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From NC State Labs to The North Face Headquarters

a student setting up a fabric sample for testing

By Sarah Stone

As the capstone project for both textile engineering (TE) and textile technology (TT)  seniors, the Senior Design program at the Wilson College of Textiles is meant to provide students with the skills and experience they need to jump start their careers. 

That’s something Sam Covington (B.S. TE ’19) and Emma Jenio (B.S. TT ’18) can attest to. The two Wilson College alumni served as industry sponsors for The North Face this year, just a few years after their own Senior Design experiences. 

“It really helped me understand the testing of materials,” Jenio, who now works as a materials developer, says. “At The North Face, things are really held to a high specification and have to meet all these requirements, so that was really, really good for me to see from the lab and standardization perspective.”

Now, as sponsors, they work to make sure current students get just as much out of Senior Design as they did. Covington and Jenio met regularly with this year’s team of students not only to make sure the project stayed on track and met The North Face’s standards, but also to provide feedback and advice.

“I have done it and now I’m on the other side and so you have that perspective as well,” Covington says. “It’s navigating the class, navigating the teachers and giving students insights like what to do during presentations and what to say during scientific review boards.”

This year, The North Face tasked Jacqueline Ashford-Lavy, Brandon Postema-Drolet and Chris Watts with developing a new weave design for its ripstop fabric. You’ll spot the textile in its tents, backpacks and even some outerwear products. 

The new design needed to incorporate a weave pattern that would draw a shopper’s attention, and, as the name suggests, the ripstop fabric also needed to be highly durable. 

To accomplish this, the group first conducted research to choose the right yarn. Next, they developed five potential weave designs to send to a mill for prototyping. 

four different weave designs compared side by side
A few samples of potential weave designs that The North Face team developed. Ultimately, they settled on the parallelogram design (far right).

“Combining all the aspects of fabric creation was a little challenging at first,” Postema-Drolet, a TT student, says. “We had to learn how to calculate different fabric weights and what we wanted our average weight to come out to be and how that would affect our strength values.”

In order to prove that the new fabric met the same durability standards, the team had to test abrasion (fraying), tensile strength, tear resistance and other factors. Existing ripstop fabrics were tested in exactly the same way as the prototypes in order to provide “benchmarks.”

Senior Design student cutting textile sample for project with The North Face
Jacqueline Ashford-Lavy prepares a ripstop textile sample for testing. The group tested all samples for durability and strength to meet The North Face’s standards.

In addition to textile science and design, the team’s project served as a crash course in sourcing and supply chains. They were forced to move production from a mill two hours away from Raleigh to one in another country. 

“COVID and supply chain issues had a heavy effect on us,” Ashford-Lavy, a TT student, says. “Our deadlines got pushed back because of that. Materials kept changing, our sourcing and suppliers kept changing. And all of that resulted from how long it takes to get things to ship and the capabilities of other people that we rely on.”

fabric in hoop

Covington says it’s this sort experience working with suppliers from around the world that applied directly from his Senior Design project to his current role as a trim developer for The North Face. 

“You rely on other people for a lot of your job, and so much of it is just communicating and communicating well enough that you actually can actually meet your deadlines.”

Chris Watts testing a ripstop sample in the Senior Design lab
Chris Watts tests a ripstop sample in the Senior Design lab.

For TE student Chris Watts, the most rewarding part of the capstone was experiencing the product development process from beginning to end. 

“We did what most research and development teams do,” Watts says. “We looked at what’s on the market. We made something and tested it against what’s on the market currently.”

Ultimately, the three graduating seniors more than accomplished their goal, developing a ripstop prototype design that was stronger than the control fabric that they compared against. Their project won alumnus John Calvert’s (B.S. TT, ’71) annual “Most Innovative” award at the Senior Design poster session in April. 

two students presenting their senior design project to judges
Jacqueline Ashford-Lavy presents the teams project to faculty and industry judges in the James B. Hunt Library.

Dig Deeper Into Senior Design

Learn more about the each team’s project and final product in their own words by expanding the booklet below.