“He wanted to show me that the fabric looks good,” Shokoofeh Ghasemi explains with a smile, as one of her colleagues gently taps on her office window. “We’re excited! We just solved a problem that we’ve been working on for a month and a half.”
As fabric R&D manager at Natural Fiber Welding (NFW), Ghasemi leads a team of researchers and engineers that use the patented CLARUS® family of high-performance fabrics out of natural fibers. These plant-based, plastic-free textiles hold the versatile properties of synthetics that today’s consumers demand — strength, durability, breathability, moisture management — but without the extensive environmental damage our society is only beginning to recognize.
The potential impact on the worldwide textile industry is nothing short of transformational. By bringing these performance characteristics to virgin and recycled natural fibers, the CLARUS material family is are poised to help solve the growing problem of microplastics and create a brand-new, sustainable materials economy. This is a big deal.
According to one study, textiles are responsible for 35 percent of the world’s microplastic pollution. The majority of today’s clothing contains plastic fibers, which shed microplastics each time they are worn, washed or dried. As a result, microplastics are now part of our air, food, water and land. From the peaks of mountains to the depths of the ocean, not a single place on the planet is untouched. The extent of the damage to human health and the environment is astronomical.
Ghasemi’s team uses CLARUS to help solve these problems while engineering yarns and fabrics for a growing customer base of distinguished, world-renowned brands. “What makes a yarn suitable for a specific application? Which properties of the yarn will contribute to which properties of the fabric? What settings need to be adjusted to make that fabric?” These are the questions they wrestle with on a daily basis.
With advanced degrees in bioproducts and textile engineering, Ghasemi’s resume appears to be tailor-made for the Peoria, Illinois-based startup. But it’s not just her professional training and expertise that make her the perfect fit for NFW. It’s also her passion for practical innovation and a deep-rooted interest in fashion, which can be traced to her childhood on the other side of the world.
Born in 1989, Ghasemi grew up outside the Iranian capital of Tehran, one of the oldest and largest cities in the Middle East. Her country’s history of textile production dates back thousands of years and is responsible for some of the world’s most beautiful, well-crafted and luxurious fabrics. The tradition ran in Ghasemi’s family as well.
“When I was young, I was always around fabrics,” she recalls. Her mother and grandmother both taught sewing and embroidery, and she grew up surrounded by sketches for clothing designs and stray pieces of material. A curious child, she naturally took a hands-on approach. “I would take pieces of fabric and tie them together. I was making my own dresses when I was really young.”
She also had an aptitude for mathematics and physics, and her ambitions were encouraged by her family. She recalls a car ride with her father, who directed her gaze out the window toward one of Iran’s most prestigious institutions. “If you work hard, you can get into this university,” he told her.
The Amirkabir University of Technology, or Tehran Polytechnic, is internationally renowned as the “Mother of Engineering Universities.” It’s the top school for textile engineering in the entire Middle East — a pioneer of research, industrial innovation and sustainable development. Ghasemi was among the elite sliver of Iranian students whose exam scores allowed her entrance.
“I studied textiles and industrial engineering,” she explains. “I learned how machines are designed, what technologies go into yarns and fabrics… and all of the processes from getting a single fiber to making a garment.”
When it came time to apply for Ph.D. programs, Ghasemi set her sights abroad. “I wanted to go to another country… and learn a new culture,” she recalls. As she considered opportunities in the United States, another distinguished institution caught her attention. The University of Maine was expanding a research program in its School of Forestry, with support from the National Science Foundation. “They were making nanofibers out of wood… and wanted people with different backgrounds to use them in different applications."
On January 2, 2015, Ghasemi landed in the United States, ready for new adventures. It was a cold, snowy winter day, and she was far from home. But her bright future was beginning to unfold.
Located in the upper northeast corner of New England, Maine is the most sparsely populated state east of the Mississippi River. More than 80 percent of its land is forested, and forest resources drive the region’s economy. As a top-tier public research university, the University of Maine (UMaine) naturally became a hub for forest-based product innovation. In recent years, much of that activity has centered around nanocellulose.
Nanocellulose is derived from cellulose, the primary substance comprising the walls of plant cells. It’s the world’s most abundant natural polymer and a renewable material with applications ranging from food packaging to biomedical devices. With easy access to sustainably managed forests, UMaine hosts the only facility in the nation that manufactures wood-based nanocellulose at scale. That distinction helped earn the region its nickname, “Nanocellulose Valley,” nodding to the silicon-based semiconductor industry that grew up around Stanford University several decades ago.
Ghasemi’s Ph.D. research focused on nanocellulose as an input material for yarn — an adaptable replacement for traditional fibers like cotton and silk, not to mention polyester, acrylic and other plastic-based yarns. Working at nanoscale opens up new possibilities for modifying yarn properties, which allowed Ghasemi to leverage her knowledge of textiles for innovation. “I didn’t want to take the classic [approach]. I wanted to make an entirely new material or application.”
In conjunction with her research at UMaine, Ghasemi landed an internship at Ford Motor Company, working on sustainable nanocellulose foams and composites for automotive interiors. After completing her Ph.D. work in 2019, she was ready to move out of academia and apply her knowledge to industry. That’s when she came across a job posting from an ambitious startup in the heart of the Midwest.
Natural Fiber Welding was searching for an expert to lead development of its CLARUS platform for manufacturing high-performance fabrics using all-natural, sustainable materials. “I would be responsible for identifying which yarns were suitable for making fabrics with the desired properties… and how we could use and modify NFW’s technology for specific fabric applications,” Ghasemi explains. There could hardly have been a better fit for her skillset. And the timing was impeccable.
Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) was built on a critical discovery by founder and CEO Luke Haverhals. Using a novel technique to swell, mobilize and reconstruct cellulosic bonds at the molecular level, Haverhals demonstrated that natural fibers can be molded and shaped — or “welded” — to create yarns and fabrics with characteristics that previously had been possible only with petroleum-based synthetic materials. This is the foundational innovation of CLARUS.
Not only did Ghasemi have the technical expertise NFW needed, her husband was also hired by the company. Now a coating R&D scientist working on MIRUM®, NFW’s plant-based leather-like material, he was a classmate in Iran who later joined her at UMaine. In early 2020, the newly married couple relocated to Peoria, ready to start their new life together. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and the world went into lockdown.
One of the first challenges Ghasemi faced at NFW was learning the machine that knitted its yarns into fabric. Without a technician onsite due to Covid protocols, that involved not only operating the machine, but troubleshooting and fixing it when something went wrong. “I knew how the machine worked and the basics of running it,” she explains. “But repair is a whole different level.” Nevertheless, she rose to the occasion, applying her foundational understanding of mechanical engineering with an aptitude for hands-on problem-solving to handle just about every task associated with the machine.
A few weeks later, NFW finalized a significant partnership with Ralph Lauren — and suddenly Ghasemi was responsible for supplying fabrics with very specific properties to one of the world’s best-known luxury brands. As part of its sustainability strategy, Ralph Lauren was seeking a new kind of performance fabric that didn’t use synthetic materials. Natural materials, however, could never provide the strength and durability required by the fabric’s loose-knit, permeable construction. Until CLARUS, that is.
“They wanted to use a recycled material,” Ghasemi explains. “They wanted it to be comfortable, and they wanted a particular hand feel.”
Hand feel is the way a fabric feels against the skin — how soft or smooth it is, a measure of sensory comfort. It was her job to determine not only what yarn properties would be needed, but how to customize NFW’s patented processes to create the desired fabric. Leveraging the “tunability” of CLARUS, she blended two types of yarns to create a fabric that never before had existed.
“The construction is designed in a way that it transfers water from your skin to the outside,” Ghasemi explains. “It’s breathable and it dries quickly, so it’s comfortable for the person who wears it. That was the first product I made with NFW.”
The Ralph Lauren RLX CLARUS Polo and the Ralph Lauren RLX CLARUS Long-Sleeve T-shirt fabrics, designed by Ghasemi and her team, debuted earlier this year — and the fashion world quickly took notice. Previous attempts to use recycled cotton in lightweight fabrics were very limited as fibers are weakened considerably by the recycling process, constraining its reuse. NFW’s key innovation has allowed Ralph Lauren to make critical progress on its goals of sustainably sourcing its materials. And it’s on the cusp of achieving a “holy grail” for the textile industry at large: a truly circular economy driven by materials that can be reused, recycled, regrown and returned safely to the earth.
As NFW works to forge new industry partnerships and scale its products in the market, Ghasemi continues to optimize the performance properties of its yarns and fabrics. She addresses any technical issues that arise and ensures that new iterations of CLARUS technologies achieve the desired functionality. She is also leading the development of new types of fabrics, combining yarns of varying properties and finetuning processes accordingly.
“We’re working on some interlock and plated fabrics,” she notes, “as well as some terry fabrics for different applications using NFW yarn. These are our future products for the market.”
This work uniquely combines her intersecting passions for innovation, fashion, engineering and textiles in a single role. Not only is she utilizing her training and expertise to bring new products to market, she is a key driver of NFW’s mission to replace synthetic fabrics across the global fashion supply chain.
“It basically connects all that I’ve been thinking and dreaming about since my childhood,” she explains. “Everything I went to school for… studying how to make fabrics and textiles… and then making something new.”
It’s a complete paradigm shift in textiles. And it’s quite literally Shokoofeh Ghasemi’s dream job.