STORY: Engineering Solutions for a 150-Year-Old Textile Mill

May 22, 2024

Students in a pilot engineering course are collaborating with Draper Knitting to devise innovations and understand the global textile industry.

In the new “Textiles, Global Systems, and Technology” class, Olin students worked with a local, sixth-generation knitting mill to understand how to engage in and impact a complex global industry and supply chain.

Co-taught by Caitrin Lynch, professor of anthropology, and Jessica Townsend, professor of engineering, this pilot course officially counts for engineering credit. However, the curriculum is an interdisciplinary collaboration that is fully integrated in both social and technical perspectives.

“Caitrin has done a lot of work with and around garment workers and textiles, and I got really into the craft of weaving during the pandemic, which led me to an interest in the history of the technology,” says Townsend. “Together, we brainstormed the idea to use the global textile industry to think about how engineering brings an integrated mindset to understanding and responding to complex global systems.”

Textile Mill visit

Oliners visiting the Draper Knitting business in Spring Semester 2024.

For an on-the-ground partner, the pair tapped into Lynch’s long-standing relationship with Draper Knitting, a family-run business based in Canton since 1856. Draper is unique in the industry, offering three types of fabric formations and endless blends of fibers produced in a mill with a mix of old and new machinery and using old and new processes and innovations.

“Through various projects, Olin students have helped us with a lot of innovations over the last five years, starting with some important process things like redesigning a fabric chute that makes our production process easier and more efficient,” says Kristin Draper, president and marketing and development manager. “With this class, they are working on some great technological challenges that are proving to be incredibly useful.”

As part of “Textiles, Global Systems, and Technology,” student teams used their engineering know-how tackling complex problems for Draper Knitting, from modifying existing equipment to stop yarn from breaking, to collecting important data on how temperature and humidity affect fibers during the production process.

Textile Mill visit

Oliners are pictured learning about the machinery used at Draper Knitting.

“There are lots of small and intricate processes at Draper that need to be engineered, and we have to use a systems perspective to understand how they all work together,” says Katherine Danielson ’27, a student in the class. “We really want to focus on repurposing old things where we can and ensuring that any new things we bring in have the world’s best interest at heart from a sustainability perspective.”

To that end, Danielson’s team devised a way to repurpose a pile knit waste product called “flock” by devising creative ways to use it instead of Draper Knitting paying for it to be picked up and incinerated. Their concept—using it as a stuffing for a softer, quieter version of a beanbag chair—has folks at Draper Knitting thinking of collaborating with local schools to provide prototypes for children on the autism spectrum.

Textile Mill visit

Two Olin students holding textiles made at Draper Knitting.

“What really impressed us is that these engineering students didn’t just find a solution for the problem; they started a marketing plan for the chair, with potential customers and key selling points,” says Bethany Pollack, safety product manager at Draper Knitting. “There’s a personal development component to this class that goes beyond the technology and will be really helpful to them throughout their careers.”

“We gravitate toward working with Olin students because they’re practical, and we love that,” says Draper. “Old doesn’t mean bad, and faster isn’t always better. As a company, we want to keep reinventing ourselves to keep up with the times, but we also have a respect for tradition and finding new and different ways to use our own machinery and processes in a changing global market.”

To see additional photos and videos from the site visit to Draper's Canton, MA facility, check out Olin's Instagram post.