Wonder Fiber: Polyester in American Quilts

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Polyester is one of the most lamented quilting fabrics of the past, but like it or not, it is part of American quiltmaking tradition. It may not be as rare as the 18th century fabrics made of natural fibers, such as blue resist, cotton chintz or calendered wool, but it is just as important in its own way. Polyester was widely available during the American quiltmaking revival of the 1970s. Millions of Americans learned to quilt with it, and they made remarkably vibrant, enduring objects.

Crazy block quilt with loop edge finish, polyester, unknown maker, Oregon, c. 1975, 40” x 64”

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.

Dresden Fans, polyester, unknown maker, Texas, c. 1975, 82” x 96”

How durable was polyester? 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 was fully incorporated in the fiber, resulting in excellent colorfastness.

“Woven Pattern” polyester, unknown maker, Georgia, c. 1975, 76” x 92”

In the 1970s, the growing interest in quiltmaking inspired people to make quilts using what was available. The popularity of polyester double knit garments began to decline around the same time. Quilting cottons were scarce, but calico print fabrics used for making clothing started to appear in quilts. Mostly, there was polyester.

Because of polyester, the quilts of the 1970s may be the first generation of vintage quilts to retain all their original color, giving historians a very clear idea of what they looked like when they were made.

A wonderful example is “Woven Pattern” made by an unknown maker in Georgia. The quilt includes a modern hexagon design and is tied with multicolored yarn. It is in the book “Modern Quilts: Designs of the New Century” and part of the exhibition of the same name, on display at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington through August 25, 2019.

Volckening1.jpg, Half-square triangles & squares, c. 1970, polyester, unknown maker, Michigan, 84” x 100”

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.

Bill Volckening is a quilt collector who lives in Portland, Oregon. He started collecting 30 years ago, and his collection includes more than 500 examples made between 1760 and the present day. Quilts from his collection have been featured in exhibitions and publications worldwide.