Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Polyester in American Quilts

Polyester is an important part of American quiltmaking tradition. It was one of the most widely available fabrics during the great American quiltmaking revival of the 1970s, and the legacy of quilts is truly remarkable. 

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.

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.

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. The fabric was wrinkle resistant and did not stretch or pucker when washed. Dacron was touted as a wonder fiber. 

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. 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.

DayGlo fabric was another technical innovation of the period. 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 ofto 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.

Students of American quilt history cannot deny the importance of polyester, particularly during the 1970s. Now that the period is nearly half a century in the past, it is time to bring out the quilts, study and celebrate them.


  1. I am not sure I agree that polyester is an important part of American quiltmaking tradition. The scores of polyester quilts you have are fabulous design - you do have a great eye - not sure they would be used to keep the kids warm - they scratch after all. I do know that there was no polyester in the house where I grew up. Family or properly - mother - like natural fabrics.

  2. These quilts are so vibrant! I agree that it's time to discard the negative connotations of polyester and learn to see these historical pieces as the great quilts they are.

  3. I keep admiring this one. It's about 30 minutes from me.