KINGSTON, R.I. Feb. 13, 2019 — More than 225 years after the industrial revolution was born at Slater Mill in Pawtucket, textiles continue to be a vibrant industry with boundless potential here in the state of Rhode Island, was the message Monday at the Rhode Island Textile Innovation Network’s (RITIN) first-ever academic/industry networking event on the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus.
Hosted by the URI College of Business, the URI Business Engagement Center and RITIN, the event drew more than 200 attendees including members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation; more than 20 textile industry and business groups; faculty from the URI College of Business’ Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design and the College of Engineering; alumni and students.
Established in late 2016 by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and the URI Business Engagement Center, RITIN operates with planning grant funding from Real Jobs RI and the Rhode Island Commerce Corp. through fiscal agent Polaris MEP, also an arm of the University. The network fosters collaboration among textile industry leaders, designers, academia and government with a mission to make Rhode Island a leader in advanced textile manufacturing and to recruit and train the industry’s future workforce.
“As time has moved forward, so has the textile industry,” said Whitehouse, who discussed the myriad of Rhode Island businesses in the textile industry such as Pawtucket’s The Cooley Group and Propel, LLC; and Coventry-based Concordia Fibers. According to Whitehouse, whether it is a textile roof membrane covering a Super Bowl stadium, a protective suit for U.S. Navy personnel conducting repair work on a submarine hundreds of feet below sea level, or textile veins within a jet engine that are stronger than metal, textiles are the wave of the future.
“We have companies here that through their products are saving lives in hospitals. We have companies that are seeing to it that men and women going into combat are going in with the best possible equipment,” said Whitehouse. “We are all here to celebrate that industry and to make sure that the Rhode Island textile industry has a future to match its past.”
Michael McKeldon Woody, chief executive officer of Cranston’s Trans-Tex and president of RITIN, discussed the network’s goals, including connecting Rhode Island textile companies with business opportunities worldwide, efforts to close the manufacturing skills gap and increased collaboration among members of the textile industry – including students, academics and industry members. In addition to the event, Woody noted an inquiry from a major U.S. retailer into opportunities for collaboration, as well as a curriculum for workforce programs to provide training for industrial sewers and loom mechanics, which is close to being submitted to Real Jobs RI as progress against those goals.
A panel discussion involved faculty members from the URI Colleges of Business and Engineering as well as two alumni now employed in the textile industry. In addition to the discussion, textile companies from across Rhode Island exhibited and demonstrated their products and discussed their hiring needs.
Panel member Jessica Zaretzky, who earned her master’s degree in textile science at URI, is now employed as a technical applications manager at Kenyon Industries. She praised the textiles, merchandising and design program at URI and became involved in mentoring students through Kenyon’s internship program because of her connection to the URI community. “The ability to work with interns through the URI community has allowed Kenyon to look at projects with not only fresh eyes, but creative minds,” she said. “I am thankful for my experience at the University and for the educated and well-prepared students that we’ve been fortunate enough to work with at URI.”
One such student is senior Briannah Plasse, who is in her third semester as an intern at Kenyon, currently working in the dye laboratory and involved in a quality control project. Students in the internship program at Kenyon may choose different paths based on their interests and backgrounds – such as chemistry versus business – however, Plasse felt that her coursework at the University within the Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design Department gave her the hands-on experience to hit the ground running at Kenyon.
“It’s incredible to be able to walk into an internship and already know how to use something that you are potentially going to be working on. You don’t need to spend as much time training, you get to learn more,” said Plasse. “It helps you feel confident in what you are doing and when you already feel prepared it really allows you to be the best the version of yourself.”
Most panelists said that outdated perceptions of the textile industry need to shift and that RITIN is well-positioned to promote that change. Part of that includes networking events like Monday’s, which included not only URI students and faculty, and a discussion of the future of the textiles industry, but also brought in students from Shea High School in Pawtucket, recognizing they are part of that future.
“There is so much that goes into developing textile products and so much that the industry touches – from automotive and aerospace to tablecloths. We are developing fabrics for the medical industry, for consumers, for the military,” said Zaretzky. “These are products that are intricately involved in so many aspects of our lives that people don’t even realize. And, in many cases – for instance with military products – we are talking about products that protect and improve people’s lives.”