Polyester fabric – World War II and the invention of polyester

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red sports polyester shirt - polyester fabric

Polyester fabric: a polyester shirt

Who invented polyester fabric?

The British scientists John Whinfield and James Dickson first invented polyester cloth in 1941 in England. World War II had made it hard to get cotton, and British people needed clothes to wear! After World War II was over, in 1945, the United States company DuPont bought the right to make polyester. By 1950 a factory in Delaware was actually making polyester fabric.

What is polyester made of?

People make polyester out of oil. You take the oil, which is a kind of very big hydrocarbon molecule, and break it down into two smaller molecules, ethylene glycol and dimethyl naphthalate. Both of these molecules are still made entirely of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen atoms. Dimethyl terephthalate is an ester, and ethylene glycol is a kind of alcohol. When you mix the ester and the alcohol together, they form molecules with both positive and negative charges. The charges force the molecules to line up in chains of crystals that hold together as long fibers.


Recycling plastic bottles into polyester fabric

This polymerized material comes out of the machine in long ribbons, and you cut the ribbons into little chips and let them harden. Then you melt the chips again and push the goo out through little holes to make thinner ribbons, and wind the thinner ribbons around spools.

Then you heat the thinner ribbons and stretch them out to about five times their original length, to make them thin enough to use as thread to weave cloth. This seems complicated but it’s actually less work than growing cotton and picking it and then spinning the cotton into thread.

Since the 1960s, polyester has been the cheapest kind of cloth. Almost half of all the world’s clothing is made of polyester. You are probably familiar with polyester fabric mainly from team shirts like for soccer or basketball.

Because we make polyester out of oil, polyester clothing will get more expensive as we run out of oil and oil gets more expensive.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about polyester fabric? Got more questions? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: find some polyester clothing (in a store or your closet) and check it out.

More about oil

Cotton cloth
Linen
Wool
Silk

Bibliography and further reading about polyester fabric:

Silk
Wool
Linen
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By |2018-01-02T16:10:10+00:00June 8th, 2017|Clothing, Modern Europe|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Polyester fabric – World War II and the invention of polyester. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 8, 2017. Web. December 12, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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