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Research and Innovation

Zeis Textiles Extension Plays Leading Role in Promoting Environmentally Sustainable Growth

student working in spinning lab

By Raymond Jones

Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE) provides a range of services that enhance the productivity, innovative capacity and technological performance of North Carolina-based manufacturers. At the same time, ZTE has become an acknowledged national leader in promoting environmental sustainability.

ZTE’s specific services include such things as continuing education, on-site consulting, research, new product testing and equipment design. In addition, ZTE was heavily involved in the planning and execution of a major sustainability conference sponsored by the Wilson College of Textiles in March. The program, entitled Evolving Textiles Conference 2022: Materializing the Future, focused on hemp as an alternative fiber and circularity in textiles.

The virtual format enabled ZTE to engage speakers, panel moderators and program registrants from all over the world. A total of 280 people took part in the proceedings, representing academic institutions, government agencies and members of private industry. Melissa Sharp, ZTE’s associate director, says the response “totally outstripped our expectations.” 

“One challenge with this type of event,” she says, “is neutralizing the suspicion that it may just be ‘one more meeting covering the same old ground.’ That’s why our speakers included some of the world’s leading experts on the subject matter at hand.”

Also, notably, the conference was just one of many ZTE sustainability initiatives that are taking place this year. For example, ZTE’s senior manager for lab operations, Tim Pleasants, continues his work as a consultant to clothing manufacturers using recycled materials. His team’s particular specialty is producing high-quality garments using fibers recycled from used cotton clothing. 

Pleasants cites the ongoing success of a Seattle-based company called Evrnu (pronounced ever-new). ZTE was instrumental in helping the company produce a durable fabric used in a line of sportswear marketed by high profile designer Stella McCartney. 

Other key initiatives include further exploration of hemp as a source of fiber for textile production. ZTE Director Andre West is personally leading this effort, with a boost from David Suchoff, an agronomist in NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

“One of the problems with hemp,” West says, “is what I call ‘the chicken or egg syndrome.’ Manufacturers are reluctant to expand usage unless they are guaranteed a dependable supply. And farmers are hesitant to grow hemp as a crop unless they are guaranteed a profitable market.

“Hemp is an attractive alternative to wood or cotton,” West says, “because it’s a fast-growing source of cellulose that has less environmental impact than other crops. But successful cultivation and utilization involves a number of complexities. For example, it’s difficult to scale up production using existing equipment, because hemp stalks tend to jam up grinding machines. So new types of processing machines will be needed.”

“In short,” West says, “using hemp as a raw material to produce rope is easy. But using it for fine fashion ware is more problematic.”

Jeff Krauss, pilot laboratory manager at ZTE, says dyeing and finishing typically causes problems with wastewater and hazardous chemicals. He and his colleagues are investigating ways to clean up the processes without sacrificing quality.

Karen Leonas, a professor in the Department of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management since 2013, revealed to conference participants that ZTE will be sponsoring a new series of sustainability-focused online courses starting this May. The short courses will be geared for textile employees at different levels of responsibility, from production line personnel to top executives.  

“One of our top goals,” she says, “is encouraging people to champion the cause of sustainability within their own work settings.”

A total of 13 learning modules will be offered at low cost, available to be taken in any order. Sample topics include supply chain, climate change, waste disposal and the importance of original product design in advancing sustainability.

Another module will include information on the Wastewater Toolbox 101, a website that shows users how to improve wastewater treatment in the consumer goods industry. The project came about as a result of NC State’s partnership with The Sustainability Consortium.

Sharp says a future priority for ZTE is introducing coursework on “biopolymers.” These are polymers that can be derived from plants or microbes, in order to reduce dependence on petroleum.