Dr. Maureen MacGillivray uses her functional apparel expertise to design and test textiles and teach those skills to the next generation.
By Sigrid Tornquist
People sometimes feel like all the good ideas have already been thought of and nothing new can be created,” says Maureen MacGillivray, Ph.D., professor of apparel merchandising and design at Central Michigan University (CMU), Mt. Pleasant, Mich. “But the fascinating thing about textiles and apparel design is that the very foundation of the industry is coming up with new ways of thinking. Although we don’t create new fibers very often, we create new ways of adapting and/or using them.”
Taught to sew by her grandmother, MacGillivray earned her undergrad degree in apparel design and her master’s degree in functional apparel design from Michigan State University. “My thesis was in developing protective clothing for pesticide users. And the challenges stemmed from the same obstacle we still face today—protection vs. comfort,” she says. “Comfort is crucial. People don’t want to be uncomfortable even if sometimes that means putting their bodies in danger.”
In 1986 MacGillivray worked at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Natick, Mass., developing a cooling vest to be worn under chemical protective clothing, before going on to earn her doctorate in functional apparel design from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla. Since 1988 she’s been teaching and doing research at CMU, where she spends approximately 60 percent of her time participating in research projects and the rest teaching students about textiles and the functional design process. “Functional design is multidisciplinary, with the user at the very center of that design process,” MacGillivray says. “Whether developing clothing for pesticide users, for military or medical users, experts from those fields come to the table and sit down with us to talk about the design situation—from the very beginning of the process.”
MacGillivray says that although she hasn’t gone to the battlefield to gather information, she has interviewed military personnel when designing for the military markets. And she rode tractors, interviewed farmers and spent time in the fields to learn about pesticide applications. When designing for the medical environment, she observed surgeries in addition to conducting interviews. “We don’t really call designers ‘designers’ anymore,” she says. “We call them product developers. The idea is that design is a team-based approach, and there are usually many people who have input on the design process. One of the things I love about it is that it’s like a new job every day, except that you have your tool box that you know how to use.”
Design to solution
What drives the design of every product is thinking about how it will be used. MacGillivray explains that sometimes the media bring a problem to the forefront of the functional apparel design arena, such as the Ebola crisis and the problems created by medical protective clothing that potentially allowed the transmission of lethal germs to nurses and doctors. This creates an opportunity for the industry to re-think the design of current products available to this important market and to endeavor to make better products available. Or, the unintended “see-through” yoga pants that the media brought to the attention of the consuming public. Problems like these are typical of the types of products that MacGillivray and others at CMU’s Center for Merchandising and Technology Lab have worked on. “Product failures beg us to consider the design process and whether a proper evaluation of the product was conducted with wearers using these products as intended,” MacGillivray says.
Finishes are always on the list of textile research topics, MacGillivray says. And currently companies are focusing on finishes that address moisture and thermal environments. Some of the latest research involves using finishes only on the areas of garments that need protection. “Whether we’re talking about water-resistant finishes or thermally adaptive finishes, they’re all expensive, so applying them only to the parts of the garment that come in contact with the body saves manufacturers money,” she says.
Manufacturers are experimenting with finishes on cotton, which is opening up new opportunities for that market segment. “Cotton was totally left out of the athletic wear market because everyone wanted wicking qualities and cotton is absorbent,” MacGillivray says. “But now, finishes are bringing cotton back into the athletic arena as an option. It’s a great example of creatively using what we already have developed in a slightly new way.”
New products, new uses
Ideation is key to the design process and something that MacGillivray teaches in her classroom. “In this stage, the product developers use a variety of strategies to generate possible solutions to the problem, including brainstorming, mind mapping, using a checklist of action verbs (such as substitute, change, adapt and modify) to stimulate thinking,” she says. “It is important that a variety of ideas is generated at this stage to further stimulate creativity and to prevent a rush to conclusion or solution.”
MacGillivray encourages students to combine their interests when selecting the types of projects they might be involved in. “There’s nothing worse than a student working on a project they hate, so I encourage them to come up with something that interests them,” she says.
It’s important to keep on top of textile innovations as well and have students learn to routinely ask themselves how products might be used in a new way, MacGillivray advises. Companies come to the research lab to test products before they go to market, and when the companies allow it, students are involved in helping with product testing and evaluation. “Young people are really great at looking at new products and evaluating them because they’re probably going to use them differently than the company intended,” she says. “It’s great for students as a learning opportunity, and for companies because they’ve got this ready population of consumers they have access to.”
Companies can further benefit by coming to campus and engaging face-to-face with students if they choose, something MacGillivray encourages. She invites them to act as a guest lecturer if they’re interested or just to interact with the students during the evaluation process. “Generally when manufacturers see the advantage of being on a college campus and of having students around, they’ll agree to allow students to be involved in evaluation,” she says. “It’s a win–win situation. A student gets to say: I helped evaluate products X, Y and Z. And the company always learns something unintended, something about the product that they didn’t think of as a result of the students looking at it.”