Polyester suffers from an image problem. Mention its name to people and they often have a negative reaction, as synthetic fabrics are still thought of as uncomfortable and unfashionable. However, polyester is actually one of the most exciting and versatile fibres available to clothing designers today. In Nylon: The Manmade Fashion Revolution, Susannah Handley charts the journey of polyester from when the first test tube filament was made by Calico Printers Association in Accrington, in 1941. They sold the rights to Du Pont (who branded it Dacron) and ICI (branded Terylene) in 1946. British wartime clothing restrictions were lifted in 1952 and that was when the production of Terylene clothing really took off in Britain. In the 50s and 60s, people couldn’t get enough of these fashionable new synthetic fabrics but, after a downturn in popularity in the late 70s, polyester and nylon became deeply uncool. The 80s saw a return to natural fibres as being more desirable and, despite developments in textile technology which greatly improved the quality of yarn that could be produced, many people continue to view synthetics as fabrics that would be uncomfortable to wear.
However, you might be surprised at just how much polyester clothing is in your wardrobe… and not just the cheap stuff either. The luxurious skirt in the catwalk image above is made from 60% polyester. The lace edged skirt in the image on the left is 64% polyester. It can be made in to good quality suiting that resembles wool, slinky satins that resemble silk, and fine quality jersey fabrics that drape beautifully and are super soft to the touch. Polyester blends well with a multitude of other useful textile fibres – including wool, cotton, acrylic, viscose and elastane – bringing its unique properties into the mix. Polyester fabrics are durable and relatively crease resistant, depending on the weave (you may own poly/cotton shirts or bedding), plus they also hold colour extremely well.
The really exciting part of polyester’s history came when Japanese textile companies developed microfibres in the 1980s. As Handley points out in her book, these were “not a new form of fibre but marked a new technological process for producing ultra-fine fibres that are extruded to 0.1 decitex in diameter, at least 60 times finer than a human hair. […] when microfibres are knitted or woven together they can rival all the high-touch qualities of natural materials” (p. 140). Finally synthetics became ‘breathable’ and the microfibre versions of nylon (Tactel) and viscose (Tencel), launched by Du Pont and Courtaulds respectively, were so soft to the touch that they have been used extensively in the production of underwear ever since. So, next time someone mentions polyester as a thing of the past, please get them to update their facts… and their wardrobe!
Images via Topshop Unique.