Written by Alyson Tuck
Sara Thomas (B.S., Fashion and Textile Management ‘15) has cotton woven into her genes. From her Manhattan office in the marketing department at Richloom Fabrics Group, she spends her days developing new marketing and branding for the company’s diverse upholstery and fabric lines. Her graphic design skills and marketing expertise make her competitive in any industry, but Sara isn’t driven to work in just any industry. At Richloom, she’s connected to the fibers that have sustained her family for generations.
Sara is the fourth generation of the Thomas family to graduate from the Wilson College of Textiles. Her great-grandfather, Mason P. Thomas, arrived on NC State’s campus in 1919 and every generation of her family since has followed in his footsteps. However, just as the textile industry has shifted focus across the decades, each member of the Thomas family has carved out his or her unique path.
Following Tradition her own Way
In her mind, Sara was always going to NC State, but she didn’t have a plan for what to do when she got there. Growing up in Charlotte, she’d heard stories her whole life about the tremendous experiences that her dad and grandfather had as students at NC State. Sure, most of those stories revolved around fraternity life and sporting events, but she knew NC State was special.
“I secretly always knew I was going to be a member of the Wolfpack,” Sara said. “When I got in, I was sold.”
As an entering freshman with an undeclared major, Sara knew one way her college experience would differ from the family who had gone before her: She was not going to study textile manufacturing. Ever. From her grandfather — John G. Thomas Sr. (B.S. ‘55, Textile Manufacturing), founder of Thomas Textile Company — she’d learned enough about manufacturing to know that it didn’t interest her in the least. Yet among the wide range of courses in her first semester lineup was a survey course in the Wilson College of Textiles. Sara didn’t expect to like it, but it sparked an interest that would shape her future.
John G. Thomas Jr. (B.S., General Textiles ‘85) never pressured his daughter to follow the family’s legacy with the Wilson College of Textiles. When Sara announced her intent to join Textiles, he was proud but cautious, having personally suffered through the decline of the manufacturing industry. Then she explained that she didn’t want to do what he had done at all. She had discovered a new side of textiles: textile brand management and marketing, fashion development and product management.
Building a Yarn Legacy
Raised in a textile family, Sara Thomas understood the industry to be about two things: manufacturing and selling yarn. That’s what her family had done for generations. Her great-grandfather, Mason P. Thomas, was president of Hadley-Peoples Manufacturing Company in Siler City, N.C., which made 100 percent cotton dyeable yarn for use in industrial fabrics.
The textile industry in North Carolina was strong, and Sara’s grandfather, John G. Thomas Sr., attended the Wilson College of Textiles in the 1950s in preparation for a career at Hadley-Peoples. He started out selling yarn for Hadley-Peoples and discovered that a talent for sales and an educated understanding of his product made him a natural fit. John Thomas Sr. went on to found the Thomas Textile Company out of Charlotte, N.C., selling recycled cotton yarn for industrial use across the country.
John Thomas Jr., Sara’s father, followed the family tradition. After graduating from the Wilson College of Textiles in 1985, he worked in yarn manufacturing at Parkdale Mills in Thomasville, N.C. before joining the Thomas Textile Company as a salesman. Though he left the textile industry years ago and now owns a concrete company, the pick glass sitting on his desk reminds him daily of his textile roots.
Evolving to Thrive
In the Thomas family’s nearly century-long relationship with the Wilson College of Textiles, a lot has changed. The campus moved, the curriculum evolved and diversified and the entire textile industry was transformed. While Sara Thomas studied the same textile fundamentals found in her dad’s old textbooks, she finds her modern, digital experience hard to relate to his generation’s fully manual training. Likewise, Sara’s dad and grandfather know little about her chosen path in textile management, but they couldn’t be prouder of her drive and success. In fact, it is a common poke in the Thomas household that Sara had a better grade point average at NC State than all the Thomas men who came before her.
“She always had a love for fabric and fashion and design, and so that’s where she staked her claim,” John Thomas Jr. said. “I don’t really understand fashion and design, but she gets it. That’s what she’s made her career doing and I hope she has a long, happy career doing what she wants.”
Sara Thomas’s promising career in textile management is a clear example of how the College has evolved. After her grandfather witnessed the textile manufacturing industry in North Carolina decline, he questioned how the College could survive. But the family watched as their Wilson College of Textiles, buoyed by the progressive and innovative environment at NC State, reached extraordinary levels of achievement in new areas. They marvel at the recent research and textile applications coming out of the College.
“You’ve got to learn to zig when everybody else is zagging, and I think the University has done that,” John Thomas Jr. said. “Even though the industry has declined, [the College has] modernized and gone to the places they have to to keep it a viable industry.”
Investing in the Future
Despite their differences, the Thomas family members’ college experiences share some common threads. At NC State they grew fiercely loyal to their University, their College and their fraternities. They cheered for the Wolfpack and against the Tarheels with equal passion. They stepped on campus feeling that NC State was home and that the Wilson College of Textiles was an extended part of their family. They acquired the knowledge and training to begin successful careers. And they all walked away with a desire to give back.
Though she’s early in her career and supporting herself in costly Manhattan, Sara Thomas feels strongly about young alumni giving back to the College.
“I think it is so important to start giving as soon as you graduate, because it sets a tradition to always donate back to the College,” Sara said. It’s not something she’s ever talked about with her family, but it seems to be an unspoken value shared across the generations. For this family, supporting the College may become an investment in their own future.
Children aren’t on Sara Thomas’ mind these days. But one day, many years down the road, the Thomases might just become the first to see the fifth generation of their family graduate from the Wilson College of Textiles.