Challenges & Triumphs

Aimee LaValley, product development manager, Polartec; Color is ripe for innovation in the outdoor market with new sustainably-driven ways to process/colorize textiles.

As product development manager at Polartec, Aimee LaValley works within a technical team that consists of engineers and scientists trained in the creation of textiles from yarn and knitting to dyeing and finishing. Prior to joining Polartec in 2014 LaValley worked at Organic Dyes and Pigment, having completed her masters in Textile Science at University of Rhode Island. Her background also includes theater costume design and Japanese and East Asia studies as an undergrad. We caught up with Aimee recently to learn more about her role and the intersection of science and creativity.

The role of product development manager means different things at different textile firms. What does your position entail?

Development of a Polartec textile is absolutely a team effort. From ideation to execution of a final product we work with our customers, product teams, suppliers, manufacturing sites, wear testers, and the greater research and development teams. I like to use the old adage “it takes a village” to describe how many people need to be involved to make a fabric go from an idea to a final product ready for market. The idea often starts within the product teams or from a customer. Many ideation sessions about what the product is, what needs it meets or problem it solves, what performance aspects are desired, and how we plan to get there happen between these groups. We work closely with our knit and finishing plants who hold a vast amount of knowledge as we proceed through the sampling phases, and we certainly collaborate with Milliken’s research division in the investigation phases of a development.

Increasingly, development requires engineering the best use of technology while also trying to understand where sustainability can excel. What’s your approach to achieving the right balance?

Creating more sustainable products is everyone’s responsibility now. We must shift to creating solutions that solve for needed product attributes as well as the responsible stewardship of this planet. Sustainability and the best path forward is very complicated.  We need products that perform, and we need to understand what problem we are really trying to solve in terms of sustainability. Solving one problem may contribute to another. Understanding the best information available and making choices that both produce a technical product of value that will be kept and survive the rigors of use while addressing advancing our sustainable goals can be challenging, but it is a challenge we accept. We have often found that sustainable options can also be better performance options. Many of our new products address elevated performance and advances in sustainability. You can have the best of both!

You’ve been with Polartec for almost a decade. Is there a Polartec fabric, or fabrics, that you will always remember?

When I first started at Polartec one of my colleagues mentioned that everyone has a fabric that they will never forget. She meant that there will be certain developments that will come with extremely difficult problems to solve and those will stick with you. Having been at Polartec for nine  years I have a few that stick with me because they were difficult but worth putting in the time to make happen. We created valuable products that only Polartec could make. It is the challenge and the triumph that sticks with you. I will always have a special place for Power Wool and Hardface.  

You bring a unique perspective of science + creativity to your role at Polartec. How does it enhance product development?

I have always been drawn to clothing and textiles in some form, even before I knew how many different career possibilities existed in this industry. My background exposed me to design, textile science, fashion theory, and the history of clothing and textiles throughout the world. Clothing has many layers of functionality from keeping you protected from the elements to expressing yourself as an individual and part of a greater culture. Polartec is an interesting place to work because we get to combine science with aesthetics and perception. We design fabrics with purpose that enhance the user’s experience and make them more capable of doing what they love. We test both in the lab and in the field to fully understand how these design aspects provide elevated experiences and performance. We also design fabrics to feel good and look good. Putting something on that makes you feel like you can run that extra mile or simply love the look can be very empowering.

Based on current industry trends, do you believe dyes, and the world of color at large, is ripe for innovation?

I love color! I can’t even pick a favorite one! As with many other aspects of the textile industry, sustainability is driving new developments and change in the world of color. We are seeing new types of dyes being developed, many still in the early stages but the research going into new methods of coloration is increasing. New ways to process/colorize textiles are also emerging more rapidly. Methods to apply dyes or pigments with less processing including significant water and energy reductions are being developed and getting closer to realization. I believe digital color paired with digital design will be part of the future of color development. Ways to communicate and experience color and design samples digitally instead of producing lab dips and sample lots has a lot of potential. I also see the outdoor industry pursuing logistics of organizing their product lines to incorporate more sustainable solutions to color. Examples like incorporating solution dyed products into their lines for large running colors or embracing the natural color of fibers and skipping dyeing can be very effective at saving significant amounts of water across a product offering.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

Inspiration comes from a lot of different places for me. Most ideas start with solving a problem like: What isn’t working?, What is missing?, Why do we do that?, Can it be more sustainable?, What don’t I like about this?, Why is this a struggle and can it be better?, Who else should we think about?, etc. Brainstorming with my team is one of the most valuable and enjoyable ways to come up with ideas. Having different voices come together from different perspectives often combine into something very productive. We come up with some wild and far-fetched ideas that eventually are honed into the next Polartec product. Moments of quiet are also valuable. Life is busy and there are always emails to answer and a million things to do. The precious moments of quiet where you get to just think and let your mind wander often result in new ideas, that you then get to talk about with your team!

Without giving too much away that is proprietary, what are you working on now?

Marketing would be very disappointed if I spilled the beans!