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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Continue reading: Polyester.