By STEVEN NALLEY
There was a time when Phyllis Miller did not knit.
Miller, a professor of apparel, textiles and merchandising at Mississippi State University, said it was not until her second Fulbright scholarship took her to India that she began to knit, and she hasn’t stopped since. About half a decade later, Miller has three Editor’s Choice Awards from Knitter’s Magazine to her name and a Best of Show award from Ravelry’s Stitches South Conference.
“Living and working in another country is a wonderful experience,” Miller said. “It changes the way you view the world and everyone in it by giving you an understanding of other lifestyles and perspectives. It also gives you a better understanding of America’s place in the world and the opportunity to view ourselves as others see us. It has also given me the time to explore and enhance my life both professionally and personally.”
Now, Miller has won the third Fulbright scholarship of her career, a lecturing and research appointment that will take her to the island Republic of Mauritius to help establish a fashion design institute.
Michael Newman, director of the MSU School of Human Sciences where Miller teaches, said MSU students can take pride in studying under an internationally recognized professor, knowing they can compete with any program’s graduates. In the past, Newman said, Miller has come back from Fulbright studies with new and exciting cultural slants on fashion for students to discover, and this time should be no exception.
“One of our students might win a design contest with some element learned from Dr. Miller based on something that she learned in Mauritius,” Newman said. “She might learn about a particular fabric or weave or technique that we haven’t been using in our classes. It’s hard to say what exactly might happen, but it is always a good idea to expand the outlook and perspective of our students.”
Miller is one of only 800 receiving a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Fellowship, and she said only 30 percent of Fulbright applicants are accepted each year. Miller said she was delighted when the competitive program accepted her again.
“It means that I have something of value to offer to the world and, most importantly, to MSU,” Miller said. “This award brings prestige to the apparel, textiles and merchandising program, MSU and to the state. There are good things happening in Mississippi, and the Fulbright program lets the world know about it.”
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Miller said she spent her childhood developing an interest not only in fashion, but also in international culture and travel. She began sewing at the age of four, she said, and living near Embassy Row constantly exposed her to international culture.
“Every time we went to the grocery store and throughout the city, we were surrounded by people in their native dress who were speaking other languages,” Miller said. “I longed to learn more about them and their customs. I have now visited 40 countries and territories, many of them more than once.”
Miller’s academic and commercial careers are full of variety. She ran her own design and costume business while studying fashion at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., and she said that business lasted several years. During graduate school at Michigan State University, she said, she paid for international travel through freelance writing for several national magazines. She even hosted her own Michigan TV series, “Phyllis Miller — in the Looking Glass,” offering fashion, housing and lifestyle advice for those with disabilities.
She said discovered her true love at age 20: teaching.
“Teaching allows me to continuously learn new things and to share them with my students,” Miller said. “It’s never boring. My teaching methods are very hands-on. I demonstrate, and students immediately create something. After giving them a firm foundation, I encourage them experiment and challenge themselves to meet their goals.”
Miller said she also loves computers, with a specialty in development and teaching of computer-assisted design (CAD) software. She wrote the world’s first book on applying generic CAD software to fashion, entitled “AutoCAD for the Apparel Industry.”
It’s this specialty that brought her to Mississippi State, where she said setting up a new CAD lab in the Human Sciences department and helping MSU build a fashion curriculum has been a dream come true. This specialty was also central to her first Fulbright study.
“In Bulgaria, I taught textile design using AutoCAD to textile design majors at the National Academy of Art in Sofia,” Miller said. “They researched and used Bulgarian influences to design banners, which they silk-screened, painted, embroidered, and otherwise embellished. They used the Bulgarian color palette that I created as a result of my research, which was to create an electronic database of Bulgarian dress. I worked with museums and curators throughout the country to gather information, photograph artifacts, and collect color data.”
Miller said the visit to Bulgaria also ended a long hiatus for her own design career, which has since won her multiple national and international awards, including first- and second-place awards in the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Juried Design Showcase. In addition to introducing her to knitting, she said, her second Fulbright study in India exposed her to several national landmarks, museums and textile and apparel manufacturers.
With her third Fulbright scholarship, Miller will help the University of Mauritius’s Department of Textile Technology merge with other fashion design programs, forming a new fashion design institute. One key challenge, she said, will be developing the institute’s curriculum, but she has prepared by doing exactly that for MSU.
“The main challenge is assuring that the school has the needed equipment and that I can communicate with the faculty and administration about their needs before leaving the U.S.,” Miller said. “It is much easier to get the needed books and equipment, such as a spectrocolorimeter — the device that reports color data numerically — before I leave the U.S. and to carry it with me. It is often a very long process to get responses from faculty in other countries.”
Miller said she will teach Mauritian students to use AutoCAD to design clothing, fabrics and accessories using traditional Mauritian dress as inspiration. Data on those traditions are currently limited, she said, but with access to museum collections and help from students, she plans to change that.
“I will use instrumentation as well as fabric samples to match the Mauritian colors to international color databases,” Miller said. “This will allow anyone in the world to replicate the colors perfectly. The database will also include information on clothing styles, color usage and symbolism.”
Miller said while English is Mauritius’ official language, she will still observe Mauritian professors to tailor her teaching to students there. Like Bulgaria and India, Miller said, Mauritius has beautiful fashion traditions she is eager to share with the world.
“These experiences have made me more sensitive to and appreciative of other cultures,” Miller said. “They have as much to offer us as we have to offer them.”