Earning a Master’s to Make the Fashion Industry More Sustainable
By Meredith Jeffers
Maddy Lyon wanted a change.
After earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion Design from Syracuse University in 2017, Lyon spent the next four-and-a-half years working as a designer in the apparel industry. She had long been interested in sustainability efforts in the industry, such as waste mitigation and the clothing life cycle, so she found herself restless to do more.
“I was getting antsy with my textile design job and feeling stuck career-wise,” Lyon says. “I wanted to be able to work within sustainability in the apparel industry, but I didn’t feel like I had the technical background.”
This drive, combined with her desire to take courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and pursue her own research interests, led her to the Wilson College of Textiles. She took one online course before deciding to move across the country and enroll in the Master of Science in Textiles program. Her prior background in the apparel industry as a designer for major companies such as Kohl’s gives her a keen insight into the ways the apparel industry operates — and how to make a change within it.
Change through sustainability
“I draw inspiration from nature in my own design work. I think that has led me to have a strong affinity for working with upcycled materialsI love the natural environment. I love working with natural dyes, and I love working with upcycled textiles,” she says. “The materials that clothes are made from are very durable, but we throw them away. I think there are so many missed opportunities for reuse, reworking and recycling.”
Even in her spare time, Lyon experiments with design techniques like upcycling. She brings a new look to the practice of traditional needlepoint by using plastic bags for thread. This started as an exploration of how old, colorful, newspaper bags could be upcycled into functional art and sewn onto apparel as an applique. To Maddy, upcycling materials such as plastic bags and adding value to the material is an integral piece of circularity and sustainability.
Lyon’s research into the topic of apparel recycling earned her a 2022 VF Student Impact Award, a $5,000 fellowship for Wilson College graduate students to fund their research goals and professional development opportunities. She’ll also explore the topic further in her master’s thesis, advised by Professor Karen Leonas. Lyon will focus on circular textile recyclers’ greatest challenges and how those correlate to design decisions affecting the end-of-life of a garment—that is, what happens when the garment is no longer of use to its owner. While some textiles at the end-of-life can still be thrifted or donated, many are often landfilled, incinerated or unofficially dumped into the environment.
“My focus is connecting that end-of-life cycle to the beginning,” Lyon says. “I’m going to be interviewing textile recyclers and drilling down to their biggest challenges and how those issues can be used to educate product developers and designers.”
Sustainable design in action
Lyon has observed that the fate of a garment (where it ends up after its initial use phase) is determined in the early stages of the design process and that product developers can be a major agent of change.
In 2021, Lyon competed in a design challenge held by Ambercycle. Ambercycle is most known for their yarn, Cycora, which is created from post-consumer polyester apparel. For this competition, designers were tasked with creating a garment for their first capsule collection out of Cycora that had been turned into a single jersey. The challenge focused on creating a garment free from color or embellishment in order to showcase the unadulterated Cycora material.
“I got to design a garment from a textile that was mostly recycled materials, take it all the way through production, and then sell it,” Lyon says. “This was a project that motivated me to pursue further studies in sustainability, designing for circularity and textile waste management.”
In January 2023, she taught a mending workshop at textile startup Keel Labs that included a presentation about waste in the apparel industry.
Launching her career in sustainable apparel
Several months after teaching the workshop at Keel Labs, a job opportunity opened up. Lyon just recently accepted an offer to work as the material associate in their Morrisville, North Carolina, office. The Research-Triangle-based startup is best known for developing a seaweed-based yarn called Kelsun.
“Within my role at Keel, I will be working across the research and development, brand management, and sales teams to manage their material library, which includes yarn as well as prototypes,” Lyon says. She’ll be working part-time as she wraps up her thesis before transitioning to a full-time role there after graduation. “It will be a very dynamic role.”
Lyon plans to lean on, and learn from, the experts at Wilson College as she looks toward what’s next.
“Every new thing that I learn,” she says, “is helping me form my perspective and pushing me in slightly different directions.”