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photo of scientist testing flame-resistant fabrics
ARS scientists developed THPC, a compound that prevents cotton fabrics from igniting when held in a flame.

King Cotton was in trouble. With the cessation of World War II, cotton markets were being usurped by synthetics. The marketing war's opening round was the advent of rayon strong enough for use in tire cords. Soon tire makers began switching from cotton to its lower priced competitor, dispossessing growers of an annual market for 1 million bales of cotton.

Another inroad into cotton markets followed the introduction of men's shirts made of synthetic fibers that needed little or no ironing. Concurrently, nylon was laying siege to markets for women's garments and for many household items that cotton had traditionally filled.

ARS chemists and engineers at the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, along with colleagues in industry, launched a broad-based research campaign to close the gap. Before long, progress in research began to bolster cotton's competitive position.

A series of basic discoveries involving resins resulted in cotton fabrics that behaved like synthetics when washed and hung to dry, yet retained such desirable qualities as comfort and resistance to soiling. Work in laboratories was further accelerated at about this time when major shirt makers raised their research budgets on learning that many people considered synthetic shirts to be wanting in comfort.

From this effort of the 1950's came the first wash-and-wear cotton shirts that required only touch-up ironing. Next came shirts, pants, and other clothing made from a new blend of 35 percent cotton with 65 percent synthetics. These garments had permanent creases and, after washing and either tumble- or drip-drying, required no ironing.

photo of durable-press trousers
Permanently creased, wrinkle-resistant, easy-care cotton fabric for clothing came from ARS research.

But the New Orleans scientists refused to settle for shirts, underwear, and sportswear limited to only 35 percent cotton. Contending that garments of all cotton were more durable than those made from the blend, they stepped up their efforts. They succeeded. Since 1965 consumers have been able to buy all-cotton shirts that are durable yet look newly pressed after repeated launderings and dryings.

The key to making cotton wash-and-wear—or durable press, as it is now called—is to treat it with a chemical solution which reacts with the long molecules that compose cotton fiber. The treatment "crosslinks" or ties the molecules together so that the fabric will dry smooth after laundering. Today durable-press textiles are providing an annual market for an estimated 2.5 million bales of cotton that otherwise would not be sold.

But durable-press cottons account for only a part of the New Orleans lab's total textile research program. Over the years researchers there have created a succession of processes and products. These include a host of new finishing and crosslinking agents to make fabrics last longer and resist wrinkling, soiling, and damage by bleaches; weather-resistant canvases for such varied products as tents, tarpaulins, and beach umbrellas; and flame-retardant fabrics for clothing for fire fighters and foundry workers, bed linens for hospitals and institutions, and linings for high-pressure chambers for nursing blue babies after surgery.

All these and many other research achievements have helped win markets for cotton. To the general public, however, the towering triumph in textile research undoubtedly is durable-press cotton. It is liberating the masses from countless hours of drudgery at the ironing board.