In 2021, polyester represented over 52% of the world’s fiber production[i], meaning that to this day, one in two textile articles is mainly composed of this synthetic fiber. For a fiber patented as late as 1941 by English chemists John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson[ii], its’ quite the feat. Yet how did polyester invade our wardrobes in such a drastic way?
One thing is certain, things have not always been this way. When polyester first appeared on the market in the 60s, it represented freedom. Easily dyed and cheap to make, it pleased both manufacturers and consumers. Thanks to the easy maintenance, light weight, and the fact it doesn’t wrinkle, polyester represented novelty. A few decades later, the honeymoon phase was over, and people realised that the fabric is not resilient, doesn't breath and pills over time, leading to a decline in popularity and ultimately to a market crash.
Credit photo : Morgane Clément Gagnon
To face this issue, manufacturers switched targets. Rather than targeting women's fashion, efforts were invested in research and development to make polyester the number one performance fabric. During this time, sports were becoming a key element in western cultures, making it easy to impose polyester as the best fabric for running, outdoor and winter apparel.
It all started with Mary Ellen Smith, a Patagonia employee in the 80s who set off to find industrials and scientists to create fabric that would easily upgrade the company’s products. The enterprise Malden Mills answered her call by creating the famous Polar Fleece, a comfortable, warm fabric, brushed on both sides that doesn’t retain humidity. This new polyester alternative remains light, as opposed to wool that gets heavy with humidity. This fabric led to the iconic Patagonia color-block fleece.
Credit photo : Charles Deloye
The second major accomplishment is the creation of tighter clothes that hug the body without retaining sweat. To achieve this, the company turns to Milliken & Co to develop a treatment that evacuates body heat rather than absorbing it into the fabric.
A few years later, it's Nike's turn to invest a few thousands of dollars to find the perfect fabric for sport t-shirts. With the birth of sportswear, polyester started invading the market in the early 2000s, and remains in the lead to this day (to our dismay).
Crédit photo : Patrick Hendry
It’s fascinating to see how investing in research and development can lead to profound changes in how we consume. Therefore, it’s crucial that we keep investing in creating fabrics that are both high-performance, sustainable, and eco-friendly. We need not look too far behind us to see how things can change quickly by investing time and money. At Montloup, we choose to reinvest the previous years’ profits into research. Obviously, we do not pull the same weight as Patagonia or Nike, our investments are at the scale of our company. History demonstrates that research can take years to lead to a viable outcome. It all starts from a theory and the hope to create an interesting but also appealing fabric. In this article, we also wanted to present you the results of some of our own past research.
#1 Our research with hemp fiber. Ever since kicking off our business, we’ve tried different fabrics that you can find in the Hemp section of our website.
To make these tests, we invested in an important quantity of fiber, and our research has been ongoing for over three years. Some of our styles are very conclusive such as our 70% organic cotton 30% hemp polar, but we’re still working on developing a jersey fabric that would be both comfortable, affordable, and easily produced in large quantities.
#2 Our Sherpa polar. Speaking of Patagonia staples, last year, we attempted to develop 100% organic cotton polar fleece. The third attempt was conclusive and left us quite proud! The result was both comfortable and durable. However, to add a more thermal component to our fabric, we will do further tests with a small percentage of Rambouillet wool from the United-States. This fabric does aim to replace polyester in high-performance clothing, but rather for everyday outdoor wear. Let’s be real, although some innovations are essential for high-level athletes, they aren’t necessarily essential for most of us. Most people don’t hike up Mount Everest every weekend!
#3 Our velvet. You’ve been asking us for so long! The result is far from perfect, but we’re getting there. Long story short, a lot of velvet was produced in Montreal up until 2016, where the last velvet maker abandoned this type of finish for lack of demand. Our velvet V40BCPBC was finished by a new partner who was willing to try it. The backing still needs improving, and the fabric is a little too light, but we’re still happy with the result!
Virginia Postrel's article : https://www.worksinprogress.co/issue/how-polyester-bounced-back/