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Redemption for the Polyester Suit

denim-jacket-and-headphonesYou might be an 80’s kid if…polyester elicits a clear gut reaction for you–and not in a good way. For you, polyester brings back memories of ill-fitting suits, hairspray, and the uncomfortable clothes your parents crammed you in before a family picture.

Polyester, though, is so much more than that. In today’s world, you can’t walk down the street without seeing polyester. Let’s explore the exciting world of polyesters and the testing implications it has for us here at Polymer Solutions.

When we think about polyester, we often think of fabric. It would be difficult to put together a wardrobe that doesn’t include some fabric containing the polymer. “Polyester”, however, is a broad category of polymers. It’s a family of polymers that contain an ester in the backbone of the polymer chain. A functional group is a group of chemical elements that are bonded together.

Polyester can be either thermoset or thermoplastic, a characteristic that lends the versatile polymer to a wide range of applications, sometimes in apparel. This polymer started from humble beginnings and is now ubiquitous in today’s society.

If a polymer in the polyester family is important enough for Billy Joel to sing about in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, it’s important enough to mention here! Dacron, mentioned in the song between a famous conductor (“Toscanini”) and the fall of Dien Bien Phu (a precursor to the Vietnam war), is the trade name DuPont gave to polyester in 1951. Debuted with an ad for a suit made of 55% Dacron and 45% wool, the suit that started it all looks more at home in a bad Disco movie than a high-tech testing lab.

This DuPont product, however, paved the way for products ranging from the cheapest t-shirt you can buy to high-performance athletic wear by companies like UnderArmour and Patagonia. Patagonia’s base layer product, Capilene, is made of 100% recycled polyester and is trusted by athletes around the world to keep them alive and warm on the most challenging expeditions.

With the prevalence of this modern polymer in our everyday lives, there are sometimes failures associated with the product. Lab testing for these potential issues is critical for a product that is so widely used. From manufacturing defects to degradation due to environmental factors like UV light, failure analysis plays an important role in the testing of these products.

Knowing the ways products made of polyester fail is just one part of the complex testing challenges required for this popular polymer. For some applications, it can also be important to analyze the residual solvents that are present in the product. Residual solvent analysis is performed using Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry analysis. This test quantifies the volatile solvents that are present within the polymer and can provide valuable insights for a wide range of inquiries.

Contamination analysis helps manufacturers diagnose a wide range of problems such as failures, undesirable aesthetics, and loss of quality control. Many fabric manufacturers blend polyester with other fibers to achieve different desired characteristics. For instance, polyester can be blended with Spandex to add stretch or cotton to add softness and comfort. This blending of fibers into an infinite number of different combinations requires complex manufacturing processes. It can be necessary to test for contamination if it’s believed a product contains compounds that it shouldn’t.   

The future of polyester is bright. While it continues to be used in clothing and other products, innovations and research continue to see how it can be advanced further.  A research team is even testing a biodegradable liquid that can be applied to repair tears and extend the life of these products.

If you’re interested in learning more about our testing capabilities or would like to get in touch to talk more about this fascinating polymer, please reach out today!