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Terylene polyester synthesis

the stuff of synthetic fibres, containers and much more North West,

A man in a white coat adjusts an industrial-sized loom. Fibres stretch out of it in all directions.
A Terylene process worker with a thread pattern, ICI Billingham, 1955. Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

The polymer was described as ‘just a few grams of dirty-looking stuff like treacle’ when it was presented to Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in 1946, but this unassuming material was to revolutionise fabrics in the 20th century. 

Terylene was produced by John Rex Whinfield (1901-66) with the assistance of James Dickson of the Manchester company Calico Printers’ Association and was the world’s first polyester. The new substance could be drawn into threads and given the feeling of woollen yarn before it was woven into material. 

Despite Whinfield and Dickson patenting their discovery in 1941, it was suppressed under wartime secrecy until ICI became interested in its commercial possibilities. Its first commercial use was in 1948 when it was used to make lace curtains. 

Polyester is one of the most widely used synthetic fabrics in the world because it can be blended with natural fibres such as cotton. This combines the ‘easy care’ qualities of synthetic fibre with the feeling of natural fabrics. 

Science Museum

North West
Key Individuals
John Rex Whinfield, James Dickson,