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Bookmarking the Success of the Wilson College of Textiles

Nov 15, 2023Nov 15, 2023

Since its inception, the college’s woven bookmark program and its first designer, Willie Bowen ’59, have both celebrated the impressive areas of innovation within NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles

By Kamilah Heslop

The story of the Wilson College of Textiles’ bookmark program is intertwined with the remarkable journey of its first designer, Willie Bowen.

Like the vibrant bookmarks that emerged in 1960, Bowen’s life has been woven with various shades of Wolfpack red, symbolizing his unwavering dedication to his alma mater and the textile industry.

His tale begins in Rhine, Georgia, where the charismatic young man was born. It continues in the humble town of Rockingham, North Carolina, where Bowen was raised from the age of ten in a mill village — a housing development built by a large textile company specifically for their employees. That upbringing, along with witnessing his parents’ hard work in the mills, ensured that he was no stranger to grit and determination.

After graduating from high school in 1950, Bowen followed in his mother’s and father’s footsteps.

“First, I began working with fillings in the mill. That’s the thread that goes from east to west on a loom,” Bowen explains while motioning with his hands. “I hauled boxes of those bobbins filled with thread all the way from the spinning department to the weaving department.”

Back and forth he went each day. With time, Bowen’s stamina and strength grew. Even though the work was long and unforgiving, he was determined to make a better life for himself and his family.

At the tender age of 19, he left the United States for the first time to serve his country in the Air Force. During those four-and-a-half years in England, Bowen’s wife and their first child, Steven, kept him company. After leaving the service, though, Bowen faced the daunting reality of limited job opportunities. He found himself sewing pattern pieces together at a shirt factory alongside his wife and asking one crucial question: “Where do I go from here?”

Months of soul searching compelled Bowen to take a leap of faith.

In 1956, he packed up his belongings, hugged his family goodbye and traveled from Statesville, North Carolina, to attend NC State University in Raleigh.

Without the G.I. Bill, Bowen would have never thought that higher education was possible. Using the tenacity he developed during his childhood, the now 23-year-old followed his passion and enrolled in the then School of Textiles.

Powering through 160 hours of textile education, including one summer semester, Bowen was on track to graduate in just three years.

“Trying to get through college with two children was tough,” Bowen shares. “I worked at the School Supply Store’s canteen, which was located in the basement of Syme Hall, to make extra money for our family.”

He thought of his wife and children often. Bowen went as far as hitchhiking to Statesville, where his wife was working in a sewing plant, every Saturday.

“It would take me until nearly sundown on Saturday to get home,” he says. “Then, I would turn right around each afternoon on Sunday and head back to campus.”

That dedication, combined with his knowledge of dyeing and weaving, would serve him well in his next creative endeavor.

During Bowen’s final year on campus, in the spring of 1959, the Wilson College of Textiles’ bookmark program was born.

It all began relatively simple.

“First, my roommate came to me with a small cloth keepsake from his father’s automobile dealership, and that bookmark featured all of the months on a calendar,” Bowen explains. “When I saw it, I immediately asked him if I could borrow it because I had an idea.”

The next day, Bowen shared that intricate bookmark with Professor Ernest “Tex” Berry, who taught the college’s advanced-level jacquard weaving class.

“I presented the bookmark to Professor Berry as a possible project that our class could work on, and he said we’d vote on it,” Bowen says. “That same day, our class decided to focus on this as the semester’s final exam.”

After Professor Berry and multiple classmates suggested that I do the design work, I made a deal. I’d do it if I got an A in the course. Once Professor Berry agreed, my work began.— Willie Bowen ’59

From there, Bowen’s class — of only eight students — had to pick the student who’d create the design for the brand-new bookmark. Guess whose name kept coming up?

“After Professor Berry and multiple classmates suggested that I do the design work, I made a deal. I’d do it if I got an A in the course,” he says, chuckling. “Once Professor Berry agreed, my work began.”

Designing the bookmark required at least three four-foot by four-foot designs made by hand. And that was just to weave the NC State logo, which would don the bottom of the bookmark.

To say designing the entire bookmark would be time-consuming was a vast understatement. Every design Bowen made had to be punched, by hand, onto a small paper design card. It took him several weeks to visualize the design, make edits and then finally punch each card.

The feeling of déjà vu was overwhelming: this was so similar to his time in the mills. Again, the work was difficult but rewarding.

Bowen’s time in the textile mill wasn’t a distant memory, though. He returned each summer to work in the factory — while also taking classes — to better support his family. As always, caring for his loved ones was Bowen’s top priority.

After pulling countless all-nighters and acing his final exams, Bowen was ready to see his bookmark in its final form at last.

He looked on proudly as his design was mounted on the large and clunky jacquard machine at a local textile plant, and the 3-inch by 10-inch calendar bookmark was woven.

If you look closely, you’ll see a surprise in the eye of the bookmark’s wolf: a block “S,” that Bowen refers to as his trademark. The special feature took him countless hours to create.

“It’s still my most cherished memory from my time as a student,” shares Bowen, who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in textiles in 1959. “The rapport I built with the college staff and my classmates was priceless. I didn’t think it then, but it was a very eye-opening experience.”

Since the college’s bookmark program began in 1959, more than 60 woven keepsakes have been created using various shades of red, black, gold, white, gray, green and orange.

After 2001, the college decided to no longer feature a calendar on its bookmarks — instead, the woven designs began to highlight a central message or theme, including these standouts examples:

In recent times, an annual design competition has empowered students, faculty, staff and alumni to create the graphic that would don the following year’s bookmark.

Lilly Barozzini, a Centennial Scholar and a fashion and textile design student, was honored to have her design grace the 2022 bookmark.

“As a designer, I love being inspired by our college’s architecture and the surrounding plants and nature,” she says. “I really wanted the bookmark to have a unique look.”

The woven bookmarks continue a running tradition at the college. The winner of this year’s design competition, Elizabeth Alexander, was inspired by the college’s lifelong connection with students and alumni.

Read more

Barozzini looks forward to meeting the winner of the 2023 bookmark design competition, which will be centered around the theme “Wilson for Life.”

The theme of the 2023 bookmark — a lifelong connection to the Wilson College of Textiles — has rang true for Bowen since he first stepped foot on NC State’s campus.

One circumstance that made his college experience even more memorable was receiving a $500 scholarship before his final semester from American Enka.

“It really came in handy and helped get me through my last semester,” Bowen says. “Having that scholarship meant that I was going to graduate. That $500 was a lot of money in 1959.”

A lot of money indeed. When adjusted for inflation, his $500 scholarship would be worth more than $5,150 today.

After graduating at the top of his class, Bowen was overjoyed to receive multiple job offers. The knowledge he gleaned from his classes and his once-in-a-lifetime experience designing the college’s first bookmark made him an attractive candidate for many textile corporations. After much deliberation, he chose to take his talents to the Tennessee Eastman Company, a division of the Eastman Kodak Company located in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he worked in the development lab.

From there, he served Eastman Kodak’s fiber division in Columbia, South Carolina, where he worked for 20 years. At the tender age of 65, Bowen began his final role at Beau-Chem International, where he worked until he retired at age 85.

His connection to the Wilson College of Textiles has only strengthened throughout his professional career.

“Without my degree, I would have never gotten the job I got with the Eastman Company,” he remarks. “My degree in textiles at NC State got me into the professional ranks to succeed. I’ve since profited from that and have had a good life.”

In 2022, Bowen decided to pay forward the integral support he received from his alma mater, and the Willie C. Bowen Family Scholarship Endowment was established through his estate.

“That $500 scholarship I received meant that I would graduate. I was out of money, so it came at a critical time in my life,” Bowen shares. “That’s why I elected to fund a scholarship at NC State. It is my fervent hope that some deserving student who is in need of financial aid will be awarded this scholarship, and it will help them as my scholarship helped me.”

That $500 scholarship I received meant that I would graduate. I was out of money, so it came at a critical time in my life. That’s why I elected to fund a scholarship at NC State. It is my fervent hope that some deserving student who is in need of financial aid will be awarded this scholarship, and it will help them as my scholarship helped me.— Willie Bowen ’59

Bowen foresees his scholarship endowment as being a springboard for Wilson College of Textiles students to achieve their own level of success by doing what they truly love — especially if that includes weaving the college’s next bookmark.

The history of the college’s bookmark program2008: 2016:2017:2018:2019:2021:2022: 2023 Wilson College of Textiles Bookmark Makes Its DebutPaying forward the scholarship that supported him
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