Saturday, May 27, 2017

Collecting Polyester Quilts

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Blanket Statements, newsletter of the American Quilt Study Group. In some ways, it was a shout out to future generations. It documented a moment in time when we began to see things change. I was never sure if anyone actually read the article, but it seems relevant today. So, here it is!


Collecting Polyester Quilts
By Bill Volckening

Quilts of the 1970s are beginning to surface, and many of them 
are made with polyester double
knit materials. Polyester is often unfavorably viewed—scratchy, cheap, and the fabric of outdated garments such as leisure suits. However, the domestically made quilts are strangely appealing. They are innovative, extremely vibrant, and they represent an important period in American quiltmaking.

Figure 1: Nine Patch, unknown maker, c. 1970, 
Found in Washington state, 84 x 74 inches. 
All photos by Bill Volckening. 
Interest in quilts made between
 1950 and 2000 recently spiked when San Francisco collector and author Roderick Kiracofe published his
 book Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar, 1950-2000. Several objects made with polyester appear in the book, including an orange and blue Nine Patch variation from the Volckening Collection. (1) (See Figure 1)

The quilt came from an eBay seller in Washington state and includes cotton blends and polyester;
 it is backed with a blue and 
white striped bed sheet, tied, and finished with a wide blue binding. Amelia Peck, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art commented on it in her essay “In Dialogue with an Anonymous Quilt.” (2)

“I love this quilt because it reminds me of my childhood,” said Peck. “It’s as simple as that. I’m sure I had a blouse made
 of that orange and blue fabric printed with hexagons when 
I was in the fifth grade. The whole quilt, its color palette and psychedelically distorted nine patch blocks, looks very ‘Mod’ to me—the height of fashion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That was the era when I first became aware of style and fashion. I would have loved this quilt then and I still love it now.” (3)

The polyester formula originated in the writings of Wallace Carothers of DuPont, who is also credited with the invention of nylon in 1935. Carothers worked with a team of chemists around 1930, experimenting with the earliest form of polyester. (4)

At the time, DuPont chose to concentrate on Nylon research. By 1945, British chemical company Imperial Chemical Industries patented Terelene polyester, known in the U.S. as Dacron. DuPont purchased the U.S. rights for further development, and later opened plants in Delaware and North Carolina to produce Dacron. (5)

Figure 2: Tile Block Quilt, unknown maker, c. 1975, Louisiana, 120 x 112 inches. 
This monumental scale quilt is made of brightly colored polyesters. 

In 1951, DuPont showed a suit made of Dacron to 
a group of reporters in New York. The suit was worn
 for more than two months without being pressed. It was dunked in a swimming pool, machine-washed and surprisingly was still wearable. (6) The fabric was wrinkle resistant and did not stretch or pucker when washed. Dacron was touted as a wonder fiber. (7)

Polyester double knit garments were available by 1960, and solution dyed fabrics, also known as dope dyed or spun dyed fabrics, were introduced to polyester production in 1962. (8) 
In the solution dyeing process, the pigment becomes part of the fiber and the resulting fabric has excellent colorfastness.

By the 1970s, the popularity of polyester double knit garments began to decline as cottons were becoming more widely available. Quilting cottons were still scarce, and calico print fabrics used for making clothing started to appear in quilts. However, the growing interest in quiltmaking inspired people to make quilts out of what was available— polyester double knit. Those who wore polyester double knit say it was scratchy, hot in the summer but not warm in the winter, and it held stains. (9)

Figure 3: Crazy Block Quilt, unknown maker, inscribed 
“Aunt Beula, Dora, Margie,” c. 1975, Idaho, 95 x 76 inches. 
This quilt is made of polyester fabrics using mostly raw-edge 
appliqué on cloth foundation.
Despite knowing how colorfast polyester fabrics are, it is still surprising to see the high level of saturation in the quilts. An excellent example is a monumental Tile Block quilt from Louisiana. (See Figure 2) It is made of many solid color fabrics, some with textured surfaces, and the patches are stitched together with black rickrack. The piece is 120 inches by 112 inches, and is exceptionally vibrant. One of the other characteristics of polyester double knit fabric is its resistance to unraveling. A large Crazy Block quilt from Idaho is made mostly with raw-edge applique. (See Figure 3) The patches are outlined with hand stitching, which is mostly decorative.

Sales records maintained by the Volckening Collection from 2010 to 2014 indicate many polyester quilts were available for less than fifty dollars, primarily through eBay, Etsy and local vendors. A masterpiece Hexagon Diamonds quilt found at a thrift store in Oregon was purchased for thirty-five dollars. A thirteen- star American Flag quilt from Florida with a prairie point edge finish, made of cotton and polyester blended fabrics, cost less than ten dollars. The shipping was more expensive than the quilt.

Figure 4: Double Wedding Ring Quilt, unknown maker, polyester, 
c. 1970, Altadena, CA, 90 x 90 inches. 
By 2013, several great quilts appeared in the 250-dollar range, but by the end of the year, there were not as many vintage polyester quilts available. It is not clear if the market slowed because of sellers realizing 
there was a surge in sales, if the available quilts were snapped 
up, or other reasons; around
the same time more than one reputable quilt dealer started offering polyester quilts. In 2014, an outstanding quilt came to the collection from California quilt dealers Julie Silber and Jean Demeter of The Quilt Complex. (10)

The incredibly vibrant Double 
Wedding Ring quilt is mostly
 polyester double knit with a few 
wool patches. (See Figure 4)
 The wool, a bright red fabric,
 deteriorated in places and is
 being replaced with vintage 
polyester double knit fabric purchased through eBay. According to Silber, the quilt came from an African-American estate in Altadena, California, but no additional information was available. A sibling Double Wedding Ring quilt, also sold through The Quilt Complex, is part of the collection of Roderick Kiracofe. (11

One of the intriguing characteristics of the polyester Double Wedding Ring in the Volckening Collection is the inclusion of DayGlo fabric; a fluorescent, greenish-yellow, tennis ball color in the upper right-hand corner block. History from the DayGlo Color Corporation explains the origins and development of the intense, glowing colors.

In the 1930s, Bob and
 Joe Switzer, sons of a 
California pharmacist, began experimentation with colors that would glow under ultraviolet
 or black light. By 1940, they were working on new colors
that glowed in daylight. During the World War II era, DayGlo had military applications, such as signaling aircraft from the ground, ocean buoys and night missions. After the war, there were many more uses for DayGlo color.

“As the chemistry and manufacturing process improved, the areas of application expanded,” according to the DayGlo Color Corporation history. “Advertising, safety and promotional firms began to recognize the uniqueness of these bright colors and specified their use.” The trademarked name DayGlo caught on, and
in the late 1960s, the company officially changed its name from Switzer Brothers, to DayGlo Color Corporation. (12)

Figure 5: Hexagon Diamonds, unknown maker, c. 1970, Oregon, 80 x 78 inches. 
This quilt was plucked from a thrift shop in Tigard, Oregon, for just 35 dollars. 
The late 1960s and early 1970s were characterized as having “shocking color combinations, eye-jarring patterns, and large-scale motifs,” according to Eileen Trestain in Dating Fabrics 2: A Color Guide, 1950-2000. “Acid green, hot pink, tangerine, purple and turquoise could all be used in a paisley or a mod flower print,” said Trestain, who called the colors bright, clear and unmistakable. (13) (See Figure 5)

An informal survey of quilt makers of various age groups indicates the Baby Boomers and earlier generations who wore polyester garments generally were less likely to embrace the quilts than 
quilters from Generation X and later. Award winning New York-based quiltmaker Victoria Findlay Wolfe has a deep appreciation for polyester quilts. Growing up in Minnesota, she slept under polyester quilts her grandmother made.

“They were warm and we grew up in a house with just a wood- burning stove,” said Findlay Wolfe in a 2013 interview in Generation Q Magazine. (14) “So you appreciated how warm Grandma’s quilts kept you on a cold winter night.” Findlay Wolfe, a superstar in the modern quilting world, received Best of Show at QuiltCon 2013 for “Double Edged Love,” a playful, deconstructed Double Wedding Ring quilt. The magazine dubbed her one of the “Double-Knit Twins,” along with the author of this article, for collecting the quilts nobody else wanted. (15)

Polyester quilts of the middle to late twentieth century are unappreciated and undervalued, but they occupy a very important space in American quiltmaking tradition. There was a sharp increase in quiltmaking in the 1970s, influenced by the Bicentennial among other events. Synthetic fibers were new, but these modern materials were the most widely available. Quilt makers continued to show ingenuity, creating beautiful, enduring objects. They had fun, loved what they did, and it shows.

1  Roderick Kiracofe, Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar, 1950-2000 (New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2014), 168-169. 

2  Kiracofe, Unconventional & Unexpected, 38-44. 

3  Kiracofe, Unconventional & Unexpected, 44. 

4  Matthew E. Hermes, Enough for One Lifetime: 

Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon, ( Washington, D.C.: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1996), 103- 134.
5  DuPont, DuPont Heritage Timeline, com, November 2, 2014. 

6  Diane Sustendal, “Men’s Style; Wash It, Wear It,” New York Times, April 28, 1985. 

7  Sue Gardner, “Buying for the Home” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1951. 

8  Eileen Trestain, Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1950- 

2000 (Paducah, K Y: American Quilter’s Society, 2005) 46.
9 Personal interview of Madge Ziegler by Bill Volckening, “Quilting in the 1970s: When Bed Quilts Became Works of Art” American Quilter, May 2013.
10 Auction and sales records maintained by the Volckening Collection, Portland, Oregon, 2010- 2014.
11 Auction and sales records maintained by the Volckening Collection, Portland, Oregon, 2010- 2014.
12 DayGlo Color Corporation,, February 12, 2015.
13 Trestain, Dating Fabrics, A Color Guide 1950-2000, 46.
14 Tracy Mooney, “ The Double-Knit Twins: Collecting the Quilts Nobody Else Wants,” Generation Q Magazine, no. 5 (June-July 2013): 59.
15 Ibid.

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