Textile Education Circa 2022, Part 3-Ish: The Importance Of Learning “Hand” And “Hands-On”

By Jim Kaufmann, Contributing Editor

Recent issues of Textile World featured “Textile Education Circa 2022,” an article I wrote split into two parts that focused on current textile- related education programs in the United States. Part 1 featured a review of the more formal degreed options provided by colleges and universities for those interested in receiving a degree in some version of textiles — in design, fashion, engineering or management, for example — while part 2 focused more on the assorted training, apprenticeships and other related non-degreed training options being conducted through universities, colleges and industry related organizations.

However, after finishing the two articles, the thought occurred to me that while the editorial provided information on options for degreed and non-degreed offerings, neither article really offered much help in the way of what one should actually try to learn specific to textiles. So, allow me to offer an opinion, or two, derived from close to 45 years of experience in the textile industry. I’ll call it Part three-ish.

It’s All About Hand

First and foremost is the term “hand,” which many would argue is the primary fundamental factor guiding much of the global textile industry. Hand is defined by www.textileglossary.com as “literally, the feel of the goods in the hand.” In essence, it’s the tactile characteristics of a fabric. The desired “hand” for an application or specific end-use will likely influence fabric choices, architecture, construction, manufacturing techniques, processing parameters and any finishes applied.

I doubt I’ll ever forget my first real encounter with fabric hand. It occurred when I was maybe 12 years old, yet I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in the lingerie section of a department store with my father, who at the time ran a small tricot knitting mill. He appeared to be caressing different pieces of lingerie and suggested that I feel this one or look at that one. At 12 I knew enough to know that I should feel uncomfortable, and definitely noticed a few people in the store who were

looking at us curiously. Later, I realized my father was essentially comparing the different tactile aesthetics of these lingerie items to similar fabrics he was producing. “It’s all about the hand,” he said with a wink.

“I still always inquire if there is a sample when engaging in a new project with a customer,” said Bill Christmann, vice president, sales and marketing, Gehring Textiles, Hauppauge, N.Y. “I need something I can touch and handle and get the feel of. Otherwise, we’re just initially guessing at what you might want. If I have something representative to start with, it makes the development and selection process that much easier moving forward.”

A sentiment, I’ve found, that is shared by many others in the textile industry. Granted, the hand of specific fabrics is likely more evident and meaningful to the fashion and perhaps home furnishings industries, but hand also applies to many, if not all, other textile industry segments. The crisp, neat and clean look of a properly assembled printed banner; a composite parts operator who notices the fiberglass fabric in use is too stiff to nest neatly into the crevices of a mold; how a convertible top fabric has to be stretched and conformed properly around its support structure on an expensive new sports car; or the feeling and support of a seating fabric on an office chair are just a few examples of the hand in segments outside of the fashion industry.

And to those involved, each of these examples has respective significance and importance equal to that feel, softness and comfort of my niece’s snuggle blanket.

One concern voiced with greater frequency is the feeling that the use of hand as a formal term and attribute is waning and not entirely appreciated in today’s textile industry. This fear continues to grow given today’s focus on digitization and Industry 4.0, more folks working from home doing business over Microsoft® Teams or Zoom calls, less and less true research and development happening, emphasis on speed-to-market creating a shortened development cycle, and the continued lack of experienced and properly trained next-generation employees at all levels to back-fill for the older ones who either have or are quickly approaching retirement age. Like everything else, the future remains to be seen, but today, a clear understanding of the importance of hand remains a critical factor to every aspect of success in the textile industry, whether the term hand is used or not.

Truly No Substitute For Hands-On Learning

A natural extension of hand specific to textiles and its related facets is being hands-on, or more specifically learning by doing. As Marcia Weiss, director, Textile Design Programs at Thomas Jefferson University, so eloquently stated in Part 2 of the article, “there’s truly no substitute for hands-on learning when it comes to textiles!” I’m certain most industry veterans will agree that Weiss’ statement rings absolutely true. One simply cannot learn certain things from a book or computer screen. Some may equate this to the differences in one being street smart instead of being book smart. A fine differentiation of the two terms was offered by Ashley Fern in a lifestyle article for the website Elite Daily: “Street smarts are what a person learns through their personal endeavors whereas book smarts comes from a lecture or textbook.” The value of either or both can certainly be debated in a number of different ways and forums.

That said, in my humble opinion, one should not only be satisfied with book smart learnings alone! As a newly learned component of the global textile industry, there are just some things you have to experience in person and hands on. I certainly learned this from my father during my days working at his knitting mill. I received my bachelor’s degree in Textile Engineering from the then Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences — now part of Jefferson University — but I earned what I affectionately refer to as my unofficial and possibly more valuable Master’s degree from the unlicensed and certainly unstructured “Bubba U.” It was at Bubba U — under the tutelage of folks like Bubba, Harold, Jim, Frank and others who I worked with throughout the years —where I learned so much more about the real world of textiles through mentorships and friendships, not to mentioned various versions of working relationships.

Things like how to handle a fine filament yarn — maybe the size of a human hair at best — that you can barely see, let alone position accurately to thread it into the eye of a 48-gauge tricot knitting machine blade — that’s 48 blades per inch for those not familiar with it. It truly requires a sense of touch that most cannot appreciate. The only viable method of learning this skill, and it is a skill, is to actually do it, which requires figuring out how to grip the fine yarn without losing or breaking it, determine the yarn’s location by its touch on your fingertip and then gently manipulate and guide it into the threading hook and through the hole in the correct blade. Or, why does one fabric style run better on machine #123 instead of machine #321 though each machine is basically identical? Or what affect will a particular setting allow one style to run well, but a similar style won’t run at all? The nuances of working with highly elastic yarns compared to ones with little to no stretch. The useful short-cuts in the design, interface or even ERP programs that are used every day; or the different sounds machines make when they’re running well or right before all hell breaks loose. Some of these examples may be simply attributed to common sense or street smarts, but each is representative of the untold examples of lessons that can only truly be learned through trial and error or with the assistance of an experienced machine technician or operator.

Speaking of which, please allow me a moment here to go on the record and state that some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met are machine operators and technicians, most of whom truly do not receive the recognition they deserve. Many of these people may not have formal degrees, but they certainly do deserve credit for their knowledge of the machines and systems they operate, in many cases the underpinnings of the companies they work for. And lest we forget or underestimate that little “black book” that many technicians possess containing their most guarded and, in some cases, magical secrets on machine settings for specific products, computer codes, batch formulas and the like. It is definitely worth getting to know a few of these folks.

An additional aspect of learning through a hands-on approach is that one develops a much better understanding of the machines and programs used by the industry and how each relates to a fabric being produced. Directly working with the machines, processes and technologies in the training labs allows one to try and learn different things in a typically more user-friendly environment, without the potential corporate concerns or pressures related to possibly breaking something that could result in shutting down production and impacting customers. Also, from a more practical personal perspective, keep in mind that the more practical experience one gains, the more employable one becomes and the potentially higher wage they can command.

Transition Into The Real World Of Textiles

Understanding the concept of a fabric’s hand and fully embracing the notion of a hands-on work ethic throughout college and on into, if not throughout, one’s textile industry career, will only help to ease the transition into the real world of textiles. Priya Jyotishi, a textile technologist for Propel LLC, Pawtucket, R.I., and graduate of Drexel University with a Masters in Science, Fashion Design and Research, felt her hands-on work during her tenure in school was instrumental to landing her position at Propel. “If I didn’t do that lab work at school, I would likely not have my position at Propel,” Jyotishi said.

“My lab experiences really helped to tie everything together. Drexel teaches both the pattern coding and also working directly on the machine to make the pattern work correctly, which really helped me to understand what works, what to do when you encounter an issue and ultimately how to figure it out. Sometimes it may take a while, but you figure it out and that helps to make the next time much quicker. All very pertinent to my work now at Propel.”

Essentially, today’s textile education experience continues to evolve in order to grow a more well-rounded individual. As noted in Parts 1 and 2 of the original article, various related entities are working towards this through any combination of hands-on lab work, inter-department and industry-specific project collaborations, course work that may require an engineer to take design courses or vice-versa, and internships and apprenticeships. The end goal is to ease an individual’s transition into the textile world and speed up the company on-boarding processes. Companies are responding with increased involvement in these programs along with more direct textile industry support. Here’s to the ongoing success of these efforts and the hope that the fundamentals of hand and hands-on continue to be a vital focus!

May/June 2022