Polyester is a synthetic polymer used to make both solid plastics and fibres. As a fibre it rose to prominence in an era obsessed with the new, when synthetic was synonymous with space-age futurism and when the concept of convenience signified modernity. Despite a reputation as a cheap fabric and a backlash against man-mades in favour of natural fibres, polyester seems to be here to stay: Today almost half the world's clothing is made with polyester.
In April 1930 in Carothers' research lab, an assistant working with esters - compounds which yield an acid and an alcohol or phenol in reaction with water - discovered a very strong polymer that could be drawn into a fiber. This polyester fiber had a low melting point, however, so development was shelved while the team concentrated on the more promising nylon.
British scientists Whinfield and Dickson expanded upon this research and eventually patented PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) in 1941. ICI invested heavily in the development of this latest synthetic fibre and went into production under the trade name Terylene.
When DuPont resumed its polyester research, ICI had already patented Terylene, to which DuPont purchased the U.S. rights in 1945 for further development. In 1950, a pilot plant at the Delaware plant produced Dacron polyester fibre with modified nylon technology.
The wonders of Dacron polyester, from Sears & Roebuck, 1954
An ICI advert from 1954 declared, "Terylene will soon be of the utmost value in Britain, for with it can be made new and wonderful fabrics of every kind; suitings, dress materials, and underwear that are and once strong, light and easy to wash, yet warm and soft. 'Terylene' is also being developed for heavy industrial fabrics and ropes, offering outstanding advantaces in efficiency and economy. Already the new fibre has proved its worth, and 'Terylene' shirts, socks, underwear, dress materials and sewing thread are soon sold out to an eager public whenever they appear. When 'Terylene' is in large scale productions in 1955 it will give a great opportunity to the British textile industry."
Polyester was often blended with other fibres to give the best of both worlds. With cotton it combined breathability with easycare convenience. To the warmth of wool it added an improved drape, washability and comfort. It strengthened rayons and improved their crease-resistance. However it still had a comparatively small market share compared to other synthetics nylon, acrylic and Rayon (initially it was blended only with other synthetics - it wasn't until the late 50s that manufacturers hit upon the polycotton blend).
1965 advert for Dacron/cotton blend fabrics (source)
By the late 1960s polyester fabrics were gaining in popularity. The youth revolution demanded affordable, fashionable clothing, and polyester was cheap to manufacture.
Enter Crimplene. A heavy doubleknit polyester which is wrinkle-proof and holds its shape, Crimplene lent itself perfectly to the blocky, A-line shift dresses of the late 60s and early 70s mod fashions. Although much maligned, a high-end Crimplene can actually be quite comfortable to wear (just don't forget your antiperspirant!).
- Polyester fabrics and fibres are extremely strong.
- Polyester is very durable: resistant to most chemicals, stretching and shrinking, wrinkle resistant, mildew and abrasion resistant.
- Polyester easy to wash, and due to its hydrophobic nature is quick drying.
- It can be used for insulation by manufacturing hollow fibers.