Article: The Toxicity of Textiles

The Toxicity of Textiles For Quiltmakers

© 2015 Sandra Small Proudfoot AOCA ’89

In the year 1865, author Lewis Carroll published his beloved children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Fondly remembered to this day are his characters of the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, the March Hare and the Hatter; the latter two being described in his book as “mad, both”. ‘Mad as a hatter’ and ‘madhatter’ are two words that are still part of our English vocabulary and while the author never made direct reference to the workers in the hat industry as being ‘mad’, hatters were thought to be ‘mad’ or mentally unwell. What wasn’t known at that time was the fact that the hatters continual exposure to trace amounts of mercury in the felting of hats was causing some neurological issues. The accumulation of mercury in their bodies over time caused tremors, decreased cognitive function, memory loss, hallucinations and sometimes, insanity. Less than a century later, Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) in Japan was the result of people eating fish which had been swimming in industrial waste waters. Symptoms as confusion, memory loss, tremors, muscle weakness, insanity and sometimes, death were attributed to the mercury poisoning.

In the latter part of the twentieth century and the twenty-first, soldiers and military personnel involved in the Gulf War, in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Vietnam where the use of dioxin (Agent Orange) experienced daily chemical exposures. From burning oil wells to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, solvents, benzene, Sarin, radioactive materials as well as vaccines the soldiers and personnel were required to take, which contained mercury and/or Thimerosal, has left many veterans with unexplained chronic illnesses and neurological disorders. Discouraged by the lack of governmental and medical support upon their return home, many who suffered were told “it’s all in your head”. The lack of medical care and financial compensation has discouraged many veterans upon their return home. Looking back to a century ago one could ask if repeated exposures to chemicals could lead to unexplained medical issues. The mystery, too, is why it affects some and not others.

We live in a world of chemical exposures. From the homes in which we live because of chemicals added to the building products, to the soft furnishings used in our homes such as broadloom, the fabrics used in upholstery, curtain materials, the glues to cement ceramic tiles. Chemicals are used in home cleaning products and personal care products. Chemical sprays are used on the foods we eat. Chemicals are in the air we breath outdoors and indoors. Fumes from car exhaust, diesel fuel, aircraft fuel, pollution from industry, weed preventative chemicals sprayed on lawns and golf courses. The clothing we wear contains many chemicals. Walk past any clothing shop in a shopping mall and you can smell the chemicals coming off the clothing. Quilt fabrics are full of chemicals.

In 1974, I began to teach quilting in the city of Toronto and in 1975, I formed the second quilt guild in Canada at that time…the Etobicoke Quilters Guild. In 1977 our guild sponsored the first Canadian Quilt Conference at York University in Toronto which was attended by quilters from all over North America and which was a great success. The making of quilts soon became a lucrative industry. Quilt fabrics were sold in shops everywhere and online as well. Teaching quilting, I became heavily involved in working with quilt cloth daily. Until the 1970`s, one hundred percent cotton cloth was used in the making of quilts but then a synthetic polyester fibre was introduced into the one hundred percent cotton cloth and this new cloth was called cotton/polyester broadcloth. Soon one hundred percent cotton cloth for quiltmaking was hard to find in stores. This newer type of cloth was aggressively marketed as it did not wrinkle or crease as one hundred percent cotton had, and it was dye-fast, the latter having been a problem with the former one hundred percent cotton cloth. Cotton polyester broadcloth was forced onto a consumer market of willing quilters, who without the awareness of the chemicals involved in finishing process of quilt cloth, were exposed to these chemicals through the inhalation of vapours from their hot steam irons on the cloth. As well, the polyester fibre is man-made and derived from petroleum products. If you place a hot steam iron onto any synthetic fabric, there is a certain acrid odour which comes off the cloth. Quilters, without realizing it, were constantly exposed to these chemicals via the vapours from the hot steam iron placed on their quilt cloth. In some quilters, it created unexplained allergies, inhalant issues, skin problems and more serious yet unexplained medical issues.

Chemical sensitivities are not easily diagnosed nor are they accepted by the general population of medical doctors. It is not recognized by government, by pharmaceutical companies or by chemical manufacturers. Yet chemical sensitivities do exist. Several years into teaching quilting, I began to experience tremors by the end of each class I taught. Walking outside in the fresh air after my classes helped alleviate these tremors. As time went on, I found myself becoming increasingly reactive to occasional over-the-counter medications and then, one day, I had a strange reaction to an Upper GI X-ray where I was required to swallow barium. I became short of breath, my heart rate increased, I became disoriented all of which wore off gradually through the day. I then entered the Ontario College of Art and found myself reacting to french dyes, etc. and had to drop certain courses because I could not tolerate the fumes associated with the various mediums used at the College. Towards the end of my education there, I had a medical emergency involving blood transfusions and two surgeries. During the second operation and immediately following it I had a severe allergic reaction to anesthetics and was placed in Intensive Care for two days. I became even more chemically and environmentally sensitive. On the advice of medical doctors, as I was not recovering as I should have, I was advised to leave the city and the pollution associated with living there and into the country, which I eventually did. I was also advised to investigate the quilt cloth with which I`d been working so extensively for years and so I contacted Jeffery Gutcheon, whom I had met some years earlier at the York University Quilt Conference. Jeff, a formally trained architect, musician, quilter and quilt designer, had become a converter of textiles, meaning that he and his company took cloth from a griege state (unbleached milled cotton) and added all the dyes, chemical resins and chemical finishes to the quilt cloth. Asked about the chemicals used in quilt cloth, Jeff responded with “Cloth is one big chemical bath from beginning to end”.

Contacting other textile converters, who were not as willing as Jeff was in addressing my questions about the chemicals used in finishing quilt cloth, I began to search for whatever chemical names I could find which were associated with the finishing process of quilt cloth. Not having the education to understand what these chemicals did, I found that Hawley’s Chemical Dictionary provided chemical names which I then cross-referenced in the Macropaedia Brittanica of Industrial Chemicals listed below. Marjory L. Joseph’s book, Introductory Textile Science, 5th edition was also helpful in learning about the process of making cloth from its source. For anyone working with textiles, this book is educational. It is still available from Amazon.


FORMALDEHYDE: Unregulated for years, the US government has finally regulated the textile industry in reducing the amount of formaldehyde used in cloth. Formaldehyde is used in cotton and synthetic textiles, bedding, perma-press finishes, paper products, cleaning solutions, pharmaceuticals, cigarettes, newsprint, pesticides, preservatives, antiseptics, deodorants, auto exhaust, jet fuels, industrial emissions, photochemical smog, embalming fluids and so on. It is an organic compound and aldehyde Given its widespread use, toxicity and volatility, exposure to formaldehyde is a significant consideration for human health and known to be a human carcinogen. Many longtime quiltmakers have been affected by this chemical.

ACETAMIDE: a solvent, peroxide, stabilizer, wetting and penetrating agent used in textiles. It is carcinogenic.

ACETIC ACID: a methane or carboxylic acid used in the manufacture of acetic anhydride, dyes, pharmaceuticals, textiles, printing. It is moderately toxic to inhalation, a strong irritant to the skin.

ACETIC ANHYDRIDE: is used in dyes, perfumes, explosives, aspirins. It is inflammatory.

ACETEPHONE: is used in perfumes, solvents, pharaceuticals and resins as a polymerization agent.

ACETYL BROMIDE: is used in dyestuffs. Health hazard: mucous membrane irritant, toxic.

ACRYSOL: is a paint thickener, fabric coating, adheisive, warp sizing for fibres, also a starch sizing.

AMINO RESINS: are used in textile finishings, PermaPress fabrics and as binders in cloth. It is a resin made by the reaction of an amino with an aldehyde, mainly, formaldehyde. Other forms include: dimethylol urea, mtholo urea, melamine resins, urea formaldehyde resins.

PENTACHLOROPHENAL: is used as a fungicide, bacteriocide, algicide, herbacide and in dyes. It is toxic by inhalation and skin absorption.

MALAIC ANHYDRIDE: is a derivative of benzene. It is used in polyester resins, pesticides, PermaPress resins in textiles. It is an irritant to mucous membrane tissues.

TOLUENE: is used widely as a solvent and as a starter chemical for the synthesis of other chemical compounds. It is a component of crude oil and a bi-produce of styrene. It is used in the refinement of gasoline, resins, paints, adhesives, printing materials, glues, solvents, perfumes, dyes, pharmaceuticals, detergents, aviation gasoline. It’s health hazard: neuro-toxic damage.

In relation to environmental exposures to chemicals, this quote from the
book by Phil Brown, Toxic Exposures:

Pp. 262: Academic science is largely silent on environmental factors. Environmental epidemiologists report much fear for their career prospects and find it hard to take risks. Universities’ dependency on corporate and government support makes it harder for scholars to challenge established authority. When scientists have been unfairly challenged by industry, colleagues have too often been silent in their defense.

Pp. 258: As scientists have long understood, it is often dangerous to engage in discovery, treatment and prevention of most environmentally induced diseases.

In speaking to many quilt guilds over the years, I’m often asked about the 100% cotton cloth manufactured for the use of quilt cloth in today’s market since the early nineteen-eighties. All cloth should be washed prior to use in warm or hot soapy water, however, washing quilt cloth will not remove all the chemical resins in the cloth as they are impregnated into the fibres of that cloth for its lifetime. Thus, quilters are being exposed to chemical residues everytime they place a hot steam iron onto their cotton cloth. These chemical resins allow the 100% cotton cloth to have the same handlability and performance as the cotton/polyester cloth. While 100% cotton cloth should wrinkle to the hand or wash, the newer 100% cotton cloth does not because of the chemical resins in that cloth. Anyone who sews and presses that cloth is being exposed to the chemicals in that cloth and yet, oddly enough, not all quilters, not all who sew will react over the years of its use to the chemical exposures. This link may explain why:

This is an article well worth reading.  Contact: from Seattle, WA. USA.  You can subscribe to O Ecotextiles on the internet.  This one is dated Oct. 3 , 2016 at 11:36 pm | Tags: APEO, Chemicals, children, energy, environment, formaldehyde, fossil fuels, greenhouse gas, Health, lead, PBDE, PCP, PFOS, phthalates, toluene, USA, water | Categories: Chemicals, CO2 emissions in textile industry, Embodied energy in textiles, Environment, Textile, Uncategorized | URL:

My exposure to cotton polyester cloth left me in an eventual toxic state, gradually building up over my years of teaching quilting and creating quilts for my classes and exhibit.  An operation in 1985 when my immune system was severely compromised, pushed me over the top as well as the Tetracycline drugs given to me following the operation.  I eventually moved to the country because of my toxicity.  Interestingly enough, an Elisa blood test revealed four of the chemicals mentioned in the O Ecotextiles article and in my report written on the Toxicity of Textiles.

Recommended reading:

Brown, Phil: Toxic Exposures, Contested Illnesses and the
Environmental Health Movement. ISBN – 13: 978-0-231-12948-0 (c)
2007, Columbia University Press: pp 166, 167, 168; pp 180, 181; pp
258, 259, 260
Joseph, Marjory L., Introductory Textile Science, 5th and/or 6th edition.
Chapters 26 and 27 deal more specifically with the chemicals used in the
finishing of cloth (pages 281/319).

Internet & Links of interest:

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Report Women’s College Hospital, Toronto,