Thursday, February 10, 2011

A History of Synthetics: Polyester

Catch up on Rayon, Nylon and Acrylic.

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.

Dacron advert, 1961 (source)

History

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.

Dacron advert, 1953

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."

Terylene advert, 1955

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).

Advert for Dacron/cotton and Dacron/flax fabrics, 1957

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.

Advert emphasising Dacron's easycare characteristics, 1967 (source)

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!).

Crimplene catalogue, early 70s (source)

Characteristics
  • 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.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for doing this series. It's very interesting, and I've learned so much. Extremely helpful! Thank you!

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  2. I have some of my grandmother's polyester double-knits from the 70s (orange bell bottoms, anyone?). They're not really my style (I've worn them to a few costume events), but I'm always tempted to pack them on trips because they're impossible to wrinkle and I hate to iron.

    I really love the dress in the first ad. I think I need one--and the hat, too.

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  3. Thanks for sticking up for Crimp- just as with everything there are good and bad examples, but it's great for the structure of 60s and 70s stuff. You can't get the 'look' without it. Oh, and it's WARM.

    I find that polycottons and poly blends from the 50s are more common with American brands, I guess they were more affluent and buying more immediately post war than us.

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I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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