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May 21, 2010

Polyester on Parade

I admit it:  I used to own a pair of polyester Levi's (and my walls were purple).  I bought them at the thrift store.  I never wore them out of the house; OK, maybe once.  They were incredibly uncomfortable but they did flatter.  I think I sold them on eBay -- for real money too.

Many people find polyester hot.  On many levels.  The secret is in the petroleum.

So, Cathy was over yesterday and she tried on TED.  She liked it.

But she wasn't so excited when I told her it was made of polyester.  This despite its fantastic drape:

And flattering cling:

Let's face it:  as with so many things petrochemical, we Americans have a love/hate relationship with polyester.   It's convenient, easy-care!  But it's made from petroleum, the stuff coating the Louisiana coastline as we speak.

I don't think I wore anything but synthetics or synthetic blends growing up.  No matter what natural fiber it was masquerading as, it was always polyester or acrylic (another miracle fiber made from petroleum derivatives).

I remember a particular light blue dress shirt (part of our glee club uniform) I owned, made of Qiana.  Surely you remember QianaEveryone was wearing it in the early Seventies.

Qiana was silky and considered very sensual.  I wore it because you could rinse it in the sink and it would dry in an hour and because my mother bought it for me.

It's easy to forget how revolutionary synthetics were in the Sixties and Seventies.  Synthetics meant leisure (and leisure suits).  They promised no more ironing.  Colors that didn't fade.  Easy stain removal.  Clothing that was indestructible.  Probably every polyester garment discarded in the last forty years is still off-gassing in some landfill somewhere.

It wasn't until the Eighties, the waning years of the disco era, that polyester came to be associated with all things cheap.  The word synthetic took on a derogatory meaning.  Kids, it used to mean progress -- a future full of hope and possibility, slacks "pressed for life!"  Vouch for me, middle-agers!

Today, the only synthetics I wear are sports gear made of polyester (and friends) rebranded as "Synchilla," "Microfiber," and "ClimaLite."

Since I started sewing and buying fabric, I've developed a new relationship with synthetics, polyester in particular.  It's cheap.  It's colorful.  I like it.  So it doesn't hold a crease easily and it smells bad when you sweat.  I'm an American.  I want my polyester.  And I don't want to pay more than $2/yard for it.

Readers, how do you feel about polyester?  Love?  Hate?  Something in-between?

Do you have any vintage polyester memories you wish to share, any poly-related trauma you'd like to unburden yourself of?   You'll feel better, I assure you -- lighter.

Loyal readers, it's time to expose your real synthetic selves!


  1. I use poly/cotton blends quite often. Especially for kids' clothes. And it is because, as you've said, it's easy, cheap, and readily available. I can get a nice poly/cotton print at Wal-Mart for $1.50 or $2.00 a yard. It won't require my SIL to iron it so much, which is a good thing considering how much she hates ironing. Don't get me wrong, it's not all I use, but I do used some of it....

  2. Hmm. Am I the only person who honestly does not care about fiber content? I have some things that are natural fibers, but I bought them for other reasons--I liked the cut or the print or whatever.


  3. Tee hee - so many Hunky blokes in one blog! Is that a young Peter there? Like Laura - I do like blends. If it is a great print and 100% poly then I buy it anyway, Fabric Tart that I am, and consider it a "knock around" dress (as my mum used to call it).

    I have been saved of late with the thrift store purchase of a real silk slip. As ironic as it sounds, it does stop the polyester clinging to your stockings

  4. I try and buy natural fibers myself. I've passed over many fabrics that I liked the look of if I saw they were polyester. Does this make me a fabric snob?

    Still, I do occassionally but rarely buy polyester--it depends on the season. I wear some polyester in the winter when I'm trying to stay warm but never in the summer. I buy cotton and linens mostly for summer. It gets miserably hot and humid down here and this isn't even the Deep South. I would wither away and die in polyester.

    Polyester has changed since the 70's--compare the knits from then to the ones now. Much improved.

    It's terrible to think of all the leisure suits mouldering away for decades in landfills.
    Who knew they would have such an environmental impact.

  5. My bridesmaids wore Quiona dresses in 1979. Recently I was having dinner with one of them at her house and she excused herself from the table and came back wearing it. I laughed till I cried. GAWD!! Pink, Lace and Quiona what a sight.

    I started dating a real cute guy in high school (all the girls were after him) but when he wore a leisure suit (I think it was some kind of green color) to our homecoming, I broke up with him. I was a snob about certain things and leisure suits were one of them. I also broke up with a long term boyfriend when he bought an El Camino (that was green too now that I think of it).

  6. I prefer natural fibers but I definitely buy/wear poly knits. But there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones are comfortable to wear. The bad ones suffocate. There are lots of poly woven prints (Joann's Silkies!) that I would never buy because they are a major PITA to sew and you will fight the fabric the whole way.

  7. In the mid seventies, I had a red polyester "pantsuit" (i.e., zipper front jacket and elastic waist pants). The first day I wore it to school my fashionable friend (a year older) told me I looked like a giant pimento. I never wore the suit again, and that was pretty much the end of polyester for me!

  8. I have to admit to being a snob towards polyester.
    For me it's because it is so horribly hot. Last summer, I made a top from a piece of poly. I caved to this fabric because I loved the color.
    I wore it for an hour. I was so incredibly hot and uncomfortable and at one point thought I was going to faint. Up to that point I had not worn poly in years and soon remembered why. Never again will a pretty color suck me in.
    Back in the day I made Quina bridesmaids dresses for my sisters wedding. Yellow. Awful.

  9. Oh come one, El Caminos were cool :) My dad had one, a Super Sport, until a few years ago and it was in pristine condition.
    Of course I am old enough to have worn polyester double knits, of course, my mom did. I like broadcloths, etc., that have some poly and love the rayon double knits that are so soft, stable and easily sewn, those are part poly. I am not a fabric snob, so I don't mind them. In fact most of my RTW shirts are part poly knits, I rarely wear all cotton or all ___.

  10. One more! My geometry teacher was also a coach. He was the first guy to wear Qiana. He was ripped and I think that's why he like it. You could practically count his six-pack through it. Which is pretty much all we did in geometry class that year!

  11. alright, i've lurked long enough (love your blog!).

    Qiana is bringing me out of the comment closet ;) I graduated High School in 1978 (sunday is my 50th birthday - ack!). My graduation dress was a yummy qiana halter dress confection in rose pink that i wore with mirrored silver platform shoes. While I wouldn't kill to wear the dress again, i would kill to have my 18 year old body - and the shoes!

  12. Menopausal woman here. Polyester! Are you kidding me? For me it is like wearing a green garbage bag. I only wear it when I get paid to, and even then I whine and snivel and complain constantly until someone changes the rules and I can wear my own handmade garment made from cotton! Natural fibers only for me.

  13. Polyester is so ubiquitous it's hard to avoid. But I'm trying very hard to wean myself off of the stuff in favour of natural fibres. I liken it to the choice between eating fresh, real food that is a little more expensive, but so much better than living on potato chips and pepsi, no?

  14. I 'ran away' from home when I was 7 because I was forced to wear a pink paisley polyester dress on a hot July day. I cried my eyes out on the field at the back of our house until an old lady came out and took me home. I was too embarrassed to say I was crying over the dress because the one she was wearing was - in my 7 year old opinion - quite disgusting and also similar to the one I had on. She was very concerned - I think she thought I'd been subjected to a very different trauma to the one I'd actually been through. I don't always know the content of the knits I use but I imagine polyester creeps in somehow. If a fabric looks scratchy / like it'll make me sweat / would melt on my skin if I sat too close to a radiator, I avoid it. BTW - for any mothers out there, never force your child to wear anything they have a strong reaction against - they'll never forget, and probably won't forgive you either!!

  15. I rarely purchase synthetic wovens, but most of my knits are polyester. Rayon knit pills, cotton knit looks juvenile and doesn't hold its shape, wool jersey is expensive and seasonally limited (and doesn't come in prints, usually), and silk jersey is a little out of my price range!

  16. I tend to like blends better, but it really comes down to feel and look. I mostly sew for my girls, and cotton quilting prints tend to be what I use.

    But my oldest is getting to an age where I think more about drape and texture, rather than just "cute" prints and colors. And for myself, it really comes down to price and how the fabric feels and drapes.

    As a side note, my great-grandmother lost her sight to macular degeneration in the 1970's. She had always sewn and quilted. She still did some simple quilting, but took up a new hobby: braided, rag rugs. Her fabric of choice? Double-knit polyester. For real. Those suckers were rough and ugly (in all their groovy colors), but the texture of the fabric was easy for her to feel and hold onto.

  17. Hold your horses! Quiana shirts and Angel Flight pants! I recall a hideous polyester pant suit my mother made or bought for me in early day-glo red-orange. I would try to stand such that it wouldn't touch my skin - ewww. If you stared at it, when you looked away it altered the color of everything else. She had such good taste, I don't understand what she was thinking.

    I like some of the modern blends for the same reason Slapdash does. Silk knits are wonderful but oh so expensive.

  18. As a vegan I could approach polyester one of two ways: 1) yay, no animal fiber or 2) yuck, bad for the environment. I just happen not to like it so I go with #2.

  19. We had a big hill in our yard and we would take a long piece of cardboard and slide down the hill. I burned a hole in the knee of my navy, polyester double knit pants so my mom sewed a strawberry applique on so I could still wear them to school! What can I say, I was too young to care.

    I also made a beautiful, chocolate brown, Qiana cowl neck top when I was, hmmm, it must have been junior high because I still had braces. I loved that top!

    I try to stick with natural fibers for the summer because of the heat factor but I don't consider myself a fiber snob. I have 2 small children, easy is good!

  20. I stay away from polyester because it's so annoying to work with, usually has an ugly texture, has too much static clings, and is HOT. I go to the fabric store (Joann's, Hancock's) and see TONS of polyester and wonder who on EARTH is buying it. I live in TEXAS, man! How anyone can bear to have that stuff on their bodies for eight months of the year is beyond me. I go for linen and cotton.

    But I'll fess up to choosing blends sometimes. I am allergic to wool and it's hard to find good, drapey stuff suitable for dress pants. But that's my limit.

    I remember being in elementary school in 1969 or so and a girl in my class wore these loud Qiana blouses all the time because her dad designed the prints for them. I think he thought he was Peter Max or something. They made her look like a housewife. The stuff in the 70s was so awful. When society begins to sanction leisure suits and plaid pants, you know it’s about to crumble. And it did, too. Look what happened: disco!

  21. that first picture made my frelling day!

    I try not to buy synthetics when I can because I am a snob. I find it harder to work with and my work in a dance company costume shop where they never use synthetics except when it comes to spandex has also biased me. I may occasionally make an exception for a blend. I have a rayon/ poly blend and the drape is dreamy but i chalk that up to the rayon more than the poly.

    I do have a soft spot for the poly disco wear I sometimes see in vintage shops. Because if one is going to do polyester, one should DO polyester.

  22. no no no! No synthetics for me....(well except for gym clothes and the like)

    I get WAY overheated very easily, so anything synthetic is pretty much out,

    Heck, I tend to wear sleeveless shirts in the winter, walk around with my coat open, and can't wear even a mock turtleneck!

  23. Menopausal.
    Polyester- yes. The newer methods for spinning yarns are significantly different than they were in the 70s. Anyone here paid good money for UnderArmour or Nike's Dri-Fit? You will when you try to sleep in soggy cotton pjs after your first night-time hot flash. Close to the body, wicking garments made of --POLYESTER will be your clothing of choice.
    Dismissing it wholesale is like dismissing vegetables because you don't like broccoli...

  24. Seeing as I am not a fan of ironing, most of my workclothes are synthetic fibres (wash and hang to dry). The heat factor people complain about suprises me, Aircon is so standard these days in our houses, cars and public buildings that the heat trapping ability of polyester barely registers, but then I've been known to wear denim jeans in a heat wave. I also have long, thick curly hair so I'm used to dealing with trapped heat/stickiness etc from the weight of my hair in summer. I guess you build up a tolerance to these things. I do like natural fibres but see positives with polyester too - it's easy care and comes in pretty prints.

  25. "The Slapdash Sewist said...

    I rarely purchase synthetic wovens, but most of my knits are polyester. Rayon knit pills, cotton knit looks juvenile and doesn't hold its shape,"

    Trena - you need to shop somewhere else! LOL! Good rayon knits (vs. cheap/icky) are dee-vine and do not pill. Cotton knits with a touch of Lycra are for adults and do hold their shape wonderfully. ;-) I just wish they were more readily available in trendy prints. When I do see them, I snatch them up in 5 yard lengths.

  26. Actually, polyester is not so bad environmentally compared to cotton. It depends upon how you launder them. But you have to remember that cotton requires a huge amount of petrochemical inputs in the form of fertilizer and pesticides. Organic cotton requires a huge amount of labor, and much tilling, which results in topsoil loss.

    I've visited this topic in:

  27. Most of my childhood fabric traumas were of the printed corduroy variety, so I still sew with polyester on occasion.

  28. Great comments, everyone.

    And I can see "TED" had quite an impact...

  29. I hate hate hate synthetics. I've sewn with microfiber once (didn't like it) and synthetic velvet once (loved it). I think I lined something in synthetic once or twice, but I lined my wedding dress in silk. 100%

    my mom is allergic to wool so she thought she being really nice never getting us anything wool. I was dumbfonded when I discovered how absolutely wonderful wool is!

    Nothing worse than staying somewhere with blended sheets. Ick ick ick.

  30. I'm not above using a blend that contains polyester, because it certainly does make garment care easier, but 100% polyester? Ugh! It doesn't breathe at all, and I live in a very humid climate. I prefer fibers that don't feel like plastic and don't put me in danger if I'm near an open flame.

  31. I made a fabulous yellow Qiana blouse back in the day (a Marlo Thomas for McCalls). Qiana was actually nylon, in the interest of pure notstalgic accuracy.

    I think the "new" polyester knits are a little more comfortable than the old product. I'm 53, and boy is the heat an issue all of a sudden. ;-)

    Nowadays, all your "technical" fabric is polyester, including our beloved Polar Fleece.

  32. I hate polyester because it holds odors so well... there's nothing worse than washing something to find that it is still smelly, no matter what you do! Some polyesters are awful to sew with because they won't hold a crease. Having said that, I've sewn with polyester, and I'm sure I will sew again. Blends are fine with me, and occasionally I will be unable to resist the allure of a pretty fabric.

  33. I have worn my share of polyester. Mom was sewing with it quite a bit in the '70s. BTW, I want to find and share with you a photo of mom wearing the TED dress she made from that pattern back in the day. She did the floor length in pink with a silver fleck (poly, of course). In the photo, she's standing next to Dad, who's wearing the red polyester suit she had made for him. She was quite the seamstress/tailor. Hopefully, I'll dig it up this weekend.

  34. Your memories are hilarious. Thank goodness I don't remember the 70's like that.

    Years ago I made the conscious decision to no longer acquire synthetic fabric clothing. It's bad for my skin.

  35. I avoid polyester as much as possible, but sometimes a gorgeous print or pretty colour combination will lure me in! My biggest issue is the sweaty factor, I don't like worrying about whether my polyester smells good or not! Though, the easy-care factor helps. No ironing required!
    Your TED is looking very swishy! Love the twirl photo :)

  36. I had a Qiana formal in college and it was awesome. Great drape, sexy, and washable! I had that thing for years, and later on it made a great Halloween costume! Some poly is better than others, so yes, I do sew/wear it from time to time.

    BTW, great video. That guy has an amazing "porn stache." I can't believe how people dressed in the 70s, even though I was there!!

  37. Back when I was a wee lass in the mid 70's I had a totally groovy green poly 3 piece set out of the Sears catalog, it was comprised of 1) pleated short skirt 2) vest 3) BELL BOTTOM pants. I loved them ~ I always felt just smashing in them.

  38. I'm at the age when my inner child plays with matches. And I live in the tropics. Polyester is impossible.

  39. I'm with Sophie Miriam way up at the beginning of the comments. I don't care about fibre content. If I like a print, I usually buy it. I get sucked in by the colours every time. I don't spend the same amount of time and care on a $2 a metre fabric as I do on a $20 a metre silk but there is definitely a place in my wardrobe for $2 poly jersey prints. They might only last a season, but who cares? I had fun while they lasted. You may be amused to learn that last year I made my partner a bright yellow polyester safari suit, not unlike the one in the picture above. He chose the fabric, the colour and the pattern. I can even show you a picture ...

  40. Oh if only synthetics could become a far away nightmare. Here in Colombia there is no other option. But the names for all the types of fabric are unintelligible for me. One because they are names of chemicals I'm sure and secondly because they are in Spanish which I'll never quite get the hang of. Going back to the states and France for a month and I'll have to do my share of shopping.

  41. I do remember Qiana. I bought myfirst really nice machine partly based on its abiity to sew Qiana. I used some synthetic knits in the 70s, but have always preferred natural fibers.

    However we did have plenty of synthetics in the fifties and early sixties. Anyone remember ban-lon sweaters? Or nylon blouses? I think the stuff we had then was not very good in the long run, but it was there. We also had acrylic sweaters I believe. Our family bought down market and I think most of my sweaters were acrylic. And if I happened to get a wool sweater, my mom probably shrank it in the washer.

  42. I remember going through some baby/toddler clothes of mine that my mother kept for sentimental reasons and there it was... an orange polyester bell bottom pants suit. Not only was it burnt orange, it had farm animals printed around the yoke (yes, a yoke). It was so 70s and so Old MacDonald.

    Of course I was horrified that she dressed me in this burnt orange getup, but she was also adamant that I looked adorable in it!

    I do enjoy some of the vintage polyester prints and would love to find some for only $2 a yard! With new yardage I try to keep to natural fibers.

  43. With a few exceptions, like tights, I won't wear things with polyester or other synthetic materials in it. I live in Arizona where it's bad enough sweating in cotton.

  44. I love blends that contain synthetic fibres. But 100% synthetic? Ohhh no! I easily sweat and I´d be smelly fast!

  45. What people forget now is the time saving involved in drip dry mens dress shirts once synthetic fibers came along. A lot of wives sent their husbands shirts to the chinese laundry to get out of washing & ironing them (they were hard to iron).


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