textiles are the only way to do that.
MW: There’s a movement in sustainability called fibershed. It’s a network of smaller companies that sources materials within a 100-mile radius, which ties directly into the explosion in the growth of makerspaces. Combined with advanced technology and manufacturing, these innovations will reduce minimums and lead times while further increasing speed to market.
What is Jefferson doing to prepare students to shape that future?
MW: At Jefferson, we’re asking our students to solve open-ended problems to build their critical-thinking skills. We also get students out of the classroom so they understand today’s global opportunities and challenges. Our students go to West Africa to see artisanal practices. We partner with students at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Mark travels to China with students on an annual basis.
MS: Students bring those experiences back to the classroom to share with others. And that’s happening throughout the industry, too. Today’s students will be lifelong learners, constantly retraining and re-educating themselves. Our students inspire us, and we’re incredibly fortunate to educate them.