Return of a fabric

Instant success, total failure and stupendous return -polyester completes the cycle and comes out of oblivion to hit the market once again

Published: Monday 15 July 1996

POLYESTER is back again. And this time it looks much better. After an initial roaring success in the '70s, when this petrochemical based fibre made a stunning impact (and later became embarrassing to wear) on the dressing style, polyester became a cliche, a way to say an archaic dressing sense' or 'sleazy'. But textile engineers did not loose hope. They kept on experimenting with it. New uses emerged. And finally it has become fashionable all over again.

There are several reasons for the resurrection of polyester fabric. Technological developments have turned it into a versatile product that can feel like silk, cotton, fleece or suede, and that insulates as well as breathes. At the same time, hosts of designers and consumers who had earlier thought it to be a dead fibre have rediscovered their love for it.

Polyester has a history that spans little over half-a-century and during the course of its lifetime, it has passed through many hands. It was invented by two chemists in a printing company in Great Britain, acquired and developed by Imperial Chemical Industries in 1941, and then purchased by DuPont Company, which built the first polyester manufacturing plant in Kinston, US, in 1953. But it was not until the '70s when people began appreciating and accepting their desire for double-knits. Says Jeff McGuire, who heads the marketing unit for polyester microfilament at DuPont, "In its heydays, it emerged as one of the most economical fabrics ever created."

But the polyester of the '70s was a thick, unsupple five dpf fibre (dpf stands for denier per foot and is a unit for the measurement of fibres). But today, textile engineers have been able to develop polyester whose filaments are 0.07dpf thick - even fineithan silk. This improved fabric can-be napped into a high pile, and then sheared off into a fleece like texture. It can also be lightly sanded to give it a texture similar to suede or chamois, explains McGuire.

Polyester is a combination of two key compounds - ethylene glycol (also used as an anti-freeze) and polyethylene tetrathalate. These compounds, when subjected to high heat and pressure in presence of a catalyst, produce a polymer that flows like honey at room tem perature and pressure. It is then pumped through very small holes and cooled, the resultant being extremely thin and fine fibres. Manufacturers can pump holes into the fibre to produce insulation and breathability, says Don Lehman, president of North American Polyester Textile Fibres Association.

Textile engineers say the polyester molecule has memory. This means that the pleats and creases that are manufactured into garments, stay put. "Its naturally permanent pressed, lightweight and also has some really fantastic properties," argues Lehman. It is recyclable - some outdoor clothe-makers sell fleece jackets made from polyester recycled from soda bottles combined with virgin polyester. It is also being used increasingly for making carpets, draperies, upholstery and pillows.

"We can meet any challenge today - whether it is trying to make a hi-tech' product for NASA or intimate apparel," says Jim Casey, president of the fibres division of us-based Wellman Inc Yarn and fabric are now made on high-speed, hi-tech equipments using air jets to stretch out yarns and to carry threads back and forth.

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