by Suzanne Labry
The Return of Double Knits!
Double Knits—“Quick, Cheap, and Easy”
At the 2015 Quiltcon, one of the eye-catching exhibits was Modern Materials, Quilts of the 1970s, from the Collection of Bill Volckening.
Volckening, a Portland, Oregon-based quilter and collector, has a special appreciation for polyester double knit quilts. In fact, he has over 100 in his personal collection. He’s not the only one.
Modern quilters are attracted their bold, weirdly wonderful color combinations; Pinterest is full of polyester patchwork images. What was decidedly “un-cool” a couple of decades ago is starting to be hip again. Double knit quilts are having a moment.
Back in the late 1980s, the company I was working for asked me to curate a small exhibit of quilts from the families of its board members. While most of the quilts I received were traditional family heirlooms, one woman brought me a couple of double knit quilts, and when she handed them over to me, she said, with a knowing smile, “When cockroaches take over the world, these quilts will still be around!”
Her remark made me laugh, because by that time the seeming indestructibility of double knit fabric had become a cliché and quilts made from them got little, if any, respect.
The discovery that fiber could be created by mixing alcohols and carboxyl acids was made in the 1920s and ‘30s by Wallace Carothers, a chemist working for the American chemical company, DuPont. British scientists built on Carothers’ work, and in the 1940s they developed the chemical compound that would come to be known as polyester.
DuPont bought the rights to their development, and subsequently introduced polyester fabrics to the public in 1951. Textile mills dedicated to the production of polyester were established throughout the 1960s and the industry grew to meet popular demand for the fabric that was cheap to produce, inexpensive to buy, and exceptionally durable.
“Scrunch it, pull it, wash it – without any wear and wrinkles. That’s what polyester became famous for. Polyester was the fabric of choice in a changing economy of speed, efficiency and convenience. If the food industry produced fries and Coke, the textile industry supplemented it with Polyester – quick, cheap and easy,” is the way that the trend is described on the website, History of Polyester.
The color palette was eye-popping, gaudy, sometimes bizarre, and unfailingly cheerful. Leisure suits for men and pantsuits for women became so commonplace that they soon became caricatures, and polyester fabric rather quickly took on a lowbrow, tawdry reputation. Remember “The Brady Bunch?” Lounge singers? Hot pants? SO polyester…
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, quilting was no longer a widespread necessity and it had not yet begun to reemerge as a popular pastime. Of course, many people did still quilt in the 1960s, but the fabrics that were most affordable and readily available to them were polyester double knits. As they have always done, quilters made use of what they had, and what they had was polyester.
Quilts made from double knits are hot, slippery, and heavy, but—oh my goodness—they can “take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’” as the old ad slogan goes.
A double knit quilt is unbelievably tough; you can wash it a hundred times and it will come out as bright as a new penny every time. The fabrics don’t fray or wear. Fold creases are not an issue. Perhaps the most appealing quality that double knit quilts currently have going for them, however, is the nostalgic appreciation for their bright, quirky, optimistic appearance. They remind us of a time when the world order was rapidly changing and nobody felt guilty about cheap convenience.