CLEMSON — Igor Luzinov of Clemson University Monday became the first recipient of the Kentwool Distinguished Professorship in Natural Fibers, an honor named for a 176-year-old textile company that remains committed to innovation and excellence in natural fibers, specifically wool.

A $250,000 gift from Kentwool in 2009 enabled Clemson to receive a matching gift from the lottery-funded SmartState program creating the endowment that made the professorship possible. Kentwool is headquartered in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, and has a 135,000-square-foot yarn production plant in Pickens County.

Igor Luzinov, second from right, works with students in his lab at Clemson University. He is the first Kentwool Distinguished Professorship in Natural Fibers.

Igor Luzinov, second from right, works with students in his lab at Clemson University. He is the first Kentwool Distinguished Professorship in Natural Fibers.

Kim Kent, the CEO of Kentwool, said the idea for the professorship started with her late husband, Mark, who died in 2017 at 55 years old. He was a graduate of Wake Forest University and the Clemson University School of Textiles.

“Mark was passionate about supporting innovation and next-generation talent in the textile industry,” Kent said. “This is a passion that Kentwool continues today, and we are so pleased to know the professorship will support the outstanding work being conducted Dr. Luzinov and his students.”

Luzinov has done research on natural fibers since he arrived at Clemson 18 years ago. The funding he receives as a result of the endowment will help him and his students attend conferences, he said.

One of Luzinov’s major accomplishments is graduating 18 Ph.D. students, including many who have gone on to work in the fiber and textile industry. Two became professors, one at the University of Western Australia and one at the University of Georgia.

“It’s like your children, in scientific terms,” he said. “They learn from you. First, they repeat your words and then they produce their own. When they produce their own words and ideas, they become ready to go. Kentwool and SmartState are playing a crucial role in helping us get even more students ready to go, and I’d like to thank them for their support.”

Rajendra Bordia, chair of materials science and engineering, said Luzinov is highly deserving of the Kentwool professorship.

“Dr. Luzinov is an outstanding scholar and teacher with a demonstrated passion for preparing students to excel in the workforce and academia,” Bordia said. “He is well positioned to widen the pipeline from Clemson to the fiber and textile industry.”

To consumers outside the textile industry, Kentwool is best known for its retail arm, Kentwool Performance, which makes premium, Merino wool athletic socks. The company also includes Kentwool Development, a division that owns and operates two historic buildings in downtown Greenville.

The vast majority of the company’s 176 years in business, however, has been devoted to producing wool yarn of exceptional quality.

Mark Kent

Mark Kent set the wheels in motion for a contribution to his alma mater, Clemson University, that resulted in the Kentwool Distinguished Professorship in Natural Fibers.

Skilled employees are essential to the Kentwool business, Kent said.

“We have employees who have been with us for years, sometimes decades,” she said. “They are experts in their respective functions, and without their textile knowledge, Kentwool would not be able to produce the caliber of product for which we are so well-known. We know that continuing to foster new talent in textiles is paramount to maintaining both the health of the industry and our own competitiveness as a brand.

The professorship marks the third endowed fund that Kentwool has provided to Clemson.

The Warren “Tom” Kent Presidential Memorial Scholarship provides need-based scholarships for South Carolina residents and is named for Mark Kent’s father. The Kentwool Educational Endowment provides partial scholarships to students in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Kent said that she is in the early stages of discussions that could lead to even more collaboration between Kentwool and Clemson.

“We would love an opportunity to have students participate in internships or other opportunities at our facility to give them exposure to textile operations beyond the classroom,” she said. “Of course we always want to identify and retain top talent, but internships and partnerships are a win-win even in the cases where students don’t ultimately come to work with Kentwool. Growing the next generation of textile talent benefits us all.”

Ann Marie Alexander, assistant vice president for strategic corporate partnerships, worked with Mark Kent and Kentwool on the professorship end educational endowment nearly 10 years ago. The timing of Kentwool’s contribution was critical in helping Clemson secure matching dollars from the state for the $8 million Advanced Fiber-based Materials Center of Economic Excellence in the SmartState program, she said.

“Mark saw the value in supporting our faculty and students further research in fiber-based materials, a key area of economic development in South Carolina, and perpetuating the Kentwool legacy in this field,” Alexander said.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Kentwool’s generosity and the SmartState program will open new opportunities for students.

“I thank Kentwool for their forward-thinking contribution,” he said. “Their generosity will enrich the educational experience for students and widen the pipeline to industry, and it is fitting that Mark Kent’s visionary leadership in textiles will continue to have a lasting impact on Clemson University through his gift.”