Polyester is a staple in vintage clothing — we dig into the origin of this synthetic fibre, how we can identify it and the best ways to care for it to reduce its environmental impact
Polyester. Just the mention of the word is enough to elicit a collective cringe from everyone in the room.
Polyester clothing has garnered a reputation for being cheaply made and non breathable.
Is this a fair reaction or is there more to the story of what is now the world’s most widely produced fibre? And with polyester being a main component of hordes of vintage clothing, does it deserve a second look?
You may have heard that polyester is essentially plastic. But how exactly is the plastic we see and use every day in any way connected to the clothes we wear?
Polyester is made from a non-renewable, naturally occurring resource called petroleum.
Millions of years ago, the remains of ancient marine organisms collected on the ocean floor and were compounded under intense heat and pressure from accumulated layers of ocean sediment, producing a carbon-based fuel source referred to as “fossil fuel.”
Petroleum is a fossil fuel that is extracted from the land using drilling rigs. It cannot be replenished.
In order to make polyester, harvested petroleum is then transformed into a compound called ethylene and combined with an acid to create plastic pellets, which are melted down and stretched into long plastic threads.
Various post-production processes can be applied to polyester fibres to give the fabric different colours, textures and patterns.
Polyester was first conceptualized by scientist Wallace Carothers in 1929 and later officially created by British scientists John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson in the early 1940s.
Chemical manufacturer DuPont later bought the rights to polyester and marketed it to the public in 1951 as a wrinkle-, shrink-, mould-, insect-, fade-proof durable fabric ideal for every day use.
Polyester was famously described “a miracle fibre that can be worn for 68 days straight without ironing, and still look presentable.”
Arguably the most quintessential vintage polyester moment is the 1970s “leisure suit.” These suits are characterized by their fitted style, bell bottoms and exaggerated lapels, a la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
A signifier of a true vintage polyester item is the use of double-knit polyester, which Jerry Rosengarten, the American designer credited for inventing the 1970s leisure suit, wanted to showcase in his design.
Unlike single-knit polyester, which is made using a knitting machine with one row of needles, double-knit polyester is produced using two rows of needles set on an angle, with two sets of yarn feeding into the knitting machine.
Two separate pieces of fabric are made and interlocked together to create one single fabric. This process makes double-knit polyester thicker and more stable than single knit polyester.
Aside from the 1970s leisure suit, double-knit polyester was also a popular choice for other structured garments of the ’60s and ’70s such as skirts, shift dresses and women's jackets.
When reading vintage labels, look out for alternative names for polyester such as “crimplene,” “kodel,” “vycron” and “fortrel.” There are also blends of polyester with natural fabrics, such as polynosic, a blend of polyester and rayon.
To identify vintage double-knit polyester, look for the following characteristics:
Despite the functional advantages of polyester clothing, there are significant disadvantages for the environment.
Polyester is not biodegradable, meaning it won’t naturally break down.
Additionally, the polyester production chain is extremely opaque, with petroleum being one of the most difficult raw materials to trace.
Another common concern is microplastics. Every time it is washed, polyester releases minuscule plastic particles, called microplastics, into the water. Washing polyester accounts for 35 per cent of global releases of microplastics into the world's oceans, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Once microplastics filter into the water, they are consumed by aquatic animals, which are then consumed by humans as food.
While there have been some studies that suggest microplastics could be present in our drinking water, the World Health Organization (WHO) found the reliability of these findings to be questionable based on a lack of sufficient quality control.
The WHO has cautioned that consideration must be given to the individual water treatment systems of different area before any broad conclusions can be made.
Despite the environmental impacts of producing polyester, the fact of the matter is that vintage polyester already exists in the world. So how can we make the most of what it has to offer when properly cared for?
Being composed of such a durable fibre, polyester items often need to be replaced less frequently than garments made of natural fibres.
There are also some energy saving pros when it comes to caring for polyester. According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), life cycle assessments completed on polyester products have shown that less energy, water and heat are required to wash it, making it a “low impact care” fibre.
Polyester also has the potential to be infinitely recycled — if producers are willing to make the investment.
Though polyester has acquired a bit of an unsavoury reputation, it has some significant pros, especially when it comes to shopping vintage.
Its high durability, low absorbency and pest-resistant qualities make it an ideal candidate for surviving being stored in damp, dark places — where vintage is often relegated before being discovered decades later by a lucky new owner.
Etsy and eBay are great places to find vintage polyester, but what else should you consider when hunting for your next double-knit piece?
Assess your own fashion habits and lifestyle to pick a piece that will not only last you in durability but that you’ll still want around a year or more from now.
Follow the care instructions on your labels. Wash your polyester items on a delicate cycle with gentle detergent and above all, never wash polyester in hot water or high heat.
Remember, polyester is a type of plastic, so high temperatures will break down the fibres. A warm or cold cycle should always be used.
If possible, wash polyester with other polyester items so the fibres do not rub against rougher fibres like cotton, which can cause pilling. Investing in a fabric comb or shaver is also a good idea to remove any pilling that does occur.
Garments made of polyester blends often have the bonus element of stretch. This is a great way of keeping clothes around longer and accommodating the very normal occurrence of body size fluctuations.
Now go dig up a funky-looking leisure suit and restore it to its former glory!
Grace Andic is a freelance writer and researcher based in Ottawa, Ont.