Fifty years ago, polyester seemed like a wonder fabric. It freed women from their ironing boards, and they poured into the workforce, feeling liberated in their double-knit pantsuits.
Polyester held bright colors better than old-fashioned materials, making it ideal for psychedelic prints, disco attire, and sports teams clashing on color television.
It was inexpensive, and it didn’t wear out.
People loved polyester.
Until they didn’t.
A decade later, polyester was the faux pas fiber. It pilled and snagged. 
It didn’t breathe. It stank from sweat. And it represented bad taste.
‘It became associated with people of low socioeconomic status who didn’t have any style’, an advertising executive told the Wall Street Journal in 1982.
That year, prices fell by more than 10 percent, as polyester fiber consumption dropped to its lowest level since 1974.
Profits plummeted. Plants closed.
Industry polls showed a quarter of Americans wouldn’t touch the stuff – with resistance fiercest among the young, the affluent, and the fashion-conscious.
For polyester makers, the miracle threatened to become a disaster.
The industry tried to turn things around with marketing efforts. In the U.S., fiber makers pooled $1 million for a pro-polyester ad campaign – even as individual companies hid the p word behind brand names like Dacron, Fortrel, and Trevira.
When publicists pitched stories to papers like the Journal, the resulting articles inevitably included as many humorous gibes as designer names endorsing the synthetic’s value.
Reporters always balanced the positives with quotes from haters. ‘We don’t use anything that isn’t natural’, a Ralph Lauren spokeswoman sniffed to the Associated Press. Marketing didn’t redeem polyester.
But something did.
Four decades later, polyester rules the textile world. It accounts for more than half of global fiber consumption, about twice that of second-place cotton.
Output stands at nearly 58 million tons a year, more than 10 times what it was in the early ’80s. And nobody complains about polyester’s look and feel.
If there’s a problem today, it’s that people like polyester too much. It’s everywhere, even at the bottom of the ocean.
By 1982 an innovation revolution was already underway that would change how consumers thought about polyester and how companies produced it. But neither journalists nor marketers noticed.
They were still imagining synthetic fibers the old-fashioned way: as something chemists cooked up and marketers found a use for. That model wasn’t much different from the way wool or cotton had worked.
The fiber existed and people figured out things to do with it. The technical challenges were equally ancient.
How do you lower costs and speed up production? How do you keep fabrics colorful, clean, and in good repair?
You pleased consumers by holding down prices, minimizing domestic labor, and staying abreast of fashion.
The new model turned the questions around. It started with a problem and asked textile makers to solve it. The problem wouldn’t be about the cloth but about the wearer’s body.
The fabric had to be more than color-fast, clean, or cheap. It had to keep the user cool or warm or dry, undistracted by physical discomfort and the energy toll of weight.
The imagined customer wasn’t a housewife tired of laundry or a fashionista looking for the next big thing. It was a skier, a jogger, or a basketball player.
Polyester triumphed by becoming a performance textile. ‘It moved from being disco to sporty’, says Amanda Briggs, a designer and trend consultant who spent three decades at Nike.
By answering the demands of outdoor enthusiasts and athletes, polyester developed attributes that pleased just about everyone.
Once again, the fiber rode cultural trends. By the 1980s, large numbers of baby boomers had started running, working out in gyms, climbing mountains, and hiking rugged trails.
Polyester gained acceptance because of its ideal application to performance textiles, when people were beginning to recognize that, if you’re going to climb a mountain, you don’t wear a wool jacket. Or if you’re going to run a marathon, you don’t wear a cotton T-shirt. - David Parkes
‘Polyester gained acceptance because of its ideal application to performance textiles, when people were beginning to recognize that, if you’re going to climb a mountain, you don’t wear a wool jacket. Or if you’re going to run a marathon, you don’t wear a cotton T-shirt’, says David Parkes, whose New Jersey company, Concept III, sources materials for the outdoor industry.
As Parkes tells the story, the polyester revolution started with a failure. Around 1981, he was working in product development for a Massachusetts company called Malden Mills, which was big in the faux-fur business. It also made cushy baby bunting and sweatshirt fleece.
Malden created its pile textiles by first knitting a fabric with loops like those on a terry-cloth towel. It then brushed the surface to break the loops, making the material fuzzy – a process called napping.
Foreseeing a fashion trend, Parkes asked the production team to apply the same process to make an imitation mohair-alpaca for women’s coats. After some experiments, they came up with a polyester fabric that had the right look but wasn’t quite good enough to bring to market. Malden Mills moved on to other products.
Within a few years, the failed experiment would evolve into a company- and industry-defining hit.
How exactly that happened depends on who you ask.