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.

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