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Caroline Cockerham ’09, ’13 Finds Magic in Material Development

Caroline Cockerham in New York City office

By Sarah Stone

NC State was a natural fit for Caroline Cockerham; both are defined by their Think and Do mentality. The opportunity to create something tangible during her undergraduate experience is what initially drew Cockerham to the then-College of Textiles. 

“I specifically remember touring the College of Textiles, and I was so impressed by all the machinery,” Cockerham says. “It really struck me as a place where I was actually going to be able to make stuff.”

She went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Fashion and Textile Management in 2009 and a Master of Science in Textiles in 2013.

In the near decade since, jobs at Patagonia, Lucy, Casper and more have informed Cockerham’s thoughts about how to improve sustainability in the textile industry. Now, she’s ready to turn those thoughts into actions through entrepreneurship. CICIL, a sustainable-centric fine rug business, is the result of her partnership with friend, former colleague and fellow college alumna Laura Tripp

What was the most impactful part of your undergraduate education?

I loved developing my Threads Senior Collection. It’s fun to just be given the reins to make things, and I love that we were able to use all the different technologies. All of the patterns that I made were cut on the automated cutter and developed in AutoCAD. 

Then of course to have the College of Textiles on my resume, I found that most of the places that I worked, from Lucy to Patagonia, they almost exclusively hire NC State graduates for their material development roles.

What motivated you to pursue a master’s? 

The opportunity came up to work with a group of close friends around this topic of sustainability. We were approaching it as a group, and not many people really knew what sustainability was at the time. It just felt like a cool opportunity.

We created a website to define sustainability and determine the different metrics that comprise sustainability. 

That specialization in sustainability really set me apart in the industry and helped me get some jobs and, at a time when sustainability was in its infancy, helped separate me from other candidates.

During your master’s you interned at a textile mill. Why was that so valuable to your career?

It really was compelling for brands to see that I had real experience in actual textile mills and to this day, that’s still some of the best experience that I got.

Brands might have a concept or an idea, but I realized that a lot of the magic actually happens in the mill. I think that’s where a lot of the experts are in the industry. They know their craft and machines and how to make these ideas come to life.

It helps if you’re going into the apparel or textile industry to develop some empathy for the people and processes and really understand how work gets done.

Laura Tripp and Caroline Cockerham stand behind a CICIL rug in a textile mill
Caroline Cockerham and business partner Laura Tripp stand behind a CICIL rug in the North Carolina textile mill where it was made. Photo courtesy: Ethan Messina.

You have an obvious passion for material development. Where does that come from, and what do you think is important to being successful in that field?

Outdoor and activewear brands like Patagonia tend to have core silhouettes that don’t change often. They’re dependent on textiles for newness, and so a lot of the creativity takes place in materials.

A lot of the magic actually happens in the mill. I think that’s where a lot of the experts are in the industry.
-Caroline Cockerham

The combination of having a creative mind and combining it with the material science expertise is really helpful when you’re working for brands because you have to interface with designers. They are your main collaborators, and you have to be able to foster their vision in a way. You have to be able to bring the designer’s concept to fruition in a way that they’ll like for its innovation and creativity, but then you also have to be able to back it up with the science side so that the material actually functions.

You’ve gained experience in both design and material development at all sorts of apparel and home goods brands. What has this breadth of experience meant for you?

They’ve contributed to my overall growth and helped me get to the point where I am a little bit of a jack of all trades. 

Yeah, I’m lucky to have had a lot of good work experiences, but, you know, good, bad, ugly, they’re not all perfect. You learn from them and go forward.