There are those of us for whom “polyester pants suit” conjures up images of the “leisure suit,” designed to offer men (and the women, at the time, who did the laundry) a practical alternative to The Suit. These suits refused to wrinkle, wore like iron and gave the wearer a casual air, without having to look like a hippie. They came in colors such as forest green and burgundy, with bold checks, canary yellow and peach for the really snazzy dressers.
So, what has this to do with industrial fabrics, aside from the fact that this fabric was truly industrial strength in its durability?
That polyester is made from petrochemicals. At the time, the concept of sustainability in textiles was barely a thought among consumers, at least compared to the much broader commitment among textile producers today. There’s been a desire to create a more eco-friendly “polyester” but accomplishing that has been elusive. Relatively recently, however, researchers and technology companies have been able to develop bio-based fibers that can be as functional as polyester and even nylon—without the same level of environmental concerns.
Debra Cobb’s feature “The end of petrochemical-based fabrics?” discusses the potentially game-changing fibers that are not just under development, but that are being commercialized. Much of it is derived from waste products, such as chitin from discarded shellfish, and wood pulp. This not only reduces the need to grow plants for virgin materials, it makes the end-of-life questions for final products at least partially answered.
These solutions may now seem simple or at least obvious. But getting from the initial idea of more sustainable fibers to commercially viable ones has been an arduous process. Nevertheless, there’s a lot going on in this area. I’m quite sure we’ll have much more to report in the future. And I can assure you that if a more sustainable leisure suit is created, I will happily report it, but if someone brings leisure suits back, don’t expect me to buy one for my son.