WMU celebrates upgraded fashion labs and technology

Contact: Chris Hybels

KALAMAZOO—Western Michigan University unveiled an upgraded fashion suite for the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences that connects its computer, construction and design labs and creates a workflow space to improve student efficiency and familiarity with industry technology.

"When you leave here, you'll have boots on the ground ready to go and be employed, and that's what we want," Dr. Mary Simpson, assistant professor, told students at the celebration on Jan. 30.

According to Dr. Suzan Smith-Ayers, chair of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, the fashion program was encouraged to upgrade their equipment and facilities by the Textile and Apparel Programs Accreditation Commission (TAPAC) during a site visit in 2021. Western's bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising and design received accreditation in 2023. Working alongside the Office of the President and dean's office in the College of Education and Human Development, funds were raised to invest in new table tops, upgraded machines and technology for digital pattern making.

"It is always important to have enough hardware for students' use," says Smith-Ayers. "The upgrades we unveiled today will prepare students for work in the industry, which will make them more marketable as graduates."  

Where fashion intersects with technology

For the first time, students in the fashion merchandising and design programs will now have their own computer lab with access to the industry's latest design software. The computer lab is connected to the existing construction and design labs to form a fashion suite and streamline the student's production process.

The addition of the computer lab comes at a time where fashion is intersecting with technology. According to Simpson, after the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a massive increase in the use of technology among designers and merchandisers in the industry.

"We saw the use of technology jump leaps and bounds, and it really sent us faster to renovating our spaces. In addition, the updated technology has helped us expand our course offerings," says Simpson.

The centerpiece of the computer lab renovation is the program's new state-of-the-art pattern plotter printer. Used in the fashion industry, plotters create designs, patterns and templates for clothing production. Students will have the opportunity to learn how to create patterns with the plotter in Simpson's upcoming apparel line development course.

"I print off my pattern, I go next door to the construction lab to cut my pattern, then I go to the design lab to sew my garment. It's just a workflow space that is logical and accessible and easiest for students," says Smith-Ayers.

new surface, better space increases proficiency

The table tops in the construction lab now have a new surface for students to cut their fabric. The surface is a fiber composite and has a consistency and weight similar to cork board, but more heavy duty. Installed only a few weeks ago, students have already started using them and noticing an increase in their proficiency.

"With the old boards, fabric would be hanging off the edges and I'd have to shimmy it around because it was a small surface," says Laura Argentati, fashion design student and winner of Western's 2024 New York Fashion Week Competition. "The new surface is super easy to use. I just stick in pins and can pivot the fabric to slash it off, spread and everything else I could do with the older one but now with more space."

Professional results in a fraction of the time

The newest addition to the design lab's collection of sewing machines is a new color touch screen serger. Swiss engineered, the serger gives students the ability select from pre-set stitches to create professional finishes in a fraction of the time.

"Our previous sergers took from 30 minutes to an hour to thread, so you lose production time. This new serger is self threading and only takes 30 seconds. So when you talk about production productivity this is the machine that is going to help our students," says Simpson.


The fashion merchandising and design majors prepare students for careers in the dynamic, fast-paced fashion industry. Students gain knowledge about industrial processes and products and focus their studies on merchandising or design and development to achieve specific career goals. Courses are designed to be stimulating and challenging, with opportunities to develop creative, communication, leadership, and professional skills. Experiential and study abroad opportunities supplement a strong curriculum to assure that graduates can succeed in a culturally diverse and global industry. To learn more, visit the fashion merchandising and design webpage.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.