Pants, plasters, car seats: interviews with textile and design engineers

How is a sweater actually made? What is a patch made of? And what does a bicycle have to do with textiles? Anna Burst (textile engineer) and Victoria Gebhart (design engineer), both active at FEMNET, talk about their way to the job. The interview is provided by the editors of lizzynet.de available on the occasion of the zdi heroines October.

What does a textile engineer or a textile product designer actually do? (And do both designations stand for the same study?)

Victoria: As a design engineer with a focus on textiles, you can dedicate yourself to countless tasks within the textile and clothing industry. The focus is on innovations and developments in sustainable designs – a design engineer is not only required to draft / draw a new piece of clothing or textile, but also to understand the different manufacturing processes within the textile and clothing industry.
Which raw materials are used? What is the cut of a product? Which machines are used? How can products be maintained and how are they recycled in a way that conserves resources, can I reuse the product and if so, how? These are some of the questions that a design engineer has to ask herself, because already during the design process, i.e. brainstorming, it becomes clear whether a product will be sustainable or not. While many of my fellow students chose the field of study “Design” during their bachelor’s degree, I only decided in favor of design after my bachelor’s degree in textile technology, as it is very creative and diverse.

Anna: Of course, what Victoria says also applies to the engineers. As a textile engineer you can also devote yourself to countless tasks and work in just as many industries. Often one is not aware of how much textile is in products. For example in medical technology as compression textiles, in the construction sector as protective nets or in the automotive industry as car seats or parcel shelves. In the areas you can then work in a more technical or management-oriented manner - depending on what suits you better. The textile industry is also very global. This gives you the opportunity right from the start of your studies to gain professional experience and to travel the world at the same time.

Anna Burst
Photo: Anna Jaissle

Victoria Gebhart
Photo: private

Engineer: That sounds like a lot of math and technology. Which school subjects should you be particularly interested in if you want to take this path?

Anna: You're definitely right about that. The subjects physics, math and chemistry are part of our basic studies. However, these are all intensified basics that you already know from school. However, I think that when choosing a course, the main thing is to be curious and to have a passion for the field of textiles. You should also not forget that you learn a lot more later in the job and that personality also counts. Therefore pay less attention to school grades and go more according to interest. At least I learned during my studies that you can learn and do anything if you really feel like it!

Do you have any tips on how to prepare for college?

Anna: Familiarize yourself with the materials in your clothing. Look at the care label on your clothes and see where your clothes are made and what materials they are made of. Then follow the whole thing and see where does cotton come from, what is polyamide and how is a fabric actually made? Otherwise, just keep your eyes open in everyday life and observe different textile surfaces or fabrics that catch your eye.

What interests should you bring with you if you want to work as a textile engineer?

Victoria: I am a trained tailor and therefore came into contact with textiles relatively quickly. After my apprenticeship, I wanted to deepen my knowledge by studying and found a Bachelor of Science (engineering) to be something totally new and exciting - although I was never a fan of natural sciences when I was at school. 🙂 I think anyone who wants to follow the development of a textile product from the idea to the finished part will find happiness in this diverse industry. You either devote yourself to fashion or textiles and can find your luck in the innovative automotive industry, for example, or in a studio for textile design. 

And in which sectors can you become active with it?

Victoria: As previously mentioned, the industry is incredibly diverse. Textiles play a huge role, not only in fashion, because textiles can be found almost everywhere: in cars, on bicycles (carbon is a high-tech fiber), medical textiles, protective textiles for the army, fire brigade or police (ballistics). So there are not only jobs in classic fashion companies, but also in the automotive industry or production companies for “somewhat different” textiles. 🙂

Is your degree about sustainability aspects and fair fashion, or did you look for your own area with your interests?

Victoria: During my studies at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences, the topic of sustainability became more relevant from year to year. While subjects such as CSR Management (Corporate Social Responsibility) were initially an elective subject, later lectures and projects were always about sustainable textiles, the effects of textile production and how resources can be better saved, etc. It is very nice that I was able to experience this process and that future generations can learn from the beginning the necessity of sustainability within the textile and clothing industry during their studies.

Anna: In my bachelor's degree at Reutlingen University, the topic was not really the focus - but I hope that has changed now. In my later master's degree at the HS Niederrhein, the topic of sustainability was more present. My biggest drive and the reason why I am now in the fair fashion industry was my own sense of duty as a textile engineer. On the one hand, I noticed that knowledge about textiles has been completely lost among the population and, on the other hand, I noticed that knowledge about the conditions in the textile and clothing industry is also easily forgotten. I now see this as my task or calling - to act as a voice between consumers and industry to change the status quo.

What sparked your interest in sustainable fashion?

Victoria: Even during my apprenticeship, I began to question my own consumption of clothes - at that time also under the aspect that the qualities of classic fast fashion companies like H&M or Zara were super bad and as a tailor I wanted to sew my own things, which felt like a thousand times were better processed. For this reason, I find the topic of sustainable fashion very exciting.

What is particularly important to you when looking for “new” clothes for yourself?

Victoria: My tip: the less consumption the better. 😉 Because we don't even need most of the clothes that are made palatable in the closet - because we already have something similar or we don't like it at all in the end.

Anna: I don't even buy new clothes anymore because I have a lot and there are already far too many clothes. However, my biggest tip for all textile purchases is: Before you buy, look at the textile label and check what materials your garment is made of. The fewer materials on the list, the better!

Victoria, you produced a short film in Ethiopia, how did that come about?

Victoria: During my Masters, I had the opportunity to do an internship in Ethiopia with a fellow student. A super exciting experience as a textile artist, since the textile and clothing industry à la Southeast Asia is about to be established in Ethiopia. We were able to see together what is happening inside Ethiopia and what impact this industry has on people and culture - we filmed all of this to share our experiences with everyone who is interested. 🙂

Clothing Radio: Radio show about sustainable fashion and textiles by Anna Burst and Amelie Liebst. 

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Short film Made In Ethiopia: A portrait of the up-and-coming textile industry in Ethiopia.

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Blog post master thesis Anna Burst: fashion & cultural relevance 

Anna, according to theclothing page, besides fashion, you are also very interested in feminism. What do the two topics have to do with each other for you?

Anna: More than 80% of people working in textile factories are women. Many of them suffer from exploitation, discrimination and gender-based violence. My guiding principle is: How can I stand up for women's rights here in the Global North, but ignore the fact that my t-shirts are produced by women who are mistreated in the process? That doesn't work for me, and that's why feminism is indispensable, especially in this industry, and stands for equality between women and men - no matter where we are in the world.

What tips do you have for young people with a small budget but a great fascination for sustainable fashion?

Anna: What is already in the cycle is sustainable. So rather use offers such as second-hand, rent your clothes from services such as the clothing shop or organize flea markets with your friends, relatives or at your school. Otherwise, I've always been a fan of DIY. I actually don't like to sew that much, so my tips are particularly practical: cut things off, color them yourself or use them for other purposes. It's fun and lets you get creative.

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