The enduring legend of polyester quilting
In July 1776, the United States signed the Declaration of Independence, which sparked the War of Independence between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. In 1976, two hundred years later, Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer Company, the movie Rocky was released and Jimmy Carter was elected president. It was also in 1976 that my mother answered her patriotic call and decided to make The Polyester Quilt. She had to make a pact that out of her own polyester-born resilience would last another two hundred years, comforting and pleasing to the family. He does a great job of keeping the pact. It was a patchwork quilt with four-inch squares of red, white, and blue solids or prints with fleeting appearances of tan (to ease the eyes). Her purpose was practical and three-fold: she celebrated American independence and the independence found by female teachers when authorities decided they didn’t have to show their legs daily, freeze on car journeys to commuting to work or the playground and they, like their male counterparts, could wear trousers to work. She also wanted to use her polyester sewing scraps in a functional way.
All the teachers at Gertrude Boase Elementary School in Hoyt Lakes, where the mother taught first grade, went wild over the polyester. Memories of mum, dressed in her pantsuit, getting ready for work in the morning when Engelbert Humperdinck reigned supreme with his records spinning from the stereo hi-fi console run through my head. Teachers were buying or sewing trouser suits in bright rainbow hues that were even visible through the thick cloud of smoke that filled the small teachers’ lounge. I saw the shine as I walked to the office…looking for a ride home one day when I was pretending to be sick and the comfort of eating Mrs. Swanson’s pot pie and watching the price is just overwhelmed me. I remember grass green, robin’s egg blue, red, polka dots, stripes and floral polyester moving through the haze of the living room. You name it, these teachers wore it….even their husbands were in polyester with their shiny collared shirts, slacks, and the quintessential leisure suits that were so popular at the time. Often these suits were also sewn in bold solid colors, with plastic or metal buttons down the front and used for pocket flap decoration. Never let it be said that the classic details of this leisurewear have gone unnoticed. The quarter-inch topstitching happened everywhere it could make an appearance…running down every pocket flap edge, down the fronts, on the sleeve cuffs, the bottom of the pants, anywhere. .until…nausea.
The polyester comforter does not have quarter inch topstitching and I am very grateful for that. When I look at the quilt, I see scraps of fabric from a few dresses I sewed myself in high school. One of the dress patterns I used was Diane von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dress (DVF wrap) which was a sensation and flattered any figure! My dress was navy blue with tiny blue polka dots and white trim. I wore it on the bus to school and to speech competitions all over northern Minnesota…never a thought of a ride. This served me well as I competed with confidence, winning first place in many, many speech competitions. Long live the DVS wrap dress!
There is another blue fabric with multicolored stripes that is sewn into the comforter. I found it when my mom and I were planning to sew kaftans and drove north from Hoyt Lakes to the Ping department store on the main street in Tower looking for fabric. Today, the Timberjay is in the same building. I distinctly remember walking to the back of the store, past moccasins, rugs and clothes and seeing the striped fabric among piles of polyester bolts in hopes of being chosen. It was on a table that was right where my current desk is at work today. What an incredible overlap of time and space. At Ping that day, Mom chose a shiny blue and gold floral in the shape of a poppy on a red background that still speaks loudly of the time it was created. He’s also in the duvet.
I remember my mom had taken several machine embroidery classes and knew how to use the decorative stitch cams that snapped into the back of her new Viking machine. She went on a rigorous electric sewing frenzy adding trim to blouses, jackets and other tasteful appliqués…which means she didn’t cut dad’s briefs or anything like that. that. In the middle of the quilt, on a plain white square, she machine-embroidered the dates 1776 and 1976. Like a historical marker on the exterior of a building in Boston, it’s noted for all time. For the comforter backing, she used a blue polyester-blend bed sheet she would have bought new…a worn-out bed sheet with a story of its own had no place in the comforter of his mother.
In the decades since its inception, the polyester quilt has never faded, it’s incapable of tearing or fraying, and it’s incapable of wrinkling…even under massive force. For me personally, polyester was sometimes difficult to manage and I haven’t worked with it in decades. Like a big ’70s Ford LTD, it didn’t corner well. You got “ester” resistance when you sew corners that ended up looking like rounded pencil erasers. You couldn’t squeeze it into a sharp edge no matter how hard you tried, so you got lazy, soft edges. This has always bothered me and to this day I suffer from Polyester Post Sewing Trauma (PPST). So the miracle of using polyester was that even if a piece had been pushed into a storage box or waded into a block, you could lay it flat and cut your quilt squares without ever having to iron it. This ease was the amazing thing about the polyester’s grand entrance into our lives. Regardless of variation or decade, polyester fabrics have always been strong, resistant to stretching and shrinking, easy to clean, quick drying and resistant to wrinkles, mildew and abrasion… a perfect combination for clothes.
What is a polyester fabric? It’s basically plastic…unnatural fabric to be sure. To turn polyester into fibers, the plastic is melt-spun or heated and forced through spinnerets (a plate with small holes) into fibers. The fibers are stretched up to five times their length, combined into yarn, then machine-woven or knitted into polyester fabrics. I now offer you… a brief history of polyester:
1950s: Invented by DuPont and called Dacron (we called it a cousin of polyester).
1970s: The leisure suit hits the fashion scene, hot, smelly and shiny.
1990s: Performance polyester was developed with a new fiber shape and new capabilities.
1996: Dri-fit makes its debut in US Olympic clothing.
Today: Go ahead, make fun of your dad’s wetsuit of yesteryear, but…Polyester is “all the rage” again with a redesign and management of the moisture reducing microbial growth. Its softer, cotton-like feel and light refracting qualities eliminate glare to give it a matte look. Fabrics are so light that a roll of fabric often weighs less than the roll of cardboard on which it is delivered. Polyester and other plastic-based fabrics are used in the high-end fashion, sports and outdoor worlds and are referred to as “techno fabrics”.
However, there’s nothing sporty or techno about our beloved polyester duvet. He spent most of his time in our family cabin over the years and has now come to roost with me in Sudan to live out his perpetual golden years. The duvet was wonderful in May and October on those chilly nights when you wanted that extra layer that weighed you down a bit. It wouldn’t breathe at all…holding every ounce of heat in your body until you got sticky and smelly and had to throw it away before succumbing to dehydration before the day started. When one of us was sick or pouted, we simply rolled up in the polyester comforter or when the sofa bed opened to accommodate a weary body, they were first covered in polyester. We joked about the polyester comforter, we loved the polyester comforter and I still love it today. I don’t take it out of the closet very often because it doesn’t go with my furniture at all and would annoy me. It could easily show up on the 4th of July, but profuse sweating is often already the case in the height of summer, so why make it worse. It also wouldn’t work as a tablecloth, with its wire ties in the center of each square causing cups or cans to topple over, so it only makes seasonal appearances each winter. I will always enjoy seeing the different squares and remembering what garment they have come from over the past decades.
So, now you’ve heard the legend of the polyester duvet. He will most likely outlive me and my siblings, and that’s okay. Like many family quilts, I know it will bring comfort and humorous stories to anyone it is passed down to in our family.
Historical Source: blog.ministryofsupply.com, “The Evolution of Polyester”