Everlyn Nguku is one of Kenya’s few and little-known textile scientists. She was more of the artsy type growing up. But while she was in University studying fine arts, her interest shifted to a more scientific angle.
Unbeknown to her at the time, this shift in interest would catapult Everlyn to establish East Africa’s first silk quality control laboratory, and set Sub-Saharan Africa on a new journey toward advanced textile manufacturing.
What exactly does a textile scientist do?
A textile scientist specialises in various areas including; new technologies related to fibres, innovative textiles; textile chemistry, polymer and fibre science, processing, fabric development, quality issues among others.
Textiles are multidisciplinary in nature.
How did you come across this as a career?
I did not start out as a Textile Scientist. I studied Fine Arts for my first degree and looked forward to a career in teaching design or design related activities (I am the “creative” in the family).
However, as I studied my course, my passion for fabric and pattern shifted to fabric construction. I was intrigued and keen to understand the technical aspects of fibres and fabric. I then did my masters and the study focused on four natural textile fibres. This was the beginning of my journey with silk and science at International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE).
I began to look at textiles beyond the design element. My Ph.D. focused on silk properties. I had to understand the science behind the silkworm that produces the silk, processing technology and quality of the resulting fibre.
You are researching on the African Silkworm; tell us a bit about that?
My work actually revolves around the domesticated silkworm Bombyx mori, although there are several commercial species of silkworms. B. mori is the most widely used for silk production; it is reared indoors and feeds on the mulberry leaves.
This activity is referred to as sericulture, which is the practice of raisings silkworms to produce raw silk- the yarn obtained from cocoons spun by the worms.
I take an interdisciplinary approach and multi-faceted research of silk that focuses on optimizing silkworm rearing techniques, and cocoon production, with a key focus on fibre quality and value addition initiatives for the production of various quality silk products.
The research explores the mechanical behaviors of the silk fibre, which are key building blocks in the production of quality silk fabric. We also design silk fibre testing procedures to assess and systematically study the quality factor, tenacity & elongation, friction and wear traits.
How many women are involved in this research?
Within the institution, I am working with five female technicians who undertake rearing of the silkworms and processing of the cocoons and raw silk.
A textile industry needs more professionals who understand the science and the business sense in manufacturing and processing the raw material, how can Africa tap into this?
The industry is labour intensive and has the potential to offer significant employment opportunities.
There is a need to equally invest in the skills and qualifications of people and promote the technical qualifications for people in the textile and apparel industries.
African Universities do offer degrees and masters in textile design and fashion technology. What can be done to ensure that more of these graduates become the backbone of this industry?
This sector in Africa is amazingly dynamic; however, it appears to be fragmented. Consequently, its potential remains largely unexploited possibly due to organizational weaknesses within the industry. In order to integrate graduates into the industry, there is a need for governments within the continent to prioritize the sector, unlock the potential, overcome existing problems of the textile industry and address issues that hinder the growth of the manufacturing industry.
This strengthens and improves the entire textile industry and value chain for it to be competitive and remain relevant. In addition, possibly review the rules on textile imports especially the influx of cheaper clothing which seem to hamper the local industry in Africa.
The industry should also recognize the potential of textile design and fashion technology graduates and the dynamisms they inject into the growth of the commerce and therefore need to nurture and engage this local talent.
Some of the challenges you face revolve around ignorance and general disregard of research from a policy level. How are you pushing to get more attention on this issue and more government investment and commitment to grow the textile industry in Kenya?
I am a member of Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) Technical Committee on Blankets, Nonwovens, Threads, and Fibres. This is a forum that presents an opportunity to interact with the main industry stakeholders on issues related to textiles, standards and to an extent policy.
Who would win in a fight, Wonder Woman or Black Widow?
Hmmm…I had to look up the Black Widow…. didn’t know much about her 😄
All the same, my take is Wonder Woman.
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