Textile Research Creates Big Opportunities for Vandal Alum
Maggie Zee is a University of Idaho alum. She attended U of I for her second bachelor’s degree in Apparels, Textiles and Design in 2019, and later graduated with a Master of Science in Family and Consumer Sciences in 2023. Maggie has made incredible contributions with her research concerning hops fibers as textile materials. She currently works for Cotopaxi, an outdoor apparel company, as an assistant materials developer.
First getting a Bachelor of Science in geology at State University of New York at Potsdam in 2010, Maggie was initially seeking outdoor employment in national resources, local fisheries and forestry services as a career. She soon realized that many of the positions available to her were seasonal when she was searching for a longer commitment.
She started working as a ski and snowboard instructor at the Brundage Mountain Ski Resort in McCall, Idaho. Eventually, she was inspired by her work to stay within the outdoor industry, but soon began having ideas of starting her own ski apparel line.
“I thought that designing apparel and products for [skiing and snowboarding] would be the most fun and creative… option to stay within that realm,” she said. “So, that's why I decided to go back to school and pursue my second bachelor’s.”
“I wanted to help improve or change the way that apparel is for women so they're more comfortable in the outdoors,” she shared.
Maggie said she thought about starting her own clothing line prior to college — but she wasn’t sure if she could make it a career. “I didn't know how to start. And then I set up a meeting with Lori Wahl, who's one of the instructors in the program, and she… [opened] the doors of what it can be.”
When she got into school, her interest shifted the more she learned. Although she was still passionate about starting her own clothing line someday, her focus turned more towards textiles.
“Apparel is just so saturated. [It’s] kind of interesting to try and find some niche or help people solve a problem for something that they don't know they need yet,” she said.
Maggie started her research journey at a Career Fair in Spring 2019 at the start of her undergraduate program. “I was taking a textiles class at the time, and I stopped at one of the vendors, which was Yakima Chief Hops — they breed different hop varieties. They asked me what I, as a textile student, [would] be able to do with all the byproducts of hops after they harvest the cones,” she explained. This sparked her research that would later follow into her master’s program.
According to Maggie, when hops are harvested for beer, they leave behind bine byproducts that have little usage in the textile industry, usually becoming a waste product. Maggie’s research attempted to find if hops bines could be suitable as a natural fiber to reduce waste and reuse the byproducts for textiles.
“I partnered with the College of Natural Resources,” she said, explaining the process of developing her research. “I was able to do a lot of my research because they have a lab that was able to accommodate me.”
Even while in the middle of undergraduate research and classes, Maggie was a founding officer of the Apparel, Textiles + Design Club. She was the vice president the first year the club was running, making her central to where it is now. Her job was increasing student involvement and setting up workshops, eventually recruiting members all over campus and tabling at various events.
“It was a lot of work, but it was really fun and rewarding,” she said.
She was involved in the Family Consumer Sciences Honors Society, Phi Upsilon Omicron, where she also served as vice president and president. There, she would coordinate monthly meetings and organize community service events all while managing the COVID-19 pandemic. “That was really tricky. We did the best we could with the restrictions there were,” she said.
Alongside the scholarships she earned from the honors society, Maggie shared, “I wrote a bunch of grants so that I could get research funding. The Office of Undergraduate Research helped fund my research projects my first year, as well as the… CALS Excellence Fund and the Magaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences.”
She was also a TA during her graduate program which funded her research further, teaching classes in textiles, weaving, surface design, hand and digital pattern making, 3D modeling, fashion and sewing construction. “I think being a TA kind of helped me better understand the whole industry a little bit more because I was the one having to teach it to students too,” she said.
Maggie named Armando McDonald, a professor of renewable materials chemistry, and Chelsey Lewallen, a professor of textiles, as major sources of assistance throughout her process. However, Maggie had some difficulty narrowing down the research she started in her undergrad once she entered graduate school.
“When I was in undergrad it was… a lot of experimentation just to see what is possible with this fiber, and then when I got to grad school it was way more in depth and I had to stick with one thing instead of being able to just branch off… like I was in my undergrad,” she said.
The nature of research, Maggie realized, was that it was specific and necessary to stay on schedule, even if interests shift or expand throughout the process. “It consumed all sense of creativity, a little bit, because I had to stick with a plan the whole time,” she said, “but I guess that's what the grad research is all about.”
“Working in the outdoor industry or in fisheries and natural resources, I was always working on other people's research projects, and this was the first time I'd started my own research project and [got] to take my own creative direction,” she said about the research’s personal impact on her.
Although she was excited to be researching a topic that had not been written about much before, Maggie struggled with the little knowledge on hops bines that was out there. She shared how “taking time to slow down and asking for help when [she] needed it” was one of the lessons she had to learn along the way.
Maggie said that she didn’t realize the impact her hops research would have until she was in it. “It's not a fiber that is commonly used in the textile industry. It has been used before, historically, but not currently. So, I was trying to figure out why that was and if there's anything I can do to change that,” she said.
During her research, Maggie put the hops bine fibers through paper presses and machines based on those used for hemp. The latter allowed her to spin them into a yarn to weave into textiles. In the end, she found that hops bines are incredibly strong and durable and could, in fact, be used as a viable textile for woven and nonwoven application. Her work points to new pathways of sustainability in the beer brewing industry as well as potential for new products in the apparel and textiles world.
Not only did Maggie’s literary review and experimentation skills grow, but after her research was completed, she went to many conferences and networking events to promote her studies. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences wrote an article on Maggie in 2020 that was able to reach people across the world. “There's been people that have reached out to me from South America that are having the same issue and they saw my research… They've reached out to see how I can help them,” she said.
In October 2021, Maggie was also able to present her findings at a conference from the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
“They write all the testing standards for apparel and coloring. Every industry leader uses them for fabric testing or quality testing, so it's kind of a big deal. I submitted a research poster to present at the Textile Discovery Summit, and instead of having me just stand by my poster, they wanted me to present my research in front of everybody… I got to meet and network with a bunch of industry leaders, and a few of them I'm still in contact with. One of them is an alum from U of I,” she said.
The following Spring, Maggie went to the Functional Fabric Fair in Portland, Oregon and was able to network with vendors of different materials.
When asked about how faculty or U of I student resources supported her during research, she said, “There's too many to name in this one because I feel like everybody was supporting me throughout my time!”
She gave kudos to Career Services and specifically the Career Fair, having spoken to a career advisor many times during her final semester for resume and cover letters. She also had the support of the instructors in her field for answering questions and discussing her findings.
Maggie said that despite her incredible research, she had trouble finding jobs after she graduated with her master’s because of the specificity of her field. “The most challenging thing was trying to find the right classes every semester… But I did not stick to [my initial grad study plan] at all because I had no idea if the classes I was choosing were correct or not,” she said. “Career Services… is really knowledgeable and helped me a lot in that process.” She also noted her graduate advisors on her committee impacted her journey.
“In my final semester as an undergrad, we took a portfolio class where we showcase all of our work and market ourselves so that when we do apply for jobs, we already have something on the ready,” she said. “I think having Career Services’ input on how companies or the industry is actually hiring people and how they expect people to apply for jobs… is really important for students to know.”
Maggie’s message to future Vandals would be to, "keep exploring every possibility and try everything once. Be involved… in what you’re learning and ask a lot of questions.”
Now, she works as an assistant material developer at Cotopaxi where she gathers materials for apparel from mills and works with factory representatives to ensure fabrics meet her company’s sustainability standards. There, she also “[develops] trims, [approves] lab dips and [organizes] the material library.”
“Not only do I get to be a key player in the overall outcome of Cotopaxi's product line by selecting initial materials based on the design briefs, but I get to experience firsthand how material selection based on hand feel, cost and performance affect the direction and aesthetic of the final products,” she said.
With such a fascinating venture into the world of textile research, Maggie’s story shows off the value of seeking out and pursuing opportunities to expand your knowledge while in school. The incredible resources available at U of I allowed Maggie to make an impact in her field of study and make great achievements, both for herself and for the textile community at large. Although she plans on gaining more experience in the industry first, Maggie still plans on releasing her own outdoor apparel company in the future. We’ll be sure to keep an eye on this Vandal’s continuing string of accomplishments!
Career Services Marketing Intern