Student Spotlight: Helen Trejo

Helen Trejo

What is your area of research?  

As a Ph.D. candidate in fiber science and apparel design, my research explores the intersections of fashion and agriculture in New York. I focused on learning about the farm-to-fashion value chain as part of slow fashion in New York. Slow fashion is part of the broader slow food movement and draws attention to local community resources that can help improve quality of life. For localized fashion design, fiber farms are a great starting point! 

I used Actor Network Theory to frame a case study about slow fashion in New York that includes historical, contemporary, and practice-based research. My methods were archival, qualitative surveys, interviews, and observations. The first part of my research focused on exploring the height and decline of New York wool during the 19th century. I looked at historical agricultural publications such as “The Cultivator” and “The Wool Grower.” My aim was to see whether historical trends in the wool industry continue with today’s fiber in New York. The second part of my research focused on exploring the current state of New York fiber. I did surveys and interviews with 30 farmers, mill owners, and artisan designers throughout New York. The third part of my research is an example of a “reflection in action” approach. I did three mixed media farm-to-fashion creative projects that involved collaboration with farmers, mill owners, fiber scientists, textile designers, and educators. I participated in a fiber sorting apprenticeship to co-learn about fiber quality with farmers, was the lead research for the New York Regional Yarn Sourcebook, and developed short films to document my fiber farm visits and designs I developed.

What inspired you to choose this field of study? 

When I first came to Cornell for my master’s, I was very interested in zero-waste design and knitwear. I took a knitting class at a local yarn store with an expert knitter, Kiko Nobusawa. After learning how to knit the sweater with Peruvian alpaca yarns, I wondered if it was possible to knit with local yarns. I quickly learned that there are a variety of small farms with natural fibers and sourced cashmere, alpaca, and wool from New York farms.

Why is this research important? 

This research is important because it connects with small business owners that are predominantly in rural areas, and considers the issues that they are facing in New York. Even though many of the farmers have natural fibers and offer opportunities for the community to visit and learn more about the animals, the farmers struggle to reach a consistent market for products that range from yarn to clothing and textiles. Many of the farmers aim to break even to sustain their fiber farms. 

How has your background influenced your scholarship?  

My family is from El Salvador and has a history in sewing clothing. After gaining sewing experience in the capital, San Salvador, my grandma immigrated to Los Angeles during the 1970s. She worked in LA sewing factories and had an industrial sewing machine in the home when I was growing up with my twin sister in the 1990s. We watched her sew clothing for us to help our parents save money to move out of South Central Los Angeles after the LA riots. My twin sister Nidia and I drew hundreds of designs and learned to sew in Downtown Magnets High School when we were 16. We practiced our sewing on several designs, developed senior collections, and interned at the California Market Center before we were 18. We went to UC Davis to study fashion design and learn about academic possibilities in fashion.

As a graduate student at Cornell, my interest in natural fibers was influenced by my family’s history of cotton farming in El Salvador. My great-grandfather had a cotton farm, but had to stop growing it during the Civil War in the 1980s. Even though I did not study cotton or the loss of cotton as a major cash crop in El Salvador, this family history deeply influenced me to learn more about fiber entrepreneurship.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?  

The McNair Scholars program at UC Davis deeply influenced my life and helped me get to Cornell. I never imagined that I would be able to attend an Ivy League university like Cornell. In 5th grade, during 2000, my teacher gave us a typing assignment to write letters to a university that we chose out of a box. By chance I got Cornell, and typed a letter requesting more information. I received a response with a catalog, but never imagined that I would be accepted. The McNair Scholars program gave me insight into how to prepare for graduate school. I took a textiles graduate course, conducted independent academic research, applied for internal and external grants, and submitted abstracts for conferences. This program significantly impacted my life and helped me pursue higher education.

I understand you recently received an Engaged Graduate Student Grant for a community engaged project. Congratulations! Can you describe the focus of your project? 

The Engaged Graduate Student Grant project supported the development of the New York Regional Yarn Sourcebook in collaboration with a team at Parsons the New School of Design, Laura Sansone and Suzanne Dvells. The Sourcebook features 17 diverse sheep, alpaca, and goat farms throughout New York who are interested in reaching a broader market. I completed the project during Summer 2017, and it was a collaboration with Cornell students and alumni, and local community members. Fiber scientists Nidia Trejo (FSAD MS 2014) and Haley Smith (FSAD BA 2020) helped with fiber quality testing, Ithaca knitwear designer Victoria Hantout helped knit swatches, and textile designer Amanda Denham (FSAD MA 2017) wove textile samples, including wool–alpaca scarves to show how the fiber science data can inform local design practices. I shared this book during the Ithaca LocalFiber Pop-up Shop at SewGreen, with the education department at Woolmark, and during the Vista Fiber Arts Fiesta in Southern California.

There is a physical copy of the Sourcebook in Mann Library, and an electronic version can be found on the fiber science and apparel design public engagement webpage.

A portion of the Cornell Engaged Grant also supported my progress with the fiber sorting apprenticeship in collaboration with an alpaca farmer. We sorted 20 wool fleeces during May 2017 in the Cornell Teaching Barn. 

What opportunities will this grant provide for you that you perhaps wouldn’t have had access to otherwise? 

Overall, the grant provided extensive opportunities for collaborative learning and research. I was able to purchase yarns from the farmers to support their economic development. Paying for yarns was critical since many farmers in my research identify low economic profits as a major challenge. The grant also provided funding to cover labor costs to support the fiber science and design team. The hard-bound version of the book was printed in the Olin Copy Center and I was able to give each collaborator and my department a copy based on the printing funds available. For the fiber sorting apprenticeship in collaboration with an alpaca farmer, the grant helped cover her cost of travel and labor since it took time away from her farm business.

Any advice for other graduate students interested in applying for fellowships or grants? 

I would suggest applying to as many as possible. I applied to several internal and external grants as a graduate student and they helped me refine my ideas. I applied to three other grants for the New York Regional Yarn Sourcebook project, but did not receive funding. When I applied for the Engaged Graduate Student Grant in early 2017, I felt I had a strong project narrative and was excited to receive the funds.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree? 

I chose Cornell because it has a unique Ph.D. program in fiber science and apparel design. I came with my twin sister Nidia, who studied fiber science while I studied apparel design. I visited before I accepted and enjoyed meeting my faculty advisor Dr. Tasha Lewis in Spring 2012.  

What’s next for you? 

I defended my Ph.D. research in December 2017 and am currently editing my dissertation based on my committee’s feedback. I’m also preparing articles to publish in academic fashion journals and am applying to academic positions.

I was very inspired as a graduate research assistant for my faculty advisor Dr. Tasha Lewis. I worked on several interdisciplinary sustainable fashion projects with industry collaborators, and developed short films to show our research process. This led me to become more interested in technology and how it intersects with my research. I recently co-founded Fiber Novation Loops LLC with my twin sister Nidia to explore the intersections of fashion, agriculture, and technology. I received two “Grow with Google” Scholarships in January 2018 to learn more about technology. The first is a Google Developer Challenge Scholarship to learn about Android programming with Udacity. The second is a Google IT Support Professional Certificate through Coursera. I am excited to develop these skills to support my ideas about fashion, agriculture, and technology in the future.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School