Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Tricia Wilson Nguyen ’90

Hand and mind work together in electronic textiles

With a lifelong passion for needlework and an encyclopedic knowledge of historical embroidery, materials engineer Tricia Wilson Nguyen lives by the credo of Mens et manus. In three thriving businesses, she applies her textile skills and academic knowledge to traditional uses and to new ones, such as creating electronic textiles which incorporate metal threads into devices such as key pads.

Nguyen founded one company, Thistle Threads, more than a decade ago when she began consulting with museums, researching their textile holdings, leading workshops, and creating custom embroidery kits to sell in their shops. This first company drew on her interest in needle art, which began when she started working alongside her mother at age seven. At MIT, she taught embroidery to her dorm mates and studied with a world-class crewel expert, presidential spouse Priscilla Gray. In class, she roamed beyond the materials science department to study with Heather Lechtman, a professor of archaeology and ancient technology. “It was fascinating how she used materials science to understand historical problems,” she recalls.

After MIT, Nguyen earned master’s and doctoral degrees in materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan. Then she and her husband, John Nguyen ‘87, SM ‘89, PhD ‘93, returned to Boston, where he started software firms including Vlingo, which makes popular speech-to-mobile phone apps. She joined the technology and product-development company Foster-Miller, where she worked as a principal scientist using electronic textiles to redesign soldiers’ uniforms from socks to helmets. She not only designed new systems but handcrafted material samples. One project involved routing cables through uniform fabrics to create situational-­awareness systems that monitor a soldier’s location, physiological indicators, and surrounding terrain.

By 2005, Nguyen had two small children at home and a right hand damaged from overuse. She decided to leave her job and begin new ventures. While she healed, she launched Tokens and Trifles, a company that sells Victorian-style sewing-card kits online and in embroidery shops. Then she founded Fabric Works to continue her work in electronic textiles. Today she works with the U.S. Army and industry clients designing fibers and creating test samples of new materials. Resulting products include a cable sheathing that resists high-frequency waves, an innovation based on an ancient Japanese braiding technique, and a Polartec jacket that heats itself up.

Nguyen, who enjoys quilting with her mother and coaching her kids’ FIRST robotics team in Arlington, still finds new ways to combine materials science and historical knowledge. She recently led a project to re-create a 17th-century woman’s waistcoat for a Plimoth Plantation exhibit, a project that required teaching a centuries-old embroidery stitch to more than 250 volunteer steamstresses and reinventing production processes for items like silver gilt threads and hand-cut sequins.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.