In 1929 Wallace Carothers, a researcher at DuPont, published an article describing his creation of polyester. DuPont obtained patents on this early form of polyester in 1931. Facing problems with this material, DuPont did not begin commercialization of it at that time, choosing instead to concentrate on the development of nylon. In the 1940s English researchers at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) developed the first practical version of polyester. It was made by combining ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid into polyethylene terephthalate (PET). DuPont bought the rights to PET in 1945 and began commercial production of Dacron polyester in 1953.
The Federal Trade Commission defines polyester as "a manufactured fiber in which the fiber-forming substance is any long-chain synthetic polymer composed of at least 85 percent by weight of an ester of a substituted aromatic carboxylic acid, including but not restricted to substituted terephthalic units, p(-R-O-CO-C6H4-CO-O-)x and parasubstituted hydroxyl-benzoate units, p(-R-O-CO-C6H4-O-)x" (Collier and Tortor, p. 179). The polyester most commonly used for fibers is PET.
Properties of Polyester
To the average consumer, who is not a chemist, polyester is an extraordinary fiber with many desirable properties. Polyester is strong, both dry and wet. It is considered to be easy-care since it can be washed, dried quickly, and resists wrinkling. It holds up well in use because it has high resistance to stretching, shrinking, most chemicals, abrasion, mildew, and moths.
As with all fibers, polyester has some properties that are not desirable. While resistant to water-born stains, polyester is an oil scavenger. Due to its strength, polyester, particularly when cut into short staple lengths, does form pills (becomes rough with little balls). Polyester will burn with a strong odor and the molten residue can cause severe burns to the skin. Because polyester has low absorbency, it can become uncomfortable in hot weather. This problem has been addressed by making polyester fibers with multilobal cross sections (as opposed to round ones). Since the multilobal fibers cannot pack together as tightly as round ones, perspiration can be wicked (carried on the surface of the fibers) away from the body, thereby improving the wearer's comfort.
Care of Polyester
Polyester is often blended with other fibers that require different care procedures. For this reason care procedures may vary across fabrics.
For 100 percent polyester fabrics, oily stains should be removed before washing. Generally they can be machine washed on a warm or cold setting using a gentle cycle. They can be tumble dried on a low setting and should be removed from the dryer as soon as the cycle is completed. Garments should immediately be either hung on hangers or folded. When handled in this way, fabrics made from 100 percent polyester rarely need ironing. If a touch-up is needed, it should be done at a moderate temperature on the wrong side of the fabric.
Some garments made from polyester or polyester blends may require dry cleaning. Tailored garments with multiple components, such as suits, may need to be drycleaned. It is important to follow care instructions and not assume that dry cleaning is better than washing. Pigment prints on polyester should not be dry cleaned, as the solvent would dissolve the adhesive that holds the pigment on the surface of the fabric.
When polyester first reached the market in the 1950s, it was hailed as a wonder fiber. Travelers could wash a garment, hang it up, and have it ready to wear in a couple of hours. It needed no ironing.
By the late 1960s, polyester's image was very different. Polyester leisure suits for men and polyester double knit pantsuits for women were embraced by the middle-aged and elderly. College students, on the other hand, hated polyester. In the 1970s they even referred to it as the "P" curse. They perceived it as cheap and certainly not "with it."
To combat this image, the Tennessee Eastman Company launched a "polyester" campaign to revive its image. The Man-Made Fiber Producers Association, which became the Manufactured Fiber Producers Association- Polyester Fashion Council, launched its own campaign. Both groups focused on polyester's easy-care properties instead of its cheapness. In 1984 the Man-Made Fiber Producer's Association and the Council of Fashion Designers endorsed collections made almost exclusively of polyester or polyester blends. Well-known designers, like Oscar de la Renta, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, and Mary McFadden, participated. Such publicity helped a little.
Probably a more important contributor to the improved image of polyester has been the technological advances made by the producers. High-tech fibers made of polyester have revolutionized the active sportswear market. Polyester microfibers are used to make fabric that feels like silk. Recycled PET polyester from soda bottles is transformed into comfortable fleece, thereby appealing to those concerned with the environment.
Uses of Polyester
Polyester could be called the tofu of manufactured fibers since its appearance takes on many forms. Depending upon the actual manufacturing process, polyester can resemble silk, cotton, linen, or wool. When blended with other fibers, polyester takes on even more forms, combining the good qualities of each contributing fiber. Polyester is also the most-used manufactured fiber. The DuPont company estimates that the 17.7 million metric tons consumed worldwide in 1995 will rise to almost 40 million metric tons by 2005.
Apparel Uses of Polyester
Polyester is used for all kinds of apparel, by itself and in blends. It is found in every type of clothing, from loungewear to formal eveningwear. Some common blends include polyester and cotton for shirts and polyester, and wool for suits. Polyester contributes easy-care properties to both of those blends while cotton and wool provide comfort. Another use of polyester fiber is found inside some garments. A ski jacket with hollow polyester fibers used between the outer fabric and the lining provides warmth without weight.
Home Furnishings Uses of Polyester
Polyester and polyester blends are used for curtains, draperies, upholstery, wall coverings, and carpets, as well as for bedding. Sheets and pillowcases made from polyester and cotton blends, do not need to be ironed, but they are not quite as comfortable as those made from 100 percent cotton. Carpets made from 100 percent polyester are less expensive than nylon, more apt to get packed down with wear, and allow considerable build-up of static electricity during the dry winter months.
Other Uses of Polyester
Polyester's low absorbency and high strength even when wet make it ideal for umbrellas, tents, and sleeping bags. Some industrial uses of polyester take advantage of the same characteristics. Hence, polyester is used for hoses, tire cords, belts, filter cloth, fishing nets, and ropes. Polyester is used for sewing thread, but thread made of 100 percent polyester tends to heat up and form knots when used in high-speed sewing. Cotton-covered polyester thread eliminates the problem.
Collier, B. J., and P. G. Tortora. Understanding Textiles. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
Humphries, M. Fabric Reference. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.
Polyester Revival. 2004. Available from http://schwartz.eng.auburn.edu/polyester/revival.html .