A STEP Above: Young Alumna Cassia Lewis ‘13
By Cameron Walker
A second generation alumna of the Wilson College of Textiles, Cassia Lewis practically grew up at NC State, biking around campus and cheering on the Wolfpack at football games with her father, who graduated from the Textile Engineering program in 1994. She now lives on the West Coast, serving as director of business development for fabric manufacturer Swisstex Direct.
My dad being a textile engineer really influenced my decision to study textiles, and STEP camp convinced me to come back to NC State and attend the Wilson College of Textiles.
She graduated in 2013 with a B.S. in Fashion and Textile Management (with a concentration in product development), but a career in textiles was not always in the cards. In fact, she once dreamed of a life onstage. Her mother was a ballet teacher and instructed her in dance until she was seven, when she began training at a professional ballet studio.
“For a long time I wanted to be a ballerina,” she said. “I wanted to be a ballerina up until the time period of seventh, eighth, ninth grade, when I realized the career of a ballerina ends at 35 and that’s pretty early. I decided to dance on the side and pursue my education.”
Lewis attended her first Wilson College of Textiles open house in eighth grade; intrigued, she returned for the next three years. She signed up for the Summer Textile Exploration Program (STEP), a residential program for rising high school seniors. She was the second generation of her family to attend STEP camp; her parents met for the first time when they attended the program together in the 1990s. Through her experience with STEP camp, she became eligible for — and received — a full-ride, Duke Kimbrell (Parkdale)-sponsored Erlanger Merit scholarship.
“My dad being a textile engineer really influenced my decision to study textiles, and STEP camp convinced me to come back to NC State and attend the Wilson College of Textiles,” she said. “We did what was basically a little Project Runway during the summer, where you go to a thrift store and buy things to repurpose and remake. I just loved the whole experience and I decided I wanted to be a designer.”
While in school, she demonstrated initiative and a strong work ethic, graduating in just three and a half years while working several jobs, in addition to dancing seasonally with the Carolina Ballet, serving on the Student Advisory Board and being a member of Sigma Tau Sigma textile honor society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, University Scholars, Arts at NC State Dance Company and the NC State Swim Club. She attributes her drive to her parents.
“It really comes from my family,” she said. “While he isn’t in the textile industry anymore (he is currently a vice president for a construction company), [my dad] has always been very work-driven and has always led by example. My mom was kind of the typical tiger mom: very, very, very focused on school and really helped to drive and motivate me to do well in school…I did piano and dance and swimming, and was in a bunch of clubs at school. My mom was really great — she was luckily able to stay home with me, so she carted me around town to my different activities and took care of me. I was really blessed to have a mom who could do all that for me.”
Off campus, she was the marketing director for Beleza, A Fair Trade Boutique in Cameron Village and the head coach for the Garner Dolphins swim team; on campus, she was a DELTA LearnTech technology assistant and a computer instructional technologist for the Wilson College of Textiles. She also served as a teaching assistant for David Hinks, dean of the Wilson College of Textiles and Cone Mills Distinguished Professor of Textile Chemistry.
“Dr. Hinks was doing a textile forensics class. It was in its infancy [and] he wanted to take the course online; with my experience with the distance education center and the DELTA LearnTech help desk, and with my textile background, it made sense for me to jump in and help with that,” she said. “It was a good experience — I enjoyed getting to work with Dr. Hinks, who is a very inspirational individual.”
For her senior collection, Lewis designed a collection of seven haute couture bridal gowns, each hand embellished with intricate tambour beadwork. But it was her innovative performance on a different project that led to her first post-graduation position. During her junior year, she got the opportunity to do some undergraduate research for what was then the International Textile Group (now Elevate Textiles).
“After doing initial research, the vice president of sales and the vice president of the R&D department charged our class with finding alternative methods for their [proprietary] technology called No Fly Zone, which has an insect repellent treated onto the fabric,” she said. “For my project, I put together a proposal for [using the technology to manufacture] tents for events like charity golf tournaments, weddings, really any type of event that happens outside under a large tent in a hotter, more humid climate. Tents have a lot of fabric and could potentially be a new form of business. They were very happy with that and ended up offering me a position with the company based on my proposal.”
Lewis spent the next five years with the company, first working on fabric performance product development in their performance apparel division, covering military uniform, menswear and performance apparel. When the role of marketing director opened up, she was tapped to fill the vacancy; she showed an aptitude for marketing and later became the marketing trade show director, and was also responsible for merchandising for the company. Her experience interacting with people at trade shows led to a position as account manager for the West Coast.
“I had everything west of Texas and half of Canada,” she said. “I learned a lot in a very short amount of time and through that process, I moved to the West Coast and settled in a little north of San Diego. I was commuting all over the West Coast to see customers.”
Looking for a change, Lewis started investigating other opportunities in the performance textile field. She didn’t have to search for long.
“It was very serendipitous, because only a couple days into the search I got contacted by Swisstex for this position,” she said. “I’m still in sales for performance accounts, [including] Nike and adidas. In addition to that, I’m helping to manage all of our business development efforts, strategically organizing our marketing platform and sales and the way we present ourself to the industry, relaunching our website, giving our company a little bit of a facelift when it comes to how we present the technology that we offer. In addition to that, I’m helping with some of our internal employee resources, tools and educational strategies.”
It’s great to see this shift in the industry, to target and innovate around sustainability, and that’s very much what we’re working on here at Swisstex.
“We are an extremely sustainable dye house and finishing facility,” she said. “Honestly, that’s what sold me on moving to Swisstex. I took a tour through the entire facility and it’s really state of the art; there’s not another textile facility I know of that can compare. We’ve done a lot of significant investment in the type of machinery and the way things are run. That Swiss ownership and mentality — it’s a very efficient mentality, but they are also heavily invested in having us as sustainable as possible, with the least impact on the planet.”
According to Lewis, the company is the only dye house in California that uses a thermal oxidizer, which uses high temperatures to render safe hazardous gases.
“Additionally, we are known across the industry for our water usage — or actually the lack of water usage, I should say. Most textile mills across the globe use about 20 gallons of water per pound that they process,” she said. “We are a bluesign® system partner, which is kind of an industry standard for chemicals in the market…Most bluesign® mills use seven gallons of water per pound; we actually use about three gallons per pound, so we’ve been very proud of our efforts to reduce water usage.”
If the name Swisstex makes you think of a well-calibrated watch, it is for good reason. According to Lewis, their automated dye house runs like a chronograph.
“Our color system actually uses a pipette robot to pull the exact increments of the different dyes to create lab dips — and it does it in an extremely quick time,” she said. “Where most mills can only process 25, maybe 30 lab dips per day, we can do up to 300 with the automatic machine.”
Lewis takes pride in working for a company that she feels is on the leading edge of sustainability.
“It’s so exciting to see that in our industry, which is the second most polluting industry on the planet, we are making an effort to meet sustainability goals,” she said. “The brands we work with are targeting to have all products in their lines recycled or organic or somehow sustainable by 2024, 2025. It’s great to see this shift in the industry, to target and innovate around sustainability, and that’s very much what we’re working on here at Swisstex.”
When she’s not at work, Lewis is outside in the California sunshine.
“It’s always 75 and sunny here, and I love the ability to do anything outside,” she said. “There’s always the mountains or the ocean. There’s all kinds of opportunities to get outside and be active. Being a textile performance fabric nerd, I really love getting to see the product in action and doing what our product is meant to do, which is to make your outside experience more enjoyable and comfortable.”
Lewis plans to visit home soon, and hopes to cheer on the Wolfpack with her dad as they defeat Carolina. Her mom, however, “bleeds blue” and will be rooting for the other side.
“I’m just so happy that Cassia has been able to develop a wonderful career based on the education, relationships and history we developed through the college and its faculty and staff,” said Cassia’s father, Gray Lewis. “Our time at NC State (individually and together) created some great memories that I will always cherish!”
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