THREADS IN TIME
LIKE FASHION, FIBERS AND FABRICS HAVE GONE IN CYCLES OVER THE LAST 90 YEARS AND WWD HAS TRACKED IT ALL. FROM THE TEENS AND 20S WHEN NATURAL FIBERS WERE ALL THERE WAS, TO THE INFLUX OF WASH-AND-WEAR MANMADES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CENTURY, AND BACK TO THE DOMINANCE OF COTTON, HERE ARE A FEW HIGHLIGHTS FROM NINE DECADES OF INNOVATIONS AND TRENDS.
Byline: Daniela Gilbert
As the first man-made fiber ever, rayon, which hit the U.S. market in 1910, thrilled American manufacturers. It was cheaper than silk, and stronger. It was also a big threat to the silk industry. In WWD’s April 20, 1923, issue, the front page announced that a study was under way by the National Retail Dry Goods Association to see how “artificial silk,” (as rayon was then called) and real silk could be “successfully advertised and merchandised in order to deal fairly with the public and the two great industries producing these materials.” The piece then went on to state that because of the advancements in the artificial silk industry, the silk industry felt the fiber should be called by another name. Two years later, an industry decision was made to change the name to rayon.
Chanel, always ahead of her time, created a sportswear collection in 1913 made entirely of jersey, which had until then had been used primarily for undergarments. The soft, stretchy fabric allowed for a greater range of motion for the sports that women were increasingly taking part in. On July 27, 1914, WWD reviewed a Chanel collection that featured “some extremely interesting sweaters which embrace new features,” referring to the wool jersey. “A great success is predicted for these sweaters,” the paper said.
The next revolution in man-made fibers came in 1924, when the first acetate yarn was spun in Amcelle, Md. WWD’s January 8, 1925, issue states that while The American Cellulose & Chemical Mfg. Co. Ltd. had “started production of Celanese in the Amcelle, Md., plant in a small way during the latter part of December,” it was by this time “producing a few hundred pounds a day and will work up to a ton a day in the course of a few weeks.” Also included in the piece were future projections for the fiber. “First shipments of American-made Celanese are scheduled to begin in about two weeks, and the product is said to be largely sold ahead.”
WWD got the scoop on one of the century’s most important fiber developments when it ran a front-page article on July 18, 1938, headed, “New Synthetic Yarn for Women’s Hose Developed.” The piece unveiled a project at DuPont called Fiber No. 66 and intended for the hosiery market. “From reliable sources, it is learned that the material possesses a high degree of elasticity,” the article read. “Rayon’s lack, until now, of elasticity, and its possessing instead elongation has mitigated against the use in full fashioned hosiery.” DuPont finally patented the fiber, called nylon, in September 1938.
The next year, the paper ran a piece on Oct. 25, 1939, tracking the first day of sales of nylon hosiery. Six stores in Wilmington, Del., were given small quantities of the hosiery in a narrow range of shades. The “business girls and matrons of this city were not at all ‘choosy’ and seemed glad to take what they could get,” the paper said. It was estimated that 4,000 pairs “went over the counters in all stores that day.
In the Forties, fabrics were in short supply, thanks to the war, so necessity became the mother of some inventive headgear. Women took simple fabrics like cotton and linen and fashioned creative and eccentric hats. On the Millinery page of the March 27, 1940, edition, the headline read, “A Summer Promotion — ‘Kerchief’ Hats.”
In April 1958, the course of modern fashion was changed forever with the introduction of Lycra, a spandex fiber created by DuPont and used at first mostly in underwear. The paper followed the fiber from its test stages. In the April 22, 1958, issue, it reported that “an experimental synthetic elastomer textile fiber, known as Fiber K, is being evaluated in foundation garments, surgical hose and other elastic products….” On Oct. 29, 1959, DuPont officially put Lycra into production. A DuPont spokesman predicted that Lycra was “expected to find eventual application in virtually every category of textiles.”
In the Seventies, Halston’s innovative, minimal sportswear and open-minded approach to fabrics was extremely influential. The fabric perhaps most associated with the designer is UltraSuede, developed by Toray in 1970. In June 1973, WWD reviewed the designer’s fall collection, saying: “The big news throughout the collection is UltraSuede. He was the first designer to introduce it, and he’s given it new life this season by quilting it. The big standouts — the big-shouldered coat and the coolie jacket which he shows over pants.”
That most quotidian fabric, denim, got a new life with the rise of status jeans during the late Seventies and early Eighties. On the June 12, 1979, front page, Calvin Klein offered his view on the trend. “Denim sales were off, and people said I was crazy when I went into the jeans business. It’s more than just a case of someone wanting a designer label; jeans are a way of life.” The influx of denim apparel during this time also put cotton back on the fabric map in a big way, so much so that Cotton Incorporated took the unprecedented step of launching a consumer ad campaign with the slogan “The Fabric of Our Lives.” Still running today, the campaign kicked off with a set of three TV commercials in 1989.
In 1991, Courtaulds Fiber presented the first new fiber introduction in three decades, lyocell, into the U.S. market. Created by Courtaulds Fiber, who branded it Tencel, the fiber was produced from wood pulp and had the added marketing benefit of being earth-friendly, because it recycles the chemicals used during spinning. It was pricy — higher than rayon, its fiber forebear — but executives were convinced its soft hand and ready dye acceptance would give it an edge in the upscale women’s apparel market. Robert Feil, vice president of marketing at the time, also noted that while the fiber could be easily altered to resemble silk or cotton, it was also right in line with the easy care concept, which continued to be important among manufacturers and consumers. “Because it has excellent shrinkage stability,” he said, “it is basically an easy-care product.”