Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A History of Synthetics: Acrylic

Catch up on Rayon and Nylon.

Acrylic is lightweight, soft, and warm, with a cashmere-like feel. It was developed in the early 40s by the researchers at DuPont, but it was more than a decade before it was commercialised.

1953 advert for Orlon (source)


The development of acrylic fiber stemmed from DuPont’s work on rayon. In 1941 a DuPont scientist seeking to improve rayon discovered a means of spinning acrylic polymer – which unlike nylon, decomposes rather than melts – through a solution. Initially the material was targeted as a replacement for wool, but difficulties in spinning and dyeing soon cropped up. In 1950 the May Plant in Camden, South Carolina, went into production of the material under the trade name Orlon.

Orlon in the 1952 Sears catalogue

DuPont initially offered it as a filament yarn, but it didn't take off until Orlon staple, a soft, wool-imitating yarn composed of short fibers, was introduced.

100% Orlon sweaters in Sears & Roebuck, 1953

In the summer of 1952, "wash and wear" was coined to describe a new blend of cotton and acrylic. The term eventually was applied to a wide variety of manufactured fiber blends. Acrylic was marketed alongside nylon and the other synthetics as "miracle fabrics" - crease-proof, insect-reistant, washable and quick-drying.

Orlon, Acrilan (Chemstrand's trade name for acrylic fibre) and other synthetics in Sears & Roebuck, 1953

Orlon advert from 1953, emphasising its crease-resistance (source)

Advert for "wash and wear" Acrilan jersey, 1956 (source)

By the mid-1950s a boom in women's sweaters was underway and acrylic - perfectly suited to imitate expensive wool and cashmere with its soft look and feel - was there to meet the demand. By 1960 sales reached 1 million pounds a year.

Ladies' sweaters in the Sears catalogue, 1957


Acrylic is colored before it is turned into a fibre as it does not dye very well but has excellent colorfastness and resistance to sunlight.

It is also resistant to shrinkage. The filaments have a high tensile strength that is almost as good when wet as dry. The fibers have good elasticity and low moisture absorption.

Acrylic has a soft, warm feel which makes it ideal to imitate wool and cashmere. The disadvantages are that it tends to fuzz or pill easily and that it does not insulate the wearer as well as wool or cashmere.

Acrylic blends well with natural fibres like wool and cotton, or other synthetics.

Advert for Orlon acrylic, 1957 (source)

Continue reading: Polyester.


  1. I'm loving this series! The ads are all so colorful and fun and it really helps a seamstress to know a little more about fabrics that were popular back then. I love that blue and white dress that the momma is wearing in the '53 ad. cute!!

  2. Oooh I love the sweaters in the 1957 ad. Informative as always--thanks!

  3. I love Orlon! You just can't beat Orlon sweaters for durability. They look nice and are easy to care for, decades later. I have on particular Orlon cardigan that my mom probably thrifted sometime in the 80s or 70s, that I permanently borrowed in early high school. It goes in the washer and dryer every time and it still looks as good as it did when it entered my wardrobe 20 years ago!

  4. I absolutely Love this blog... Fantastic information. Hope to see even more

  5. Thank you so much for this! I'm doing a lecture on the history of crochet and this helped me a lot.


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