Elizabeth Whelan speaks her mind on designing textiles with function, performance and aesthetics
Elizabeth Whelan is a textile designer with over two decades of experience whose materials can be found in work environments and on athletes all over the world. Brands she’s designed textiles for include several you may know, such as Humanscale, Nike and Tumi luggage among many others. Elizabeth shares how her love of knitting and yarns drew her into a successful career as a textile designer and how her passion in the field has led her to developing a collaborative and innovative role in textile technology. She also shares how her work alongside Niels Diffrient, the famed American industrial designer known for his Freedom and Liberty chairs manufactured by Humanscale, allowed her the freedom to design textiles with function, performance and aesthetics above all else. In her Portland, Maine studio, we talk about how Elizabeth approaches textile design, what she and her team accomplish in the studio, her bold views on sustainability and textile design going forward. She waives a strong flag voicing that design is an important role in technology that needs more inclusivity and funds. And finally, and women need to be more empowered to overcome challenges when it comes to patenting their own inventions. Elizabeth Whalen is a force!
Transcript: Elizabeth Whelan Interview
Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers and other guests, but what inspires them to create why and how they select the materials they choose and the relationships they built with their customers and industry.
My guest today is Elizabeth Whelan, a textile designer with over two decades of experience whose materials can be found in work environments and on athletes all over the world. Brands she’s designed textiles for include several you may know, such as Humanscale, Nike and Tumi luggage among many others. Elizabeth shares how her love of knitting and yarns drew her into a successful career as a textile designer and how her passion in the field has led her to developing a collaborative and innovative role in textile technology. She also shares how her work alongside Niels Diffrient, the famed American industrial designer known for his Freedom and Liberty chairs manufactured by Humanscale, allowed her the freedom to design textiles with function, performance and aesthetics above all else. In her Portland, Maine studio, we talk about how Elizabeth approaches textile design, what she and her team accomplish in the studio, her bold views on sustainability and textile design going forward. She waives a strong flag voicing that design is an important role in technology that needs more inclusivity and funds. And finally, and women need to be more empowered to overcome challenges when it comes to patenting their own inventions. Elizabeth Whalen is a force. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Nancy: Elizabeth Wayland, thanks so much for joining me on Material Wise. So, I’d like to just start with your personal story. Did you always have a love of textiles?
Elizabeth: I always had a love of making things with yarn and I didn’t even really know they would be called textile. So as a child I did a lot of embroidery and then as I grew into be a young adult, I, I did a lot of knitting and I always made my own things. Somebody had given me some sort of kit or pattern. I didn’t seem to use it and I would create my own things. So I was knitting a sweater one time in my early twenties, when I was living in Boston shortly after college. And I found myself knitting till about one or two in the morning.
And realizing that, that I really liked doing that and that I wanted to study it more or learn more about it though I didn’t know what it was called. I mean I knew what it was knitting, but I didn’t know about this world of textiles. I was a hobbyist and so I enjoyed it a lot as a hobby.
Nancy: So how did you get into designing textiles?
Elizabeth: I realized that I really loved knitting sweaters and I thought I’d like to explore what this is. And I had no formal art education at all. I had studied history in college and so then I needed to sort of explore whether or not I was on track with this or if I was sort of pipe dreaming. So I decided I was going to move from Boston cause it seemed like the right thing to do.
And I explored a couple of different places to live and I chose Portland. And, so in the 80s, I actually moved up to Maine in Portland. I hadn’t lived here. I grew up in the in the Boston area and so, and it was really good to take some time to see if there was more to this interest than, than just what was in my, my head about it at the time. So, I put together a portfolio and I went out and I looked at schools that had degrees in textile design and I applied to an art school and then I got in. I left Portland and I went back to study. And that’s how I got into textile design.
Nancy: Can you tell me where you went to school?
Elizabeth: Sure. I studied at Rhode Island School of design in Providence.
And after that I, I moved to New York City and started my career always wanting to return to Maine. But, so that’s how I got into textiles. I had a real interest as a hobbyist. It led me to a place – Portland – where I could explore this a little bit better and put together a portfolio of which led me to school, which then led me to New York.
Nancy: So, you found that your passion, which is great – when you have a hobby and you decide, hey, you know, let’s explore this and then create something. I think that’s fabulous. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the companies that you design textiles for materials for?
Elizabeth: Sure. six years after my move to New York, I went on my own and I had worked prior to that for a commercial interior textile company, and also for a mill.
I had worked on sort of both ends of that. They’re very different types of responsibilities. And I started my own studio because I really like making and I was still interested in, and a love for, commercial interior textiles. And a love for athletic textiles. Partially because I love sports, but also because they were doing really interesting things. So my clients have run the gamut. And I also love fashion having been in New York. It’s a real wonderful experience that it exposes you to a lot of things. So, I’ve, designed for the commercial interior textile world which could be anything for KnollTextiles, which is a pretty well-known company -and then I also have done fabrics for Spinneybeck leather. So I’ve done woven leather fabrics. I have done a lot of. I think I cut my teeth on working with Niels Diffrient at a firm who was designing ergonomic chairs for Humanscale.
And I worked with him for 15 years and we were all independent, but we were working with this client. And that really changed things for me. Working with him, which I can circle back to, but it led me to also -or actually I had explored athletic fabrics prior to working for Neil’s. And that [my work with Niels] led me back to it. So I approached Nike several years after being on my own because I was using similar or using the same mills Nike was using and convinced them that their textiles could be really, really great. So they are one of my clients and I work with their advanced materials group. I haven’t done anything for a couple of years with them. But we have, I’ve had a great relationship with them and have done a couple of collections.
And then I have also worked with Tumi luggage in the fashion accessory world and designed a fabric that combined ballistic nylon, which is a very traditional yarn with a yarn called Tegris, which is a highly pulled polypropylene highly resistant.
Really, it’s just about 20% less strong than carbon fiber. So, those are the types of [companies/materials I have worked with/on], and then now I’ve also, since moving to Maine, I’m working with AFOA, which is stands for Advanced Functional Fabrics of America. It’s an organization that’s brought together many different parts of the textile world and in the United States. But now I’m designing fabrics. I’ve done two fabrics with them that uses their led yarn, which is actually a yarn that becomes a communication device so that the fabric itself can transmit images or, it can/has to be programmed differently, but it can trigger sound so it can trigger audio. So the textile itself becomes soft technology. And then lastly, I’m, now working on some of our own projects driven by the studio that are based on the work that we’ve been doing, or I’ve been doing the last 20 years.
Things that I think have relevance. And I participated in a textile entrepreneurial program – Advanced Textile Entrepreneurial Program. They chose 24 of us across the country last year. And so, I’ve been working with AFOA and MIT to help us realize our projects. And so I have mentors, I have had financial support. I have a lot of a lot of support there. And I had to propose one of our fabrics and I just, this week, filed a patent for it. So that’s a huge deal for me.
Nancy: Wow. I’m impressed – you have a lot going on. That’s fascinating. First of all, having convinced Nike to use one of your materials is something else. And I read a little bit about that fabric and didn’t it not only have an interesting texture, but was also reflective?
Elizabeth: Yeah, so I did actually.
So, what I became for Nike, what they call it I think is a master design contract or something like that. So I’ve done several things for Nike and they’ve come to me for different things. But what you’re talking about is our first project, which was really great. They said, what I convinced Nike I hope I convinced them, or my serious belief is that it’s great to make advanced materials, but we should also, they should be they should function well, they should perform well and they should look good. And I really think that in the sports world, there’s so many fascinating things going on and they embrace new, new fibers that do things. And I think that they are actually far more advanced than most of the other markets. But I also think of their fabrics all look the same.
I think that they’re all very solid, plain piece dyed fabrics. And what I found was that I was working, I work with mills all over the world. And a couple of the mills that I’ve worked with, the way that they qualify themselves is that they’ll say, well, we designed for Nike and that’s sort of in – we produced for Nike or adidas. And that’s a little bit of code – code for back to the designer saying, one, we can handle volume, right? Two, Nike has a very strict and now has a very strict environmental policy.
And you know, they are basically saying that there’s a lot of information and then they show you what they do, which is really helpful. But we design everything here. We create everything here. But basically they’re showing you what their, what their capabilities are and, and generally speaking, pretty almost every time they want you to choose from what they already can make cause they know they can make it.
But my job is to actually understand manufacturing and understand what the possibilities are and to push. I went back to Nike and said, or I went to Nike and said, you know, it’s great that you’ve got good suppliers, but you know, you have the ability and the buying power to really change some things here and why you aren’t, let’s think about that. The fabric shouldn’t just look like everything else. It’s been out there for 20 or 30 or 40 years and just be a kind of a nice color or a bright color. What if the fabric really is you know, it really feels good. It really does things that are great. What if it looks really beautiful? What if your elite athlete wants to put it on or your weekend athlete wants to put it on and it’s just something that they go to.
So, that’s what I was saying to Nike. And then after that first collection, they came to me and asked me to do fabrics for running jackets. And they told me that the most dangerous time for a runner is at dawn or at dusk because of the shifting light conditions. And so I took that as a cue. And the running jackets had to be a certain weight and, you know, they gave you a, gave me the parameters which are really important to know. And I thought, well, what if we look at yarns that glow in the dark and that yarns that reflect and, and so that’s how I started with that project and we, and we were actually looked at animals that glow or reflect. We went right back to nature as the inspiration. My charge for Nike or what I said I would do to for them was to make a fabric and give them everything so they could actually hand it off to a mill to be made. So that’s how I came up with that. That’s how that collection developed.
Nancy: It’s fascinating when you’re working with the brand to develop something that they can get excited about – to differentiate them. Because you’re right, a lot of the fabrics look the same. You can put a lot of brands, you know, like yoga tights or whatever, and a lot of them all look the same. When you come up with a really interesting fiber or fabric, it’s can be quite revolutionary.
Elizabeth: Well, not only revolutionary, but you know, I’m a designer and I love how things are made and put together. I don’t see why our consumers need to be buying plain fabrics. And I have, I mean, I have a real opinion about this, but I, if I know how to make it, I don’t see why we can’t be pushing the boundaries as to what can be offered into the world and brought into the world.
I also learned in my work with Niels, that designing something that’s more original, people often think, well, it’s, you know, the price point has to be this – and he wants to just forget about the price point. I remember thinking, Oh my God, are you kidding? You know, everybody starts with price point. He said, I do not want you to start with price point. I want you to start with what the fabric needs to do, and I want you to solve that problem because you can solve that problem, the price point we’ll get to that down the road. So, I trusted him, and I went ahead and we found out that what we designed at the end was maybe a little bit more expensive than what was typically offered, but it was far more advanced and different.
Nancy: So, there you have it. It can just be a barrier to creativity when you have to put that boundary on there. So, he was a great mentor. You mentioned that you see cross-market interest among textiles. I’ve noticed it in the trade shows that I go to – the markets that I cover, like home draws from athletic and vice versa. And obviously you’ve just mentioned that. Do you see it and now maybe even in smart textiles where you know, taking from industrial to wearable that can you elaborate a little bit on that or from your experience?
Elizabeth: Well, I think that for me the cross interest comes from what sparks my curiosity. And as I said, I love interiors and I loved the idea of creating a space or fabric and space.
And I still do, but I will say the sports world, you know, they were doing more exciting colors. They were coming up with like this pho fabric can, you know, absorb your body you know, your perspiration and, you know, it’s breathable. And so what piqued my curiosity or, or motivated me to want to learn more was that well somebody caring about the way that this is being done and I felt in the commercial, interior, textile world, and I still do feel that there is a lot of sticking to what’s been done and what has been done for. And there are reasons for that. It’s not that it’s, there are there are reasons because there’s ways of manufacturing that are difficult to change and re-adapt to, I mean, there’s a lot of, I won’t go down that route, but I found that I felt confined in the commercial interior world.
And I just wanted to explore. And then also I was living in a place where there is a lot of cross current influence. And I was curious, you know, you can’t help but be affected. I think by the way people dress in New York City, it’s an activity that they do. And I was interested in that, but it wasn’t that I was necessarily interested in fashion for fashion sake. I felt that they were doing interesting things in fashion. I think that that’s, yeah, that’s kind of what piqued my curiosity – you know, that actually is a more exciting looking fabric over there in Patagonia than what I’m seeing in a showroom in the, in the A and D building.
I am somebody who’s paying attention to something and I want to learn more. And actually when I started working with Niels I had approached Patagonia about doing some work with them. This is when I was like, I mean I was really a baby designer and because I was interested in sports fabrics. And then when Niels was designing the World Chair, which is that chair over there the Freedom Chair that he was using swimsuit fabrics because they were the only ones that would work on his chair. And so it even, it’s, it’s important to follow your interests because I was pursuing that and I didn’t even know him. And then when I met him shortly, within about a year after I’d been, I had been on my own, you know, they had to use stretch knit fabrics because they were the only ones that would work on the cushions.
And then I needed to develop fabrics that would work. So that was actually that was very serendipitous, but I think it was serendipitous because I was following my interests.
Nancy: Right. Oh, that’s interesting. So when you’re thinking of creating a new fabric, where do you source your fibers?
Elizabeth: I would say many places -when we think of more, we’re creating something new. We think about what that fabric needs to do. And that’s the first set of questions that we need to answer. What does the fabric need to do? Is it a running jacket? Is it an ergonomic seating product? Is it a wall covering? What does that fabric need to do? And so that’s the first thing. And then that leads me to like, well, what are the yarns that we need? What have we seen out there? What are we in?
So we source fabric, I mean sometimes like the mesh fabrics that I did for Humanscale for the Liberty Chair, which were hugely successful. I walked into a fishing tackling store in New York City and got monofilament yarns because I couldn’t find monofilament yarns within my yarn community. They may have been there, but I couldn’t find them, but I also needed to work quickly. So I went to a tackle store and bought monofilament yarns and put them on the loom. And then I went down to Canal Street and I bought really, really thin wire to use as yarn. And so that’s like one place. And then I go to trade shows and I look at what interesting fabrics are being made and what are the yarns that they’re using. And then I oh, I peruse the Internet, I look at and read articles.
I get Spin magazine, I get you know, Salvage. I look at textile magazines and then I also have developed relationships with yarn makers or my relationships through mills. I’ll say, you know, we’re really looking for yarn that does this, and we have developed yarns for the fabrics that we’re doing with the mills that we work with. And so we get that granular. And you know, if you walk around here, right now, most of our yarns are sort of put away, but we have a lot of different things and we also create some of the yarns here and then look for the right stores.
Nancy: We’re in your studio, which is beautiful by the way. For those listeners, it’s on the top floor of one of the, well, I don’t know if it’s the tallest building in Portland, but it’s on the hill so you can see, you know, over the, the ocean and the Back Bay. And anyway, it’s lovely and I do see a lot of swatches, a lot of spools and or skeins – whatever spools. And so, can you tell us what goes on in your studio?
Elizabeth: Sure. I always say that we, we create from the bottom up, which really means, and I think that’s definitely anybody who weaves, knows that your first pick is at the bottom of your plan. But at any rate we create a fabric from scratch. So, a client could come to us like Nike and say, you know, we need a collection of fabrics that are going to help protect runners at dawn or at dusk. And so then we’ll start thinking about what that is and what did that, and then we’ll meet with Nike and we’ll go back and forth. But what we actually do here is that we take the concept and we start drawing and we start exploring different yarns and materials. And as soon as we can, we get materials and that we think are, and we just start handling them.
We might see what happens when you try to dye it, or you put it in hot water, or you wash it, or you rub it or what happens when you twist it with another fiber. So we, that’s even before we’ve got anything on the loam or, or anything like that. So, we’re doing drawings, we’re doing material explorations. And we also are creating woven fabrics here. So, we are creating weave drafts, so we’re figuring out how the, all those yarns, you know, how the yarn will actually go together in a woven design. So we do that. Then we do a series of samples. We also do concept work for the client, our clients we go in if they need it, which we have done with Nike.
So, we’ll, we’ll put together a whole booklet and slideshow and I might go out to them and say, this is the direction that we’re going in, you know, and we’ll meet with them and they’ll say yes or no, and they’ve been pretty enthusiastic. So that’s been great. And, and I can do that with Nike because a lot of the people there are can see that. A lot of times we’re doing fabrics here [in the studio] and then we’re going to our clients and saying this, here’s, here’s the direction that we’re going in. And they could be in swatch form. Now we’re moving, moving further and further into prototype form. Because we find with all of our clients that the better that we can show.
Nancy: A more end-use product?
Elizabeth: Yeah. The, the better they can understand it.
I think that requires two things. It’s requires really paying attention so that you don’t walk down a road too far – that there’s a road of no return on the one hand. And on the other hand it’s important to do it because it just, you know, it helps everybody understand. And I have always been amazed at the very helpful feedback I get from people who are not designers on work that we’re doing. And I would say as a younger designer, I just thought, okay, the people that don’t design just aren’t going to understand, you know, I mean, like, I don’t know. I told my [inaudible] but in fact and, and some of them don’t, which that’s a different part of the conversation. But, but I think our savvy and knowledgeable executive will, will understand because they know what they need and, and they, I always am amazed.
One of the CEOs I have worked with for a long time. I’ll go in and I’ll put everything out there and he’ll look at it and then he’ll say one or two things that maybe I haven’t thought of that are so relevant. And I almost kicked myself going, why didn’t I think of that? But it’s helpful.
Nancy: You’re just too close to it maybe?
Elizabeth: Maybe, maybe. And maybe they’re just a little bit, you know. So then we do this, we will go back and we’ll, you know, we’ll refine and refine and then from there we will look for the right mill. And most of the time where sourcing the mills and other times there are other times our clients might come to us with mills, but it’s, we’re pretty, I’m pretty picky when it comes to who the mills are going to be.
Because I need to make sure that they’re going to follow our instructions. And so, we’ll source mills all over the world, but they have to be able to make what we’re doing. And then from there, once our client agrees and everybody’s in agreement, we start moving into a production sample and then we are test it out. And so, we conduct all the testing for our clients and, and then we’ll, if it works, then we’ll – I’m really going quickly through the processes with some of these things – but then we’ll then move it into production. And so we are a company in a studio that has the unique ability of creating everything that we’re doing and then moving it up and scaling it up. And so some of our clients, you know, they’re, they’re world international companies and, and there are fabrics are being produced over the world.
Nancy: Oh, it’s fabulous. And this little studio, I shouldn’t say little. Okay. Your vertical basically, except for doing, you know [production], for scale.
Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. It’s amazing.
Nancy: So, let’s just talk a little bit about sustainability. It is such a big topic in the textile industry and the trade shows that I’ve been, that I go to. It’s usually the major theme. So and also just doing some research. I noticed that one of your products that you designed was part of a Living Products challenge. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Elizabeth: Yeah, so there are, there are actually a couple of them. My client Humanscale has been exploring what sustainability initiatives and standards are important to them. And they adopted or decided to go for a very rigorous standard called Living Product challenge because it as I understand it, it qualifies on an entire product. It’s not just the chair part here and the textile here, it’s, it’s actually qualifying all the parts their products have to go through this. I think sustainability in terms of being sensitive to what a fabric is made of. I think it’s been around since the 90s. Probably before, but I, that was when I was a young designer, but it’s been around and so I was aware of that.
And there are some materials I just won’t work with. And when I was designing with Humanscale, I kept those standards or kept sustainability initiatives in mind, not the Living Product Challenge because I wasn’t a familiar with it at that time. The interesting thing is that when it came to qualify the textiles that they use on their chairs, and I think at this point there may be probably three or four of my fabrics that meet that. Maybe it might be most all of them, I’m not sure, but at least three or four, I thought my fabrics would ace it. And it turned out that that wasn’t the case and it was, the problem that we were having was not the fabric or the dye – it was the finishing, it was the anti-stain finishing.
I worked diligently in those other areas of, you know, what are we doing for, you know, not just the, the yarns that we’re using, you know, and the dye practices [but also] the manufacturing processes and practices. I was, I had those in mind. All right. I look for best practices when we’re designing and sourcing and I just didn’t think about the finishes and it’s kind of a surprise because finishes have gone through an awful lot of, there’s been a lot of banning.
And the interesting thing was that I thought if there’s a finish problem, it probably will come. I, I just thought it would probably come from maybe a couple of mills in certain places. Well, I found out that it, the finishing issue, that the failures that were happening were coming from mills in the US, Europe and Asia.
So, it was not just one place. And I was surprised by that. So we had to change those finishing things. And actually what we did was that we removed finishing on, on a lot of them. So, we removed the anti-stain finish. And for a couple of reasons. One is we tested it. We were like, how really effective is this? Because I knew that finishes actually wear off. In a furniture fabric. It will wear off. And in a wearable like a an athletic fabric, you can wash it. And when you put it in the dryer, it will reactivate. But that’s not the case where we don’t take our upholstery fabrics off and put them in dryers to reactivate. It’s the heat that usually reactivate some of these finishes. And so there’s a Wyzenbeek test in the interior fabric world.
And that actually tests durability. Like how quickly does a fabric wear out. If you sit on a fabric, you know, how fast will it wear out? It will get thready and start to break. So, we actually took the Wyzenbeek test and we said, we’re going to test the finishes on this and we’re going to find out. We know that when we buy a fabric and you spill water or soda or mustard or something, you can just wipe it right off when you first get it. But how long does it take for that fabric to have that finish wear off? We know the finish is failing in our Living Product challenge, but let’s get some more information so that we really understand what’s going on here. And we found that by and large, the finishes wear off so quickly that you’re paying more for them and they don’t really last, and then they’re just really bad for you and the environment.
And I was just surprised by that. So we, we removed them. And the one fabric we had to change was a urethane fabric that we had to change the formulation for. And that works fine now. But so I will just say that I have since been to a seminar on some of these finishes or it came up as part of a textile seminar I went to. And I’m just a little alarmed by the advertising that I hear about. Like, you know, we’ve got this finish on your carpet and your child can roll all over it. I really questioned whether or not that is safe at all for any of our beings to have contact with.
Nancy: So did your fabrics ace the test after you took the finish off?
Elizabeth: Well after we took the finish off, they passed. So that was important. I will also add something else that if this is helpful to you. I for my entrepreneurship program, I, I’ve, I’m been conducting a lot of interviews and going all over the country and meeting with people or sometimes I do it on the phone, but it’s best for me to talk to them face to face because you learn a lot. And I’ve talked to a couple of furniture manufacturers about what’s your biggest, you know, challenge with fabrics. And I was just ready to hear other answers, and what I’ve heard is we have so much fabric waste and we don’t know what to do with it all. So I was like, okay, that’s interesting. So that was one problem.
And then I sit down with architects and I say, you know, tell me about when you think about textiles for interiors, what are the, what are the needs that you have? And, you know, one architect said to me, I just want you to know that last year we went through our textile library and we threw out about 90% of what we had in that textile. We don’t need all of that. So it’s a big challenge. The sustainability kind of, I think it’s coming in from many different areas. And I think as designer, I’m really learning to listen to the voices of the people that are using things and the, the people that are studying the things that we’re making as well as the, the demands that come from clients and manufacturing. And, you know, it’s not easy for manufacturers to just change things on a dime. I happen to be sympathetic to that, I’ve learned a lot.
And then one other story I’ll tell you is when I moved back to Maine, I was I was up in the Blue Hill area and I took a little ferry tour with a friend of mine that was visiting from New York who wanted to go out in a ferry for and event at the Maine Environmental Research Institute. It’s called MERI. And they had like a little lobster boat and they were taking people out and they were like, this is lobster pot. And you know, I was probably rolling my eyes because, you know, I know this so much. And they were pointing things out and then either we saw seal or something and they said, you know, that’s a harbor seal.
And, and they said, in the last year we’ve had the seals, you know wash ashore or they’ve gotten seals that have died and that they’ve been brought in for autopsy and they’ve opened them up and, you know, there’s all this fire retardant chemical inside them. And I was so surprised to hear that. Like that is the biggest thing I learned and I was so glad I did that little tour because, you know, that’s something that’s used in the industry that I work in and what’s going on here that the seals in, you know, the Gulf of Maine are ingesting and dying and like – what is happening here? Was it being dumped someplace? What is it? What is that material that is using that fire retardant, how can that change? Those are the things I ask.
Nancy: Yeah. There are plastics in the ocean and as you know, initiatives of getting the microplastics out of the ocean and making new textiles out of those. I’ve heard a lot about that.
Elizabeth: Yeah, one of my clients is doing that because Patagonia has led that effort. They are working with the fishermen in South America and they are taking, the fishermen are harvesting all these old nets that they don’t need any longer and they taking those nets and they’re melting it down and they’re creating fibers out of it. So my client Humanscale has, you know, one of their chairs. All these plastics are made out of those recycled net.
And we haven’t gotten to the fabrics quite yet, but I want to give a shout out to that, but I also want to give a shout out to Patagonia because you know, they are amazing leaders in what they’ve done.
Nancy: That they are – I agree.
So, it’s an exciting time to be in the textile industry. I think, number one, because there’s so much going on with sustainability and creating fibers and fabrics with sustainable materials all through the supply chain. Not just the yarns and the fabrics, and how they’re designed, but also how they’re made what dyes are used and how they’re manufactured. Do you see and interest among younger people to get into this industry? And I don’t know if you’re meeting young designers. There one seminar I went to a couple of weeks ago in New York City at the Functional Fabric Fair. There was a an industry veteran, David Parks with Concept 111 said that he thinks it’s just such a, an exciting time to be in the functional fabric market because there’s so much opportunity with creating fibers and fabrics that are more sustainable and he thinks that, that we really need more educational programs within the schools that offer textile design or best practices. And I’m just wondering in all your travels, if you are encountering more, you know, younger spirits that are getting into this industry.
Elizabeth: I have encountered that when I was in New York because I lived in New York for 23 years. I’m thinking, because I think it’s a good question and I’ll give examples if I can.
I’ve always had students come to the studio. And when I was in New York, we had a lot of them. And one time I remember in particular I put out a lot of different work, some work for sports, some work for, you know, all the different work that I was doing. And the students went right for the sports fabrics because they were very colorful and they were very interesting and not that the other things aren’t interesting. They are, but they were design students and I was just watching them. And I think that they’re, I don’t know, I imagine that there is interest in sustainability. I can only speak from my, well, one my experience and also from what I know and see, I think it’s our responsibility as people who have had more seasoned experience to open that gateway for people young people to know that this is an area that they will have the support to go down this route.
I will also say that I’ve learned a lot about sustainability in fabrics from people that are not fabric people. Their interest in it has, has kindled you know, my interest as well. So sometimes you get some of the sort of the beacons of light that come from the more unexpected places, but to go back to younger people and to what’s happening in the textile world today, I think it is very exciting what’s going on in the textile world. I think it’s kind of like the wild, wild west of, oh, I didn’t live through that period. I think there’s so many possibilities. I think it’s wide open and there’s also a lot of wind and resistance and, and challenge. And so I think that it’s, it’s going to take perseverance and belief.
On the one hand, and on the other hand, and I say this probably as a woman in business and as a woman creative, you know, it takes support and it takes it takes people in decision making positions to take a stand or to incorporate ways of bringing people in – listening to not just younger people, but what’s going on around us. It takes a lot of things. For the design world – it takes funds.
I’m amazed because I as I mentioned, I just finished this textile entrepreneurial program at MIT. Who I was working with started to tell us where funds were available in order to get support for what we were doing. And so I mean, I think that they are very savvy group in Cambridge. But I just wonder why as creatives we aren’t more aware of what could be available to, to us to support us. There’s an awful lot of emphasis in engineering and technology and I think that’s great and that’s important. But I think that the creatives, and I’m talking about in my case designers, they know how things are made and put together. They know how to do it better than anyone else. And they need to be brought into this conversation and their voices need to be heard and incorporated into this process because you’re not going to be able to make anything very well unless you’ve got somebody who knows how to make it and can help guide that.
I feel actually really strongly about that. I think it’s been a massive overlook and I think frankly, sometimes it’s overlooked because they’re just unfamiliar. People are unfamiliar with what a creative person can do. And yet we know we live in environments, and I would say Portland is one of them in which the creative world has had great impact on its environment and now, you know, the business world is following and there’s an awful lot of new developments and so forth going on. But the other part of this is that those that are also creating these new technologies and these new ways of working in terms of what they see that fabric can do and they’re not fabric people. I would say that, that there needs to be an open mindedness to what those of us have been working in fabric and have been dealing with the challenges to help.
There needs to be a coming together of the minds. And that way it’s not like this is cool. Look at getting into, it’s like, that is cool. That can really do something. Now what is it made out of? What do you know, what are you in casing that technology with? Is it is it a we cycled a nylon? Or is it, you know how does that, how can that work with other foods? What happens afterwards? What happens before you know, what are, what are we using? And those questions are important questions. They just can’t be ignored anymore. And I think there are many people for many years that didn’t ignore them. And now it’s now it’s become critical. I’ll also say one last thing about sustainability and design. I think very good design is sustainable because really good design uses only what it needs and not all this other stuff.
And it’s all the more reason that a designer and a young designer should stick with their high standards, stick with them. And I say that because we’re all the time asked to lower them. We’re told we’re not going to get paid. We’re told that we’re wrong. We’re told it can’t be made. We’re told, you know, it’s lofty thinking. And I think if anybody can solve a really great design problem with it and, and make it sustainable, I think designers can. And, and yeah, so that’s, I guess that’s my last shout out.
Nancy: I think you’ve said some really important things and I hope our listeners can, you know, funnel that through their system. But just to elaborate a little bit more is that if you buy well, you can buy less.
Elizabeth: I think that was, you know, and that’s certainly an ability. Certainly I’m, I’m amazed. I, you know, I will just one of my friends Yeohlee, who’s a wonderful fashion designer in New York, once said to me, and I may get this figure slightly wrong, but I’m sure we can find it, said something like on the average Americans buy 87 pieces of clothes a year. I think that’s like shirts, pants, blazers, and so that shows you our consumption level. So why are we doing that? And the answer isn’t just always from one place. That’s the one thing I’ve learned in design. And so, then I was like, Oh God, that’s crazy. You know, and then I walk into a store, and I’ll tell you it was Banana Republic and they’re like having a sale and you go over and there’s a tee shirt that’s normally $85 a tee shirt and it’s on sale for $40.
And I know that fabric and I know what that fabric costs to make that tee shirt. So, we’re supporting Banana Republics overhead, frankly. What’s happening in the business and that we’re thinking that that’s just, okay. Whether you like the price or not, that might be one thing. But I know that the fabric’s made out of, and the consumer doesn’t know, but I know that fabric may be costs $3 for just the fabric and then there’s a labor. But now, you know, labor is being done over in countries where there’s very cheap labor. And so it’s not that much more. And I also can tell you that yarns around the world pretty much costs the same. So where people are saving their costs, they’re looking for the, you know, the least expensive manufacturing. And I understand it because manufacturing is not an easy business. But anyway – yeah, we can go on and on about that.
Nancy: So, what is your favorite material?
Elizabeth: I love silk because it’s got many dimensional properties and silks got a lot of it’s very strong. It warms the skin and allows to skin cool. It’s beautiful you know, when it’s dyed, and so I love silk. I love monofilaments. I love leather. I love wovens. I am always looking and some things come in and out of favor.
Like how can I get away from fibers that are fossil fueled? I’m looking, but I look at them like the students did when they walked into my studio, like, you know, thier sense of vision is really important. You know, what is something that looks interesting and that could be beautiful or how does it feel? And then for me, how does it work? How is it going to work? Is it cooperative as a material, as a yarn with other yarns, or is it a struggle? How will it work in not just in the handloom but then if we move it into production. So, I guess my favorite materials go through lots of different things.
Nancy: What’s next for you?
Elizabeth: It’s a great question. I lived in Maine in the 80s and had always wanted to come back, so I came back five years ago and that has something to do with the answer to this question. And having moved back here, it afforded me the opportunity to step back a little, and I probably take more time than most people, but it to step back and look at what we’re doing, the way we’re doing things and how I want to move forward.
What’s next for me is to really explore what people need. Not just client things, but I’m really interested to look in a larger scope. We have we just filed for a patent for a fabric that that we’ve created – a multidimensional fabric. And I’m going loop back to that in a second. So, we’ll be working on that and we need to solve those problems and we need to figure out how to bring it into production. We need to test it, we need to make sure it continues to be relevant. We’re doing fabrics that I love, which are stretched fabrics, which have to do with the ergonomic chairs – and when in Milan I saw what they were doing with materials in furniture – whether it’s plastics or wood and how they’re shaping things.
And I thought, well, fabrics can help in that. Stretch fabrics have been mostly in the sports world and they’re not an easy thing to make. We have found ways of making them that we think that we believe that we [can develop], so that’s probably next for us. And those are very studio driven things that we think that there’s a need out there. I’m looking at what’s next from a kind of a larger, ‘what’s my world out there’. And then since moving back here, I would like to see what’s next for maybe my local environment. And one of the areas that I am really inspired by are the farmers in Maine.
I keep thinking how I have designed for large commercial environments and you know, my work can be seen in movies, it can be seen in almost – like I walked into my bank here in Portland, in the conference room. They had the chairs with my fabric on them. So, I’ve been fortunate that I could walk into an office in a major city and in the world and see the things that my work is on. But I actually think it would be really interesting to come up with solutions on a more local level that isn’t necessarily driven by urban commercialization. And so that’s why I’m interested in farms and farmers. And I’ll tell you what got me interested and here are two things. One is if you ever walk into a beautiful barn or barn that’s well-organized, for a designer, it’s just an inspirational sight. And so I’ve been really inspired by working barns that I’ve seen.
And then since moving back here, you know, I, I’m part of a CSA [community supported agriculture program]. And you know, I’m so impressed by the by the quality and just the availability. And then I’m also impressed by hard people how hard they work. And I keep thinking, I think that design and textile design, you know. I’d like to see that it can be brought in on a local level, not just a worldwide commercial level, which I like both, so I don’t know. I have some ideas about that, but I’m not really ready to say, because I still got to explore, but I asked myself on, you know, a more local level, what, what could we do, what could I be doing to provide some sort of solution through fabric?
Nancy: So that would be next podcast!
Well Elizabeth, thank you so much for taking this time and sharing all your knowledge and inspiration and passion for what you do. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Elizabeth: I just want to say one last thing that happened for me. I mean, I’ve been designing textiles a long time and have designed fabrics that are very good solutions for products like chairs and, have been so lucky to be part of a great design team. And I was sat down to write this patent for this fabric that was designed several years ago. And it was suggested to me to patent it, and I was sort of like, how do you do that? And my mentor, Niels Diffrient, who actually was the one who suggested it and died and how many years ago?
Six years ago. And so, as a designer, I was like, I don’t know how to do that. And then I found support through this entrepreneurial program where I’ve been given a patent attorney to work with and so forth and so on. And I sat down to write the patent. My patent attorney said, I actually want you to write it and I want you to write the claims because nobody knows it better than you. And I was sort of like, oh, okay. So the last few months I sat down and I would devote weekends to writing it. I was writing and felt like I was walking in the dark with it, but that was okay.
I got on the government’s patent trademark organization’s website. And I came across other people that I knew had written patents, not in fabric – I just was like, what is this world? And so I came across a report by the US patent office that had just put out and it was that 4% of all pat, but let me back up. They’d been following this since the 1970s. So it’s really the last 40 or 50 years, I would say maybe 50 years about what’s going on in the world of intellectual property and 4% of all intellectual property for the, since the 70s, and it has not changed since then, is written by women. So, 4% have been written by either women, a team of women or lead inventor. That means that 96% are written by men.
Most of those are in the medical world, engineering world and some others. And I just was shocked by that statistic. And yet I’m not surprised because I was one of those people that had come up with something and somebody said to patent it. And I was just like, what do you mean? And so I just, I just was shocked at because that means that there’s a lot of available brain trust that’s not coming out. And so and I would say in the design world, there’s a lot of available brain trust. Whether you’re a man or a woman, but especially with women. And so I just kind of want to leave with that because maybe that’s really in my mind right now – that we have solutions that need support or we need to find the support or so forth.
I mean, I think one of the first patents by a woman was for a woman that came up with a method of weaving straw for straw hats back in the 1800s. I know I’m a creator and that’s the life that I live and want to live in this incredibly beautiful state. That inspires me daily. And also want to be part of the world and we need to ask why that isn’t happening. And so that’s probably what I’ll finish with.
Nancy: Amen! Thank you so much, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: You are welcome.
Nancy: Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise, please visit materialwise.co and please subscribe, rate and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again and until next time, take care.