Saturday, February 28, 2015

Polyester, the wonder fiber

Textiles are big part of researching the quilts of the 1970s. Polyester, most often associated with uncomfortable, outdated garments such as double knit leisure suits, was prevalent throughout the period. Its popularity in garments spanned middle of the 20th century, into the 1970s, but faded with an increasing demand for cotton, "the fabric of our lives".

the three quilts in the center of this display are all polyester
The development of polyester began around 1930 with Wallace Carothers of DuPont. Carothers was also experimenting with nylon, and DuPont pursued the invention of nylon prior to polyester. That circumstance was likely due to the instability of polyester, which in its early stages of development would revert back to a solution state rather than producing a stable fiber.

Generally speaking, polyester fabrics appear in quilts of the 1960s and 1970s, but especially the 1970s because many people wore the garments in the 1960s and later repurposed them. Quilts were made new with all polyester double knit fabrics, which were more readily available than good quilting cottons. The patriotic polyester pop art "Grandmother's Fans" quilt displayed last week at QuiltCon was a great example of a quilt made from newly purchased fabrics.

patriotic polyester pop art - fabrics purchased new for the quilt
If you come across a handmade quilt made with polyester material, it is likely to be from this period, and if you see DayGlo, it is likely from the middle 1960s or later. DayGlo, like polyester, has a very interesting history.

DayGlo fabric, upper right-hand block
Research about polyester and polyester quilts has now begun, whether or not the world is ready. These domestic objects made by everyday women and probably a few men, represent a narrow and very specific period in history; and they connect clearly with the work being done today. When the science behind the remarkably colorfast fabric is revealed, as well as the cultural factors contributing to a surge in the popularity of quiltmaking in America, the polyester quilts of the period are clearly more than just flashes of color. 


  1. Please Bill, go to primary sources who actually made the quilts you are writing about. I do not see the history of these quilts in the same way as you do. And in the Midwest we did not begin to purchase 100% polyester in large quantities before 1969. The primary sources are still alive in some instances so seek them out.

    1. Thank you for the comments. If you continue reading my materials, you will see there is plenty of primary research. This is a blog post, not a research article. If you would like to read a research article, there will be one coming soon in Blanket Statements.