The Toxicity of Textiles

©Sandra Small Proudfoot 1989/2020
The Farmer’s Walk Quilt Studio, Mono, Ontario

In the year 1865, author Lewis Carrol published his beloved children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Fondly remembered to this day are  his characters, White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, the March Hare and the Hatter, the latter two of which are described in his book as being “Mad, both”.  ‘Mad as a Hatter’, ‘madhatter’ are still part of our English vocabulary and while the author never made a direct reference to workers in the hat industry as being ‘mad’ or crazy, hatters were often thought of as being ‘mad’.  But what wasn’t known then, as it is now, is the fact that the hatters continual exposure to trace amounts of mercury in the felting of hats was causing neurological problems in some people working in the industry.  These exposures, which accumulated in their bodies over time, caused among other things, tremors, decreased cognitive function, memory loss, hallucinations and sometimes, insanity.  Less than a century later mercury poisoning led to the discovery of the Minamata Disease in Japan which happened as a result of eating fish which had been swimming in industrial waste waters.  Again, as in the earlier ‘hatters’ reactions to mercury poisoning, this disease displayed symptoms such as confusion, memory loss, tremors, muscle weakness, insanity and sometimes, death, were attributed to mercury poisoning.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, early part of the 21st, soldiers and military personnel involved in the Gulf War, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam where the use of Dioxin (Agent Orange) was used, which is a known human carcinogen, veterans of these wars experienced daily chemical exposures already known to affect  humans.  From burning oil wells to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, solvents, benzene, sarin, radioactive materials as well as the vaccines the military expected each of its men to have which also contained mercury and/or thimerosal, has now left many war veterans with chronic illnesses and neurological disorders. 

Those who suffer from these chronic illnesses and disorders linked to chemical exposures are often insensitively told are that “it’s all in your head”.  Disregarding historical  incidents as those that happened a century and more ago, the mystery is why it affects some and not others.  The answers may lie in the rapidly growing evidence that environmental pollution is linked with epigenetic variations in illnesses which remain unexplained and misunderstood.  Cancer, being one.

We live in an increasingly polluted world, the avoidance of which is pretty much impossible as many chemicals are a necessary part of our everyday lives.  We experience chemical exposures in our workplaces, homes, stores,  in the cleaning products we use, personal care products, in the foods we eat, unless organically grown, car exhaust, jet fuel, diesel fuel, our home heating, in building products, in the clothing we wear, in the newsprint we read and in the cloth which we, as quilters, use to make quilts.

Due to my years of teaching quilting during the nineteen-seventies the only cloth available to quilters was cotton-polyester broadcloth.  The polyester fibre is petroleum-based, thus it does not crease easily.  It required a lot of pressing with a hot steam iron thus inhaling the toxic fumes from a hot steam iron on this cloth compromised my immune system.   The cotton cloth of today also contains toxic resins which may compromise the immune systems of those involved with making quilts or selling fabrics in quilt shops.   Two or three years into teaching quilting I began to experience tremors towards the end of each class which mystified me as teaching was something I enjoyed, and I’d attended Teacher’s College.  Walking in the fresh air helped after each class.  Eventually I began to experience health issues.  During an X-ray for an upper GI where I was required to swallow barium sulphate, I experienced my first real chemical reaction.  My heart rate increased rapidly, I had difficulty breathing, I became disoriented.  Finally, in 1985 emergency surgery and anaesthetics was the straw that broke the camels back, I went into shock and was placed in intensive care.  It was a very slow recovery and my life was forever changed. 

Toxicity is not something most of us are familiar with given reactions and mysterious issues with our health.  Cancer, which can be related to chemical exposures lowering the immune system, is more known.  One other quilt teacher as well, at the time I was teaching, also experienced similar reactions to mine.  Following my experience in 1985 I was unable to tolerate oil heating, perfumes,, chemical odours, gasoline and car exhaust, just walking down the cake mix and detergent aisles in grocery stores left me with shortness of breath.  It was then that my doctor, who had recently experienced reactions to the lead came in the stained glass windows  suggested that I investigate the cloth that I had worked with for so many years.  I contacted Jeffery Gutcheon, an aquaintance whom I had met when he and his then wife Beth came to teach at my 1977 quilt conference at York University.  He later became a textile converter.  Textile converters take the unbleached cotton known as griege cloth and proceed to add the dyes and chemical resins to finish the cloth as we, as consumers, know it.  When I explained my issues to Jeff, he said that “cloth is one big chemical bath from beginning to end”.   Not something most quilters ever really know about or consider. 

I continued my research into the chemicals used by textile converters and contacted quilt fabric manufacturers.  I had little success or responses from them as most were unwilling to share any information with me in regard to the chemicals they placed into quilt cloth.  So I contacted the organic cotton growers and manufacturers of cotton cloth and asked what chemicals they did not use in the finishing of their textiles.  Once they provided some names of chemicals they did not use in the finishing process of cloth, I researched Hawley’s Chemical Dictionary, taking the names of those chemicals and cross-referencing them with the Macropaedia Brittanica of Industrial Chemicals for any chemicals used in the process of finishing cloth. 

The following is a list of chemicals compiled originally in 1989:

FORMALDEHYDE:  Unregulated for many years, the US Government has finally regulated the use of formaldehyde in the textile industry by reducing the amount of formaldehyde used in cloth.  Formaldehyde is found in quilt cloth, synthetic textiles, bedding, perma-press finishes, paper products, cleaning solutions, pharmaceuticals, cigarettes, newspapers, pesticides, preservatives, antiseptics, deodorants, auto exhaust, jet fuels, industrial emissions, photochemical smog, embalming fluids and so on.  It is an organic compound and an aldehyde.  Given its widespread use, its toxicity and volatility, exposures to formaldehyde is a significant consideration towards compromising human health and a known human carcinogen. 

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

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

ACETEPHONE:  is used in perfumes, solvents, pharmaceuticals and resins as a polymerization agents.  Resins are used in the finishing process of the cotton textiles quilters work with in their quilts.

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

ACRYSOL:  is a paint thickener, used in fabric coating adheisives, 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 animo with an aldehyde, primarily formaldehyde.  Other forms of amino resins are:  dimethylol urea, melamine resins, urea formaldehyde resins.

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

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

TOLUENE:  this 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-product of styrene.  It is used in the refinement of gasoline, resins, paints, adheisives, printing mat erials, glues, solvents, perfumes, dyes, pharmaceuticals, detergents, aviation gasoline.  It is a health hazard, it causes neurotoxic damage.

As time went on and I was not recovering as expected, Dr Zoltan Rona provided me with an Elisa blood test.  This is an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay commonly used in analytical biochemistry.  As a result of the Elisa test, my blood showed evidence of some of the chemicals used in the finishing process of cloth, primarily, toluene, malaic anhydride and pentachlorophenal.  Women’s College Hospital in Toronto now has an Environmental Health Clinic and recognizes that EI or Environmental Sensitivities is a legitimate medical disorder and while there are no medications to deal with it, changing my lifestyle, where I lived, what I ate and so on, has helped restore my health to some degree. 

O Ecotextiles Newsletter, in 2013, listed further chemicals used in the finishing process of cloth. 

  1. Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEO’s)
  2. Dichloromethane (DCM)
  3. Phthalates
  4. Polybrominated Diphenylethers (PBDE’s)
  5. Perfluoro-octane Sulphonates (PFOS)
  6. Heavy metals such as copper, cadminum, lead, antimony, mercury.

And from this same source, January 29th, 2015:

Phthalates used in textiles:

Generally, phthalates are used to make plastic soft.  They are also found in perfumes, hair sprays, deodorants, almost anything fragranced (from shampoos to air fresheners to laundry detergents), nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, coating on wires and cables, shower curtains, raincoats, plastic toys, car steering wheels, dashboards, gearshifts (when you smell that ‘new car’ smell, you are smelling phthalates).  Medical devices contain phthalates (drip bags, soft tubing, etc).  Phthalates are found in our food and water, as well.  In dairy products, meats, tap water that has been tainted by industrial wastes, in pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables.  And in cloth.

In relation to environmental exposures to chemicals, this quote is from the book by Phil Brown Toxic Exposures, pp. 262:

Academic science is largely silent on environmental factors.  Environmental epidemiologists and universities dependent on corporate and government support makes it harder for scholars to challenge established authority. 

pp. 258:  As scientists have long understood, it is often dangerous to engage in discovery, treatment and prevention of most environmentally induced diseases (illnesses) due to industry involvement.


Quilt cloth:

 While it is recognized that certain artist’s materials are toxic to the user, textiles are not listed as a hazard.  Thus, those who work with textiles and who may eventually find themselves experiencing some unusual reactions or cancer, knowledge of the toxicity of textiles may be helpful in understanding when our immune systems malfunction. 

Recommended Reading:

Brown, Phil:  Toxic Exposures, Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Health Movement. (c) 2007 Columbia University Press:  pp 166, 167, 168; pp. 180, 181; pp. 258, 259, 260.

Joseph, Marjory L.  Introductory Texile Science, 5th or 6th editions, chapters 26, 27 deal more specifically with the chemicals used in the finishing of cloth (pp. 281-319)

Postscript:  When I shared this article with a quilt shop owner recently, she commented on the fact that some quilt shop owners, women, were experiencing more breast cancer.  Chemicals in cloth can affect our immune systems and our health unfortunately.  Still, I quilt.  Quilting is my life.  

Contact information: 


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