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Ruth Benerito, Patent #3,432,252 and the Story Behind Wrinkle-Resistant Apparel

Ruth BeneritoEver wonder who invented wrinkle-resistant (also known as wash and wear) cotton apparel? It was Ruth Mary Rogan Benerito - a woman who defied the odds to become an award-winning chemist.

Born and raised in early 20th century New Orleans, Benerito grew up during an era when women typically did not go on to higher education. However, her father believed that his daughters should have the same education as his sons and encouraged all of his children to attend college.

Benerito completed high school at age 14, entered college at 15 and graduated with her degree in chemistry during the Great Depression. However, jobs were scarce and she was unable to secure research work. Unfazed, she took a day job teaching and enrolled in night classes to earn her graduate degree, first earning her master's at Tulane University and then her doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago.

After graduation, she began a long career studying crops at the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Southern Regional Research Center. Soon, she took an interest in cotton - specifically, preventing wrinkles in clothing made from that type of material.

Creases in clothing may not seem like a big deal these days, but back then, a family needed considerable time to wash and iron clothing, which took away from other priorities. Benerito was interested in saving families time, so she studied the chemistry behind wrinkles and in 1953, submitted patent #3,432,252 for crosslinking - a process that prevents creases in cotton fabric.

Crosslinking is the process of soaking cotton fibers in chemicals (originally formaldehyde and related substances) that act as a strengthener between the fibers, making them stronger and less susceptible to breaking when wet - thus creating a shirt that is wrinkle-resistant.

The process wasn't perfect, however. The chemicals weakened the fibers so the clothing didn't last as long and the formaldehyde proved to be toxic to humans. Yet, it was a strong beginning and it started decades of research that led to the discovery of a non-toxic and long-lasting method of crosslinking that was introduced to the retail market in 1992.

Today, thanks to Benerito's discovery, you can find wrinkle-resistant clothing in many stores, including our promotional apparel section.

Benerito went on to file 54 other cotton manufacturing patents and in 2002, she was awarded the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. As of this posting, Benerito is still alive and living in New Orleans.