Karin Carter (MS '02 ENG: Product Design) is a materials designer on the Advanced Innovation Team in Nike’s apparel division near Portland, Ore. Her job is to look around the world for materials and to conceive of how they could make cool products, either because they offer a performance benefit to an athlete, enhanced environmental sustainability or, ideally, both. Whether with lasers or scissors, she literally works at the cutting edge of sports fashion.
What do you do at Nike?
It’s my job to keep track of all the latest stuff in materials, whether it’s plastics and metals or fabrics or even gels or foams, all that kind of stuff, because anything could be relevant. Then I come up with concepts for new products. I draw or sketch out either what it might look like microscopically or on a more macro level to show how it would work in a garment. I usually end up getting those garments made here on the Nike campus. You can get things sewn up or bonded together or otherwise constructed for internal presentations to kind of sell the idea to the business. It’s a research and development (R&D) group so we are not bound to the tight seasonal deadlines and have a bit of freedom. There is one in each of the three businesses at Nike. There is a footwear R&D, an apparel R&D, and an equipment R&D.
What’s an example of a recent project?
One is a material called Nike Sphere React. It responds to your microclimate so that when you sweat, the material itself becomes more porous. The fabric opens up and becomes more breathable. A Japanese company invented the yarn. I then had the challenge of making this reaction more noticeable, either visually or tactiley. I can’t go into details at this time, but because of my training at Stanford which had us prototyping on lasercamms [which can precisely cut fabric], I was able to invent the next generation of this material. It is called "Nike Sphere Macro React" and you will see it in June on Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer at Wimbledon. Usually a polyester doesn’t absorb water, it rather wicks it — it’s hydrophobic — but this fabric uses the moisture to change its structure. The laser is so great with synthetic woven and knit materials because when you cut with it, it melts and seals that edge at the same time so it doesn’t fray as if you cut it with scissors.
And you learned how to do that at Stanford?
I knew how to work the laser from my Stanford time. In the product design program, under the direction of Professors David Kelley, Matt Kahn, and the late Rolf Faste, you really got into the manufacturing of whatever you created in your head. It was a project-based program and very hands-on. You learn how to use all sorts of machinery. I was also a shop TA at the Product Realization Lab, where we built all our ideas. It’s a full machine shop, model shop, foundry, and rapid prototyping lab. I worked as a TA with Dave Beach and Craig Milroy, the professors who ran the shop, for two years and I became more proficient on those machines. So coming to Nike and seeing the lasercamm, it was kind of like a toy because of the training at Stanford.
You are interested in sustainability. How does that figure into your work?
To get the job, I showed a portfolio of student projects. My thesis had been sustainable fashion. I was looking into making cases, bags, and garments that were all functional, beautiful, and sustainable. I realized that there were no available materials. The production of cotton or polyester, for example is really energy sensitive and there’s lots of toxic runoff. So I made my own material. That’s what I showed Nike when I interviewed here. One of the first projects I got was a sustainable innovation project, where I was challenged with coming up with a new material or garment that was cool, not because it was made of recycled material, but because it made the athlete run faster or feel less sweaty or otherwise help them. The first talking point had to be around the performance benefit. I was on that project for a good six months before it was decided that the project should be moved into the operations department. It was decided that this area needed focus before it could implement any sustainable design idea holistically. But from that project, we developed lots of concepts that are still being worked on. The products were not just apparel but other things that Nike sells also, and it was all sorts of different ways of being sustainable, whether the material was recycled or renewable fiber, or a product-lease program, or the garment had more uses or was more durable so less likely to go to the landfill sooner. It was definitely the hardest challenge I had at Nike just because it was so hard to get something that was cool looking and sporty enough, while also being cost-effective. So then I got put on some other projects not based around sustainability, but in the three years I’ve been here, interest in sustainability at Nike has grown every year. The Considered Shoe line was put out, which is this hemp, hand-woven shoe. Since that one project I’ve continued meeting with the other groups, the footwear and the bag teams. We share news and cross-pollinate ideas, who’s doing what with sustainability, where we can source bamboo fabric or what could we possibly do with waste from manufacturing. All footwear designers are now meant to incorporate one thing that is sustainable in their design. At the concept debut of any product they have to present how they’ve made it more sustainable than last season. That could be because they changed the chemistry of something or they saved waste by changing the patterns so that it can be nested better or die cut in a more efficient way.
Can you talk more about the material you made for your thesis project?
I started looking at trash and what was going in the landfill. What kind of resources are abundant, accessible, and what can I recycle? The plastic grocery bags or retail bags that you get — polyethylene film is what they actually are — was the easiest material to go with just because it was ubiquitous and there wasn’t too much cleaning involved. So I took these and shredded them and knotted them and melted them and formed three different kinds of fabrics. One of them I call Slik. It is basically a sheet plastic. It looks collaged together because it is layers and layers of this film that is heat pressed together with no adhesive in between. It maintains its flexibility and pliability pretty well because the inside layers don’t melt all the way but the outside layers do. That is good for rain jackets, coats, umbrellas, shower curtains. It is 100 percent recycled and you don’t expend the energy that it would take to re-melt this completely and remove all the dyes and chemicals and re-pelletize it and extrude it again. All those processes are cut out when you simply cut the bags, place them, collage them and use the inks and the prints that are on the bags to your aesthetic advantage. You can’t really use any logoed plastic, like a Safeway-printed part for example, unless you shred it up really finely. I usually kept it large so I spent a lot of time cutting away logos. I didn’t want that speckled, recycled look. I wanted the more abstract text on there and beautiful colors that really came through when light came through them. I like to think the pieces ended up as poetic odes to consumerism. For another, I cut and then looped pieces together and made kind of a yarn that I then crocheted into bags. That is a great textile. It is thick. It is kind of spongy. That was not my idea. I stole that straight from South Africa where I remember seeing it as a kid. The locals make these doormats or little chickens out of plastic strips that had been knotted together. I have some ideas of how to partially automate the process, but I definitely didn’t invent that one. As for the third one, I made a quilted textile from the film. I also made a parka that converted to a sleeping bag so that it was multifunctional and therefore of more value. I stuffed it with mulched up packaging peanuts. It’s not like down where it compresses but it provides amazing insulation and also padding. So it's a 3-in-1 product if you will! It was nothing that I thought I would sell. It was more of a concept piece or an art piece. But it was very comfortable if you lie on it because it didn’t compress. It was like a mattress and a parka in one — with super-high R value.
What was it like to present this thesis work?
It was so much fun but hectic at the same time. All my classmates, professors, and family were there. I put on a fashion show with music, models, and even a dog. For the final presentation, we had 5 to 10 minutes to present 1-2 years worth of work. I used my friends as models and kept text and words to a minimum. I talked for maybe 2 minutes to launch it off and then as each piece came out I described it briefly, what it did, or what it was made of. I’ve never been so nervous and then so elated in a 10-minute period.