Nigel Carlton grew up in Alamance County, the historic heart of North Carolina’s textile industry, and now lives in the Pacific Northwest with his girlfriend, alumna Brooke Anderson (TE ‘17). He earned a Bachelor of Science in Textile Engineering from the Wilson College of Textiles in 2017 and a Master of Science in Textile Engineering in 2019; while in school, he interned at Cotton Incorporated, served as a resident advisor, was a member of the textile honors society Sigma Tau Sigma and Kappa Tau Beta Leadership Fraternity, and worked as a graduate research assistant with the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC). He is currently seeking a position with a textile company in Portland, Oregon.
We spoke to Carlton about why he chose to attend the Wilson College of Textiles, his work with TPACC and the reality of searching for a job while limited to a specific geographic location.
What drew you to the textile field, and why did you choose to attend the Wilson College of Textiles?
I grew up in Alamance County [in] an area that had a massive textile mill presence around town until the bulk of manufacturing left for overseas. So I grew up around textiles, but never really saw it as an option, because many of the adults who were in Alamance County during the mass exodus of textile mills had a bad taste in their mouths and were convinced that the textile industry in the U.S. was dead.
I came to NC State wanting to pursue an engineering degree but wasn’t sure which one, so I went into the First Year College (now Exploratory Studies) to figure it out. My advisor knew that I grew up playing sports and suggested that I put my interest in sports and engineering together and pursue Textile Engineering.
But even though I became interested because of the athletic and outdoor industry, I stayed because I fell in love with the college, the people and with how much more diverse textiles was than just the textile mills that had left to go overseas.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
All I can really remember is an astronaut. I have no idea why an astronaut, but I was pretty interested in space at the time. I asked my mom what she remembered, and she said for some odd reason either me or my brother wanted to be a “police astronaut” whatever that is. Now I’d rather create and develop the materials for a police astronaut’s uniform!
How did Wilson College of Textiles prepare you for your career?
Since it is the only textiles specific program in the U.S., and arguably the best in the world, Wilson College is extremely unique. For someone whose goal is to stay in the textile industry, I can only see a degree from Wilson College as a leg up on literally everyone else, because more than likely, they didn’t have a background in textiles and are going to have to learn most of, if not all the terminology, conversions and adaptive mindset that every student graduating with a degree from Wilson College will already have or be familiar with.
I know that Wilson College is growing, but the fact that we had small enough class sizes that you could [develop] a relationship with a professor was everything. Not just because they could help you out with a concept you aren’t sure of, but mainly because just about every faculty member there is world class in nearly every textile field possible.
Just a few examples [from the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS)]: Dr. Martin King is basically the godfather of medical textiles; anything military or first responder wearable-related goes through Dr. Roger Barker and the rest of TPACC; Dr. Jeffrey Joines is one of the best minds in simulation and efficiency, and Dr. Karen Leonas is at the forefront of helping lead the textile industry into a more sustainable future.
Basically, what I’m saying is that all roads go through NC State Wilson College of Textiles.
After I finished undergrad, I was ready to be done with school — but an opportunity came up to work at TPACC and I couldn’t really pass it up. Grad school was very different, but what I liked was that it was more like a work schedule with classes thrown in here and there. What I believe prepared me for a career in grad school was the constant coming in, even if you didn’t have class, and working on what you needed to do for your specific project, or things that needed to be done around the lab — whether it was for upkeep or administrative purposes, or tasks for other people or even outside companies. That constant balancing act between all the different projects you had and the constant communication and coordination that was needed was eye opening and I feel was a phenomenal segue into the workforce.
Another opportunity I had that was unique to grad school and that has helped prepare me for my career was the chance to have undergraduate researchers. TPACC had a lot of undergraduate researchers that would come in to help during the semesters and during summers. I had the chance to be responsible for at least one of those undergrads the whole time I was in grad school, save the first semester. It’s one thing to figure out what you need to do, but a whole new animal to figure out work for yourself plus find things for people under you to do…I know how boring and mundane busy work can be, so I always tried to make sure that I gave my undergrads not only work that would keep them occupied for an extended amount of time, but also work that they could be proud of.
What has your job search been like so far?
I’ve heard — and have somewhat seen — that whatever industry you are in after your first three to five years, it will be very hard to switch later in your career. Since I had spent technically two of my years in thermal protective equipment, I figured that this was my chance to try and pursue the dream and get into the athletic and outdoor industry, as well as try my hand out west. So, I had spent essentially the entire summer finding and applying for jobs up and down the West Coast. I came up with a few hits, but unfortunately, came up just short.
Running out of time, I opened my search to positions all over the country and in other industries. I got an amazing job offer at a company in Raleigh — one that I was literally 12 hours from accepting — but at the last minute, my girlfriend got a job offer out in Portland. We had been doing long distance for about a year and a half (she lived in Charleston while I was in grad school) and we wanted to be in the same city, but also wanted to try out the West Coast.
The opportunity to move that far and experience a new region does not happen often, and we knew that we had to jump on not only the chance to move, but jump on the chance for my girlfriend to work at a dream company — Nike.
We’ve been out here for about two months and honestly, it’s been a bit difficult finding a job. Portland does have the most athletic and outdoor companies per capita in the country, but I have just been getting stuck in the sea of applications at some of these large corporations or can’t quite find some of the smaller companies in the field. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit frustrated, but I’m keeping my spirits up [and am] confident that the right opportunity will show itself soon.
Tell us about the research you were able to conduct during graduate school.
I worked in the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) under the direction of [TECS professor] Dr. Bryan Ormond. He was a great advisor, and anyone working under him is extremely lucky and will not only find an amazing mentor but also a great friend.
The firefighter community has been hit hard with an increased number of firefighters who have become diagnosed with cancer largely attributed to on-duty exposures. A study conducted in 2015 showed that there was ample opportunity for soot and smoke from on-duty exposures to penetrate the firefighter turnout gear, especially around the head and neck areas. The particulates in soot and smoke have been shown to contain carcinogenic substances; therefore, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), nonprofit organization looking to mitigate loss due to fire, added an optional particulate-blocking layer for firefighter protective hoods into the standard that governs turnout gear.
The protective hoods are typically two layers of inherently fire-resistant knit fabrics and particulate-blocking layers are typically made of a synthetic film that doesn’t allow moisture to pass through. Imagine wearing two t-shirts; you’d be pretty comfortable, might be a little bit hot, but nothing that would really hinder you from doing your day-to-day activities. Now, adding the particulate-blocking layer is similar to if you were wearing these two t-shirts, but with a thin rain jacket in between the two t-shirts. You’d get hot quickly, it’d be noisy, and you would be generally uncomfortable and wondering why in the world you have this thing on. But then when it rains, you’re glad you have it. That’s essentially how it is for firefighters when the particulate-blocking layer was added into the protective hoods, except instead of rain, it’s potentially carcinogenic particulates.
The goal of the project was to basically make sure that the minimum performance requirements that mandate what all turnout gear manufacturers abide by were adequate. And to be quite honest, many of the minimum performance requirements are chosen almost arbitrarily and can be best guesses. However, the people that are making these decisions are experts from all over the industry and their estimates are typically sound. We could have created the perfect protective hood, but that would only affect the people that would buy those hoods. By changing the standards, we could broaden our reach and be sure that every firefighter was not being put unnecessarily in harm’s way.
There were many parts and pieces to this project; I think we had six graduate students all looking at different facets of this project at one time. My part of the project was to look specifically at how the thermal protection may or may not be affected by the addition of a particulate-blocking layer. The worst-case scenario for firefighters is to be caught in what is called a “flashover” or “flashfire” — an emergency situation for firefighters where they can receive burns within seconds and temperatures can reach anywhere from 800-1200 degrees Celsius (1500-2200 degrees Fahrenheit) and above. It was my job to determine if the testing method used an adequate representation of performance under flashfire conditions, if the minimum performance requirement for thermal protection was satisfactory, and then piece together my findings with everyone else. I was able to test different configurations of commercially available and unavailable hoods and materials using test methods that only test fabrics, as well as a garment test method called PyroHead™, which is a little brother to the famous PyroMan™.
Unfortunately, the results to my part of the project weren’t so exciting, because anyone in the thermal protection industry understands that the more layers you add, the more thermal protection you are afforded. And since all of the materials we used were all inherently flame resistant, that’s essentially what we found. However, when we put everything together, we found that the optimum number of layers a particulate-blocking hood should have is two. This is because firefighters are wearing helmets, earflaps, coat collars, and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) masks that cover most of the head and neck area, therefore more than two layers of protective hood adds to the already high amount of heat stress firefighters are subject to as well as potentially decreasing situational awareness and adding cost.
You won the Rieter Award in 2016. Tell us about that experience.
The Rieter Award is an annual international award given to students in textile technology by the Swiss company Rieter, a producer of textile machinery. Its purpose is to support textile technology institutions and promote the global network the textile community has become.
Along with the rest of my classmates, I got an email from Dr. Jon Rust about an international award; if we won, we would get an all expenses paid trip to Switzerland for a week. I remember telling myself, “There is no way on earth I’m going to win this, it’s too good to be true,” so I put it off and didn’t apply. Then a few days later it was approaching the deadline and I thought to myself, “Well, I’m already not going to Switzerland. I might as well apply and see what happens.” And sure enough, during exams I received an email informing me that I had won! I couldn’t believe it. At the time I was about to start an internship at Cotton Incorporated to work in their fiber processing lab, where Rieter machines were a large percentage of their pilot yarn manufacturing facilities. So, working at Cotton Inc. and with their machines is what set me apart from everyone else.
In total, for the year 2016, there were eight winners, all from different parts of the globe. The countries represented were USA, Argentina, Germany, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam. For the trip, the Rieter representatives told us that all we needed to prepare was a ten-ish minute presentation on where we are from, what we are studying and what our research was on. Since I technically wasn’t doing any of my own research, I just talked about Cotton Inc. and what the day-to-day operations in the lab.
Other than that hour and a half of presentations, the rest of the week was spent traveling and sightseeing. We were able to get tours of the Swiss Army knife factory, a Swiss chocolate factory (I may or may not have brought back 10 pounds of chocolates), visited the [largest Swiss city], Zurich, and my personal favorite, went 10,000 feet up into the Swiss Alps — absolutely breathtaking. We tried so many different foods, many of them with Italian and German influences. Definitely a week that I will cherish, with people I won’t forget.
What was your time like at the Wilson College of Textiles?
Overall, I had an amazing experience at Wilson College. I think having everyone taking the same classes really made my experience because I like having a diverse group of friends and having friends at Wilson College that were different than those I lived with was good for me.
I played a lot of intramural sports, sometimes playing in three to four leagues at one time. I was in Kappa Tau Beta and Sigma Tau Sigma, and was in an a cappella group called Acappology from my sophomore year through my first semester of graduate school. A few months after I left Acappology, I joined a semi-professional a cappella group (basically just people in their careers who still want to do a cappella) called Triadic. Shameless plug: both groups are on Spotify and Apple Music if you want to check them out, and I may or may not be solo on an Acappology track 😊
What is the future of textiles with regard to your corner of the industry?
Sustainability and the future of the world has been a hot and much needed topic of discussion for all industries around the world. The textile industry is no different and is in fact the number two polluter behind the petroleum industry. When it comes to sustainability in the athletic and outdoor industry, there seems to be a movement that will be the opposite of “fast fashion” and will consist of a few garments having multiple functions and are able to be worn in many scenarios such as working out all the way to a dinner party.
What do you do for fun? What are some of your favorite movies, etc.?
I play video games occasionally, and have been listening to some podcasts recently, but I love playing sports, especially football. I’m willing to try just about any sport, not saying I’ll be good, but the little bit of athleticism I have sometimes helps me out. I think that’s been one of the hardest things about moving out to Portland, not (yet) having a consistent league or group of people I can go and play with.
My family has always been big into movies, and I’ve kept it up. “The Lion King” was on repeat when I was young. I’m pretty sure I wore out our VHS copy of “The Lion King.” I love all the Marvel movies, but I think my favorite movie is “Interstellar.” The space travel, gravity defying science and graphics are amazing; [it’s a] long movie but I’m thoroughly entertained. Now that I think about it, most movies that are space-oriented like “The Martian” or “Ad Astra” catch my eye. I guess I really did want to be a “police astronaut” when I was younger!
What did I not ask that you want to share?
I’m the oldest of four. My brother Mendé is a senior at NC State in Environmental Engineering and is on the Club Rugby team. I also have twin sisters, Lauryn and Silken. Lauryn is a freshman at Elon University on the track and field team, and Silken is a freshman at Cape Fear Community college playing soccer.