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Throughout Textiles Industry, Influence of NC State Alumni Is Profound

From left to right: Michael McDonald, Caitlyn Holt and Allen Little on a showroom floor.
Wilson College of Textiles alumni and industry members at textile conference Techtextil. Photo Courtesy: Devin Steele.

Venture into nearly any arm of the textiles industry, and you’re sure to notice a trend: NC State University and Wilson College of Textiles alumni are everywhere.

It makes sense, considering the Wilson College is the only of its kind in North America devoted exclusively to textiles and everything they touch — boasting a full range of textiles education, research, innovation and service.

The concentration of Wolfpack alumni in key industry posts is especially noticeable for Melissa Sharp, associate director of Zeis Textile Extension, which sits at the heart of the college’s intersection with companies and organizations in the textiles industry.

“You can’t be in the industry without coming in contact frequently with our alumni,” Sharp says. “ No matter where you go, if it’s a textile event, you’re going to see NC State alumni.”

Melissa Sharp (second from right) poses for a photo with Associate Dean Jeff Joines (far right), ZTE Extension Coordinator Bailey Smith (second from left) and student Tytianah Ward (far left). Photo Courtesy: Devin Steele.

That connectivity speaks to the 125-year-old college’s prominence within the multibillion-dollar industry, with alumni serving not just at top employers ranging from Nike to NASA, but at the helm of major decision-making posts within key industry organizations, too.

It also provides immeasurable benefit to students, young professionals and industry leaders alike, allowing them the chance to leverage the college’s robust network.

“The more that you grow in your career, the more that you know it’s about building relationships and a solid network,” Sharp notes. “I think for our current students, having those connections with alumni in those leadership positions also provides them with more opportunities, because those organizations are already very aware of our students and what we do.”

We caught up with several NC State alumni currently serving at major posts in key textiles organizations to hear about their work, their career path and how they continue to interact with the Wilson College today.

Will Duncan

  • B.S. Business Management ’83
Photo Courtesy: Devin Steele

Will Duncan graduated from NC State in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in business management. Today, he serves as executive director of SEAMS, the association and voice of the U.S. sewn products industry.

Representing more than 220 of America’s foremost fashion brands, retailers and manufacturers, the organization is the go-to resource for shaping the growth and resurgence of the “Made in America” movement.

Duncan’s firm, Will Duncan and Associates (WDA), is responsible for all of SEAMS’ management, marketing and administrative functions. He previously served as the executive vice president for TC2 for 25 years where he started and managed their training and consulting division. He also served in roles such as director of operations, plant manager and engineering manager for companies throughout North Carolina.

How do you feel your time at NC State helped set you up for success in your career?

Growing up in a family of Wolfpackers, NC State has been an integral part of my life since birth. My time as a student at NC State provided me with a sound educational background as well as many long-standing relationships. One of the key takeaways was furthering my ability to perform while under pressure.

My career started in and has continued to focus on the apparel manufacturing industry, where I have gained success as a thought leader and been fortunate to lead multiple companies in this space. My long-standing relationships from NC State and the roles I had from my early career forward provided a path to where I am today.  

What type of interaction and collaboration opportunities do you have with NC State and the Wilson College today?

The Wilson College of Textiles has been a valuable resource for me throughout my career. I have engaged in many collaborative initiatives with Wilson College of Textiles personnel. 

SEAMS as an organization is about bringing like-minded people together in the industry and driving change and improvements for our “Made in America” initiatives. We provide educational sessions, testing and collaboration with the Wilson College of Textiles that adds value to our organization and the people involved in this important initiative.  

It’s an extremely important relationship to me as well as to our members.

Where do you think the textile industry is headed in the coming years?

We will continue to see growth in technical textiles. Sustainability will continue to be a key driver, as will human health concerns regarding the chemicals used in the manufacturing of the products we wear. 

Many factors will continue to point towards products needing to be produced closer to the marketplace in which they are consumed. Direct to consumer will continue to grow and evolve.

However, many things have not changed: primarily the manner in which brands and retailers source products, in addition to how our sewing factories operate. 

To further develop these domestic supply chains will require meaningful change in how sewn product factories look and operate. They must embrace Lean manufacturing principles and practices, invest in technology and automation, and they must repurpose their workforce.

The Factory of the Future is a passion of mine that I truly believe in. If our industry can move forward and resolve the challenges listed, this will open up job opportunities in our country and a tighter relationship between retailers, brands, manufacturers and all the players in the textiles and apparel supply chain. I will continue to lead this charge through my engagement with SEAMS and my own consulting practice.

Lynsey Jones

  • B.S. Textile and Apparel Management, M.S. Textiles ’05
  • Americas Apparel Producers’ Network
Photo Courtesy: Devin Steele

Lynsey Jones was recently appointed executive director of Americas Apparel Producers’ Network (AAPN), a global industry network exclusively supporting the Western Hemisphere textiles and apparel supply chain. She has spent 20 years heading sourcing for major brands and retailers. 

In her most previous role as vice president for global sourcing strategy and transformation at Carters, Inc. she drove complexity out of the $1 billion supply chain through a strategic sourcing model and increased data and analytics in the costing process.

What drew you to the world of textiles and how did your time at NC State set you up for success in your career?

When I started at NC State, I was actually a political science major. After year one I was disenchanted with my studies, to say the least.

One day I was on the Brickyard and I read an article in Technician about graduation and job placement rates for every college in the university. The then-College of Textiles had a 98% graduation rate and a 95% placement rate. So, the next day I scheduled a meeting on Centennial Campus and promptly changed my major to textile and apparel management.

It’s one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Coming out of school, I had less of a learning curve than most of my peers, and knew how to “Think and Do” on day one.

I am proud to say I continue to see the same qualities in the next generation of graduates. And we are everywhere these days; I see at least one “textile kid” at every event, meeting, factory, etc. that I attend or visit.

What type of interaction do you have today with the Wilson College?

About five years ago, I earned a seat on the Industry Advisory Board for the Wilson College of Textiles. We discuss current curriculum against industry trends and find ways to fill any gaps. We also interact with students at each meeting and that’s probably my favorite part: seeing the new talent that’s about to break into our industry.

What are you most excited about in the industry over the next several years?

The focus on sustainability, whether it’s environmental or social, is a major impact area, and one that people of all levels are fiercely passionate about.

Sustainability is driving so much supply chain strategy in the industry at the moment. Whether it’s developing more near-shore / on-shore potential, driving transparency and traceability systems or reducing waste via sample reduction or smaller production runs, it’s affecting every aspect of our industry for the better.

I also love seeing the rise of technology in our industry. Those that are my age have experienced companies running on Excel and now to see the rise of digital product creation using 3D or advanced planning and forecasting systems deploying artificial intelligence (AI) is just so exciting.

But, above all, watching the emerging talent and how they drive change in our industry is the most thrilling. The passion they bring and out of the box thinking they use for problem solving is unmatched.

Michael McDonald

  • B.S. Textile and Apparel Management ’10
  • Current Student: Ph.D. Textile Technology Management
  • Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of America
Photo Courtesy: Devin Steele

Michael McDonald ’10 serves as president of the Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas (SPESA). With a keen focus on suppliers, he describes his role as the chief advocate for “anything that goes from taking a piece of fabric and turning it into a t-shirt, a car seat, an airplane wing,” or any other end product. 

In a role that spans the textiles industry, he frequently comes into contact with NC State alumni. He’s currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Textile Technology Management at the Wilson College.

In your role, you have the opportunity to interact with many different industry associations. Many of those associations are run, and occupied, by NC State and Wilson College alumni. How valuable is that for you?

It’s incredible. Just the alumni base from the Wilson College of Textiles and having that alumni connection has helped me. 

When you go to a trade show, especially if the Wilson College has a booth there, you’ll see people with NC State alumni ribbons on their name badge. And just having that is an immediate icebreaker. And since so many people have that, you have that built-in connection.

It has really made the networking in the industry a lot easier for me.

On top of pursuing your doctoral degree, what type of interactions with NC State and the Wilson College do you have today?

I still serve on the Dean’s Young Alumni Leadership Council.

We’re very, very, involved with the Flex Factory, and we’re about to take up some more endeavors in the research field, reaching out to professors for papers that may be relevant to the manufacturing sector and helping to promote the research that’s being done in that field.

We’re still very involved with and highly supportive of teaching manufacturing from a cotton sew perspective to students, and getting them familiar with the equipment. 

Where do you see the industry heading in the next several years?

I’m really excited about the industry over the next 10 years. I think we’re going to enter a new genesis. I used to be able to make the argument that we had better automation and sewing manufacturing in the 1980s … until about 2017.

We’ve made more progress in the last five years than we did in the 25 years before that, and I think that’s just going to continue. 

So from a technology perspective in the industry, it’s an awesome time to be a part of it. We need to start telling younger generations, such as Gen Z, about that. There are really cool, highly technical jobs out there.

Matt Priest

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Political Science ’99
  • Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America
Photo courtesy:

Matt Priest ‘99 serves as president and CEO of Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, the largest footwear association in the U.S. In his role, he’s in charge of managing the organization’s day-to-day operations.

Priest previously served as a senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush administration.

Once a political science major in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Priest’s foray into the textiles industry largely began during his time as legislative assistant for former North Carolina Rep. Sue Myrick.

You’ve held quite a few posts in the industry. How would you sum up your current role?

Our goal is to be the chief advocate for the industry and to support companies within the footwear industry on all things business, advocacy and lobbying. 

So, for us, every day we wake up we say, “What services are we providing? How are we making our companies more competitive? How are we meeting footwear companies where they’re at, and providing them key resources, information, data and support?”

You majored in political science. How did you find your way into textiles?

On Capitol Hill, I worked for a member of Congress who represented Gaston County, North Carolina, a community with a historic textiles legacy. I really kind of fell into the world of textiles, apparel, the policies behind them, what makes companies tick and how to make them more competitive. 

That’s when I really started to understand what the textile industry does and its impact.

How have you been able to connect with the Wilson College during your career?

I’ve been an executive in residence, I’ve spoken to a few classes, and couldn’t be more thrilled that I was able to come back, connect into State and provide support to a college I didn’t even attend when I was there as an undergrad.

We hosted several materials summits for footwear at the college, brought in a bunch of shoe executives for two days of learning and touring the facilities.

That’s always a fun aspect of the job — of connecting the two worlds: bringing more footwear companies into the textile space and then bringing my alma mater closer to the footwear industry.

I’m always searching for ways in which we can be supportive of the college.

What do you make of the Wilson College’s prominence in the textiles industry, and its role in preparing students for successful careers?

The Centennial Campus is a model for other higher learning institutions. To have the private sector, the marketplace and academia together on the same campus — that’s highly, highly unusual, I think. It was basically just starting to take root when I was at State.

Let’s be honest, there are only a handful of institutions nationwide that have this expertise and this focus on something that’s critically important to consumers, and to industry here in the U.S. And NC State has been able to leverage that to its advantage.

Where do you see the industry headed in the next few years?

For us, on the footwear side, is the exploration of biomaterials. We’re looking at all these new, different types of materials that we’re going to be using for footwear uppers, and I think also for apparel applications that we haven’t even dreamed up yet. 

So there’s a lot of innovation going into that space, a lot of critical thought, creating products that are more sustainable and biodegrade over time, but also are durable and reliable, and fashionable, cost-effective and affordable … all the things that are important to consumers.

Devin Steele

  • ’87 B.A. English
  • Southern Textile Association +
Photo courtesy: Devin Steele

Devin Steele serves as secretary and treasurer at the Southern Textile Association, Inc. (STA). He also runs an industry news site he founded called His roles marry his experience writing for textiles industry trade sites and his early-career work as a journalist.

How did your experience at NC State set you up for success in your career?

As a small-town kid from Goldsboro, North Carolina, NC State opened my eyes to endless possibilities in journalism — although my heart was set on sports writing coming out of school. 

I learned the nuts and bolts of the writing craft, the art of storytelling and the importance of deadlines. Although I didn’t know textiles, having that foundation of communication and listening skills enabled me to transition more easily into business / manufacturing writing.

You eventually moved into writing for a variety of industry publications, and in March 2014 launched eTextileCommunications. How does your work allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry?

I wanted to create a news website that was dynamic, interactive, eye-catching and full of worthwhile news. I think giving readers what they want in a professional, quality, consistent manner is much of the reason readership and advertising support has grown. We now have almost 7,000 subscribers to the weekly newsletter.

I love doing what I’m doing, and I don’t really consider this “work.” I have a deep passion for this industry and its people and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. Attending industry events, seeing old friends and meeting new ones keeps me excited.

Along with serving as STA’s secretary/treasurer and managing its social media channels, what type of interaction does your role foster with the Wilson College today?

STA is an important resource for the industry, not only for educational purposes, but for networking. With seven conferences a year around the Carolinas, including one at the Wilson College each year in April, opportunities for connecting with colleagues and meeting new industry folks are ample. Much collaboration has emerged over the years from these gatherings.

Where do you think the industry is headed in the coming years?

The industry has made tremendous strides over the many years cleaning up its workplaces, improving its environmental efforts, getting on the cutting edge of technological advancement and treating its employees fairly and with above-average wages and benefits. 

Companies have invested in modern machines that have helped, too, through automation, high productivity and efficiency, which also have cost jobs. But it has allowed them to compete on a global basis.

We, as an industry, need to get involved in telling the story of a resilient textile industry that makes significant contributions to our safety, health and comfort and energize policy makers and consumers to continue to recognize the importance of our industry.

I think the future is bright for an industry that has faced significant challenges.

Diana Wyman

  • M.S. Textiles ’09
  • Current student: Ph.D. Fiber and Polymer Science
  • American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists
Photo Courtesy: Devin Steele

Diana Wyman serves as executive vice president of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC), an organization based in Research Triangle Park focused on standards development, testing materials, educational resources and professional networking opportunities.

She’s currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science at the Wilson College.

What does your role at AATCC entail?

As executive vice president, I oversee operations for the Technical Center and its 18 staff members as well as working with thousands of individual and corporate member volunteers. 

AATCC’s mission is to connect the global textile community to empower an innovative, informed, and sustainable future. Creating and maintaining connections with other organizations is a key part of my job.

On a day-to-day basis I may sign contracts, work in the lab, or rearrange furniture for an upcoming event!

How did you get involved with textiles?

I’ve always loved fabric, learning to sew from my mother. I didn’t know “textiles” was a career option when I was an undergrad, but I started as a chemistry major and ended with a degree in fashion merchandising. 

Along the way, I fell in love with the testing course that married my interests in science and textiles. Since then, I’ve gone back to school to learn more about the science side.

Testing has been an important theme in my career. Aside from AATCC, I managed Softlines for a third-party testing lab now owned by UL and worked in the Research and Testing Lab at REI. My very first job out of school was as a pattern writer for McCall’s—no testing, but I learned a lot about the importance of clear and consistent language.

What type of collaboration do you have with NC State and the Wilson College today?

I’m back to work on my Ph.D., so I have quite a few ongoing interactions. I also stay in touch with students I met over the course of my master’s and doctoral programs.

Through my role at AATCC, I also get to work with the AATCC student chapter at NC State and many faculty who serve on various AATCC committees. As close neighbors, AATCC and NC State participate in each other’s activities on a regular basis. I recently brought my daughter to see the Threads Fashion Gala.

The contacts are probably the most valuable piece I’ve taken from my time at AATCC. I have met so many people who I can call on with questions or to help make connections for others. This includes the professors, but also fellow students and the various guests and visitors who pass through the Wilson College.

My Linkedin profile says “textile nerd and lifelong learner.” The Wilson College continues to be an important part of supporting both.

How do you feel about the future of the textiles industry?

I am optimistic about the future of the textile industry. As for just about any industry, sustainability, or circularity, present both exciting and challenging opportunities for the textile industry. Despite the industry receiving some negative press, and having some real issues to deal with, I see very promising signs that the industry is continuing to invest in innovation to address these challenges.

AATCC recently worked with a large group of global stakeholders to develop what became AATCC TM212 Test Method for Fiber Fragment Release During Home Laundering. It was inspiring to see so many people from across industries and around the world come together to find common solutions.