Wednesday 30 September 2020

Petit Pli – a plastics contribution to slow fashion

When we think about plastics, it is easy to forget that this material family includes a large and ever-growing number of synthetic fabrics. Developed from the second half of the 19th century, familiar examples include polyester (introduced in 1941) with easy-care properties and Lycra® (invented in 1958) with in-built elasticity. Continuous improvement and innovation has led to engineered technical textiles with specific functional properties such as Nomex® (fire-resistance) and Kevlar® (strength).

Increasingly, we are seeing clothing made of recycled plastics commonly using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and recovered ocean plastics. These sit well with the concept of slow fashion, an approach that has been gaining increasing momentum over the past decade; a reaction against cheap, mass produced clothing and consumerism in favour of more ethical and sustainable standards. 

Image ref: MoDiP’s latest acquisition – the Petit Pli ‘clothes that grow’.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

One of MoDiP’s latest acquisitions is a particularly good example of this. The Petit Pli ‘clothes that grow’ childrenswear range is made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, and because no other fibres are included, the clothing can itself be more easily recycled at end of life. However, what is really exciting and different about the design is that it uses origami principles of folding in order to stretch to fit a growing child (there’s a really good demonstration of that here).

Image ref: The trousers stretched to show the smallest and largest size possible.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

So, how does it work? Literature that accompanies the clothes explains all:

Image ref: Petit Petit Pli literature explaining how their technology works.
Image credit: Petit Pli

The company are promoting their top/bottom sets as being able to grow up to seven different sizes, adapting to fit a child from 9 months to 4 years old, thereby removing the need to purchase additional clothing. Their patent-pending technology retains a memory so that the pleats can be easily reset if they get caught up in use - a horizontal tug simply pulls everything back in to place. Petit Pli have plans to expand by introducing adult clothing (they’re already producing masks for covid) and hope to inspire others to reduce unnecessary waste. 

This object will be available for viewing/research shortly.

Katherine Pell.
Collections Officer.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Dart and the humble, disposable EPS cup

You might be wondering what’s so special about a humble disposable expanded polystyrene cup and why it warrants a place in the Museum of Design in Plastics collection. 

It is an object that most of us have encountered at some point in our lives, but we now might do less frequently as manufacturers and take-away retailers respond to consumer demands for more environmentally friendly materials. But the fact remains, that expanded polystyrene does a great job when we want to retain the heat of our food and drink. It is cheap to produce, lightweight, so transport costs are low, and contrary to popular opinion, it can be recycled when the infrastructure is there.  

This rather fragile little cup has its origins in mid-20th century USA when American company Dart developed their first disposable hot drinks cup.   Dart Manufacturing Company was established in 1937 in Mason, Michigan, USA, manufacturing products such as plastic key cases, steel tape measures and ID tags for the armed services. In the late 1950s they had begun to experiment with expanded polystyrene foam and they began production of the first 6oz insulated foam cup in 1960.

By 1962 they had expanded their range to include 8 and 12oz cups and an 8oz food container, and in 1963 they changed their name to Dart Container Corporation.  Throughout the 1960s they expanded production and their range, opening plants across the USA and in 1965 fulfilled their first order for 1 million cups, to one customer in 1 month. 

In its first half century, Dart grew to become a global corporation with a range of more than 600 products for the food services, retail and packaging industries and is the worlds largest producer of single-use foam cups and containers. 

With an awareness that the recycling of expanded polystyrene is not as commonplace as the recycling of other plastics, Dart opened its free public EPS recycling facility in the West Midlands, UK in 2011. The company has an active environmental policy with many initiatives to limit or eliminate the impact of their products.

So next time you find yourself drinking from an expanded polystyrene foam cup, take a moment to look on the bottom. Chances are it will carry the DART logo and with it, decades of history. 

Pam Langdown, Documentation Officer.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Synthetica: a toxic enchantment ONLINE

Synthetica is a chamber opera about plastics with libretto and music by Karen Wimhurst, created during her residency at MoDiP. Following my post of 22 July, I am pleased to share the good news that Arts Council England have agreed that, because of the shut down of theatres caused by Covid 19, we can use our grant, intended to further performance of the work, in a different way. The project team has already met, some in person and some online, to work out how to develop the opera levering value from the virtual platform. Who knows, it could even turn out to have greater impact and we will not lose sight of the importance of again providing live performances when that becomes possible.

Currently there are eleven sung chapters that tell the story of plastics from the early expectations of this essentially modern materials group to the current troubling reality. These existing chapters will be presented Zoom-like by the singer, Brittany Soriano, and the trumpeter, Elaine Close, with vinyl accompaniment, reflecting the new normal. The viewer will be able to experience whichever chapter they feel drawn to, selecting from a turntable of possibilities along these lines, although the design is still very much work in progress:

Synethetica A toxic enchantment

Each chapter will provide inspiration for learning resources, which will be accessed through six objects from the MoDiP collection that tie in with the lyrics.

For example these lines from the chapter ‘Utopian Dream’:

Nature’s larder will be left untouched

Grained ivory, turtle shell, amber, horn,

mother of pearl, coral and the lac beetle

ebony, mahogany and oak,

the whale swims in the blue ocean

the elephant runs free

the leatherback turtle saved

might be accompanied by items such as these:

Ivory coloured powder bowl

Each MoDiP object will be the trigger for a particular learning resource aimed at Key Stages 3 to 5 (ages 11-18) consisting of a cross curricular series of ideas and tasks.

The opera itself poses the question where are we going now? Given the lesson history shows us, what are the possibilities in the new world we enter? With this in mind the website will contain a new chapter in the opera as imagined by young people.

We propose holding online workshops. The trumpeter and the composer will demonstrate trumpet techniques and approaches to writing fanfares. The singer and composer will collaborate on composition workshops in which small snatches of libretto will be written and sung. Participants will then be invited to submit their fanfares and thoughts about the future of plastics directly to the website. In addition to creating a new chapter we will build a resource from their ideas looking to the future value of plastics while acknowledging the issues that make many uneasy about the material group’s prevalence.

Susan Lambert, Chief Curator, MoDiP.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Your five a day

Inspired by our current #anappleaday social media campaign for September, I thought why not show how our collections can encourage us to reach the ultimate healthy-eating goal, and go the whole hog (not a great expression for a vegetarian) with a blog post featuring your 'five a day' fruit and veg.

Jif Lemon bottle

My first offering is this infamous - and easily recognisable - Jif lemon-juice container made from blow-moulded polythene. The design has remained relatively unchanged since the 1950s, so it is a definite winner in my book. Rich in vitamin C, lemon juice can add that much needed zing of acidity that enhances the taste of a whole range of dishes. So, although we wouldn’t eat a whole lemon in one go like we might eat an apple, its juice is one of the most versatile and commonly used ingredients in our daily diet.

The Cooks Carrot

My second object is this whisk, which has a carrot-shaped handle made of orange silicone and balloon wires covered in green silicone which look a bit like carrot tops. If this doesn’t inspire you to whisk up a healthy carrot soup, or maybe the ingredients for a ‘healthy’ carrot cake, then nothing will.

Bananice moulds

My third choice is this set of banana shaped ice lolly moulds. Each one has been made in the shape of a banana with the holders resembling peeled back banana skins. What better way to enjoy this potassium rich fruit, than mixed with yoghurt (and maybe a few strawberries) and frozen for a fun-filled fruity treat.

Strawberry Flip Syrup bottle

And talking of strawberries, my fourth choice is this strawberry-shaped, blow moulded bottle, used to contain syrup for flavouring (healthy skimmed milk) milk shakes – though you will have to add a handful of fresh strawberries, to count it as one of your 'five a day'!

Sweetcorn butter dish

My fifth and final object to inspire your ‘five a day’ is this polystyrene, butter dish in the shape of a corn-on-the-cob. And if you love the buttery taste of corn, where better than to keep your butter than in here? With vitamins B and C, as well as magnesium and potassium, corn is a much-loved summer vegetable which is enjoyed the world over.

You don’t have to be a vegetarian (or a vegan for that matter) to enjoy your happy, healthy ‘five a day’ diet, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction - and if our mouth-watering museum collections have helped steer you towards a fruitier way of thinking, then pile on the pick of the crops!

Julia Pulman, Museum Digital Communications Officer, MoDiP.

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Talking about toothbrushes

MoDiP has many toothbrushes in its collections. There are gimmicky ones like the thermochromic example, with a handle that changes colour with heat from the hand, or one that glows-in-the-dark. There are those conceived by well-known designers such as Philippe Starck and Martyn Rowlands. There are ergonomic toothbrushes with special grips, including one manufactured specifically for babies that incorporates a teething ring. There are toothbrushes made for travel and single-use, whilst others address plastics waste by offering replaceable heads. There are electric versions, interdental examples and ones with special mouldings for cleaning the tongue.

They all serve to provide an interesting glimpse into changing oral hygiene trends, but my absolute favourite has to be the Dr West’s Miracle-tuft toothbrush, acquired during lockdown and currently waiting to be catalogued (see image below). This fantastic example is unused, believed to have been traded/gifted to a Briton by an American GI during WWII. It is particularly special because the Miracle-tuft was the first successful commercial application of nylon (you can read more about this wonderful material here).


Dr West’s Miracle-tuft toothbrush, c. 1940–1945 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The Chinese are credited with inventing the concept of a bristle toothbrush in 1498, which they brought to Europe in the 17th century. One hundred years later, William Addis developed the first mass-produced toothbrush (involving some 53 separate stages) in London in 1780. Despite other manufacturers joining the market, the toothbrush remained a luxury item accessible only to the wealthy until the late 19th/early 20th century.

Natural materials such as wood, ivory and horn were all used for the handles, but bone soon became the preferred choice due its cheapness, availability and durability in withstanding the manufacturing processes. For the bristles, horse and badger hair were sometimes used but boar became the most popular because it was stiff enough to clean the teeth whilst being sufficiently flexible to avoid damage.

Dental catalogues first started to advertise synthetic handles in 1893, made of cellulose nitrate and offering no unpleasant odours when wet (such as those associated with bone), in a wide variety of colours. Technological advancements soon introduced improved plastics such as cellulose acetate and polymethyl methacrylate, but the bristles remained boar until February 1938 with the introduction of ‘Exton’ in the Dr Wests’ Miracle-tuft.


‘Exton’ nylon bristles. 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Advertised as having none of the undesirable qualities associated with natural bristles, the ‘Exton’ nylon would not break, split or shed, it would not scratch tooth enamel, was 100% waterproof so would not get ‘limp or soggy’ when wet, would dry quickly so was hygienic and it would last twice as long. The innovative new toothbrush was initially sold for 50 cents, packaged in a sealed, glass tube.

During the war, the brand utilised propaganda in its advertisements, suggesting the wartime need to keep healthy for victory was ‘making thousands of Americans realise that their old toothbrushes just won’t do!’ This excellent addition to MoDiP’s collections includes 14 contemporary adverts dating from 1940-1957, a few of which can be seen in the image below.


‘Life’ magazine adverts. 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Katherine Pell, Collections Officer