Past Times

Textile research in the Triangle changed the way America dressed

Work from textile labs at N.C. State University helped to develop new types of fabric.
Work from textile labs at N.C. State University helped to develop new types of fabric. Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina

In the 1960s, exploration took place in the lab. In 1966 writer Patty Nash explained how technical advances changed the clothes we wore.

If Mrs. Average America isn’t moving into the space age, the clothes on her back are.

She may collect antiques, cherish old recipes and profess a love for the old-fashioned, but she does it in a polyester blend dress that’s as up to the minute as the Saturn rocket.

This year, the textile and apparel industry will reap a bountiful harvest of new ideas in yarns, fibers, fabrics, dyeing, finishing, printing and processing – all brought about by space age technology.

The American woman, no longer able to take the time or the patience with her family’s clothes that her mother did, is having her work done for her in a laboratory.

Textile engineers and chemical research companies are competing frantically to do that work – to spin out a fiber and weave a bolt that will bring her and her family the latest in durable, easy-to-care-for garments.

And some of the work is being done next door. In the Research Triangle, at Chemstrand Laboratories, research in new fibers goes on daily.

According to Chemstrand’s Bob Upton, in the past researchers have only been able to duplicate what is found in nature. Now, they are starting to get ahead of the game.

“We can give fabrics even better characteristics, because we can control what the fiber’s going to be like. In nature, you have to take what’s there.”

Chemstrand researcher Don Felty is trying to discover what makes fibers dirty, in hopes of developing a fiber that will not attract soil.

“We study the internal structure of the fibers and make optical measurements,” he explained. “For instance, many times we need to know the melting point on a single length of fiber.”

He walked across the lab and picked up a bundle of almost microscopic fibers. “This is what we work with,” he said.

But all of the work doesn’t go on under a microscope. John Oatfield is on another end of the job. He develops and builds machinery to test the new fibers.

“We try to preclude any failure,” he explained, “and there are at least 10 thousand failures for every successful fiber.”

Oatfield and his associates find out how new fibers behave – what they do under pressure, how they take to stretch, how well they get along with dyes.

He pointed out a round machine with intense light shining through the windows. “That’s a Fade-Ometer, and don’t look directly into the light! It’s to test the destructive effect of light on fabrics.”

Working hand in glove with the private researchers are members of the Department of Textile Technology at N.C. State University. According to D.S. Hamby of the department, they concentrate on the physics and mechanics of fibers and dyeing – a job for which the housewife can thank them even if she can’t understand them.

Hamby points out there are two ways to develop new fabrics for apparel use – blending new and natural fibers to create a basic fabric and chemically treating familiar fabrics.

In the blends, according to Hamby, man-made and natural fibers are combined to take advantage of the best qualities of each.…

As to the chemical treatments, “In the laminated fabrics, a laminated foam or plastic is put on the back of the fabric to add body or warmth. And in the Koratron (durable press) process, a wash and wear fabric is treated, cut and sewn into a garment and then is cured.”

Koratron is a reverse twist on the old familiar drip-dry fabric. Drip-drys were cured and then cut and sewn into garments. As many a home maker found out in her little home laundry, the result often was puckered seams and a shape that just wouldn’t come back.

But what will all this research and testing produce? Will all the future fabrics be man-made, and what types of fabrics and clothes will be demanded by the public?

Bob Upton believes fabrics will be “materials you would never imagine could be made into fabrics.”

He predicted that sometime in the future fiber manufacturers may also make the end product, rather than sending fibers to knitting mills.…

But he added, “We are not yet a country clothed entirely by man-made fibers. Within the decade, though, I think at least 50 per cent of fiber consumption will be man-made fibers.

“This doesn’t mean we’ll have to reduce our cotton production,” said Hamby. “With the population growing so rapidly, people are buying more clothes and the pounds consumed per capita is increasing.”

And the fashions of the future?

According to Florence Lentz, of Burlington Industries, the future is here.…

“Currently women are dressing for time, place and occasion, and since today’s woman is an amazingly active person, leading a multitude of lives, her demand for clothing varies in look, texture, weight and color to fulfill her diversified needs.”

Back to the test tubes, men. The N&O March 6, 1966

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times,

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or