By Cameron Walker
Dr. Cynthia Istook, professor in the department of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management (TATM), has been named the Cornelson Family Distinguished Professor of Textile and Apparel Design, effective April 1. The professorship was established in 1987 to help advance the field of textile and apparel design. Istook is a leader in this field, molding tomorrow’s pioneers and actively working to improve apparel design through emerging technology.
“With this position is the expectation that you make a change, that you make an impact on the College, the department and the industry,” she said. “I have lots of ideas and I’m anxious to sit down with the other faculty and talk about how they see all this working together.”
Istook has chaired the Fashion Development and Product Management and Fashion Design programs since 2008. She has taught at NC State for more than two decades, helping prepare thousands of students for textile and apparel careers. Within the Wilson College of Textiles, she was the first female to be promoted to full professor; she is now the first woman to be named a distinguished professor.
“I’ve always been concerned about being better — every year, being better and doing more,” she said. “I have a passion for my students and providing the best education they can have so they will be ready for the industry. I want them to be the groundbreakers. I feel successful when I see my students out in the field as leaders in different companies, because that is what we train them to be.”
Istook’s teaching style is rooted in her own experience. Introduced to sewing by her mother, who made all of the family’s clothing, she began sewing in the fifth grade and was creating her own wardrobe by the seventh grade. She entered and won many sewing contests through her college years, and it was during one of those competitions that she learned a valuable lesson.
She created an original outfit for a Montgomery Ward sewing contest — a pair of brown and white patterned bell bottoms and matching vest with a brown shirt — and was meticulous with every detail except for one. Although her mother prodded her to use interfacing, she didn’t like to do the extra work — so she made the outfit without it. She won the state level prize of a sewing machine, but the judges told her she needed to remake the shirt with interfacing if she hoped to win at the national level.
“My mother helped me get more brown fabric and tried real hard not to say, ‘I told you so,’” she said. “It was a lesson learned, and now I’m always cognizant of where interfacing has to go and that it’s worth the extra work. My students don’t want to do it now and sometimes I just sit back and let it go like my mom did and let them learn from their mistakes.”
She received her B.S. in Fashion Merchandising, Clothing and Textiles from Texas Christian University (TCU), then worked in retail for several years while also designing custom clothing and home furnishings for individual clients. When the first of her four children entered middle school, she and her husband discussed ways to pay for their higher education. She decided to return to school herself and eventually join the faculty of her alma mater.
“I’m a TCU undergrad — my family were founders of TCU — and if you worked there, you could send your children to school for free,” she said. “But they didn’t have a program. The closest program was 50 miles north, in Denton.”
She drove hundred of miles each week, earning her master’s and then her Ph.D. from Texas Woman’s University (TWU), while teaching classes there and at Baylor University, 90 miles south in Waco, Texas.
“I had to wake up in the morning and think, ‘What day is it? Which direction am I going?’” she said.
She taught for a year at the University of North Texas and then for five years in the marketing program at TWU. A job never materialized at TCU, but Istook is grateful for what she calls “divine intervention.”
“I’m so lucky that that didn’t happen — that it didn’t work out for me,” she said. She moved her family to North Carolina when a position as associate professor became available at the Wilson College of Textiles. Although there were schools with larger fashion merchandising programs at the time, she was drawn to the technology available to faculty and students and the sense of excitement around the program.
Over the years, Istook has worked hard to expand the program. She served as TATM’s associate department head and director of undergraduate programs from 2010 to 2016; in that role, she helped the department reach record levels of undergraduate enrollment and worked hard to strengthen and market the Fashion and Textile Management and Fashion and Textile Design degrees.
Istook has made contributions to the industry on both a national and international scale, as a member of the Human Resources Leadership Council of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, chair of the International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) Public Relations and Publicity Committee, and co-chair of ITAA’s Design Exhibition Entries Annual Meeting. She has served on the board of several journals, including the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, the Journal of Textile Science and Engineering, and Fashion and Textiles.
Her research centers on sizing and fit, and uses body scanning to evaluate fit in 3D and design more custom-fit apparel for real bodies.
“As a population, we have gotten really used to buying something that is the least worst of our choices,” she said. “That’s not ideal for anybody and it’s a very frustrating thing for many people…Most of us have issues and garments should help us look our best.” She aided in the SizeUSA body-scanning measurement survey and the ongoing Size NorthAmerica initiative, and recently returned from a trip to India to help establish the India Size program.
The Cornelson professorship will help her impact TATM in a big way. She plans to use the professorship’s attendant funding to support state-of-the-art technology and training for faculty and students, and hopes to one day establish a fashion and apparel technology center similar to the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) and the Nonwovens Institute.
“When people start coming to us to solve their problems and know that we have the technology to help, that we can be a testing ground for them, that will be really great,” she said. “We want our students to be the first ones on people’s minds.”