Plush bunny

Easter bunnies aren't what they used to be.

The plush toys on store shelves these days are cheaper, often safer, and much, much softer than in bygone days. They represent a small example of a pervasive phenomenon: goods whose quality has improved gradually but significantly over time, without corresponding price increases and or public recognition.

If you shop around, you can find a stuffed Easter bunny for three dollars, as you could in the 1970s. My neighborhood Target is selling two models at that price, the cheapest in a lineup of plush Easter toys that includes offerings for $4.99, $9.99 and $19.99 (for a giant rabbit).

Back in 1970, when I myself was young enough for Easter baskets, Walgreens advertised "plush bunnies in 'hot' colors" for $2.97, along with others for $2.19 and $3.77.

The $2.97 bunny from 1970 was probably bigger than today's $2.99 model, but keep in mind that these prices are not corrected for inflation. The 1970 bunny would cost$17.97 in today's dollars. Or, to use another benchmark, the federal minimum wage in 1970 was $1.45 -- about half the price of one of those Walgreens bunnies -- compared with today's minimum of $7.25, more than double the price of the Target ones. Earning enough to buy the 1970 bunny required 123 minutes of minimum-wage labor versus about 25 minutes today.

Three-dollar bunnies are low-profit items designed to get people in the store and stimulate impulse buying. But the broad pattern applies to more expensive stuffed animals as well: Prices have stayed low. For that, you can thank intense international competition.

Like apparel manufacturing, making plush stuffed animals is a labor-intensive that, beginning with Japan in the 1960s, has served as an early stage in economic development for East Asian countries. Stuffed-toy production moved to South Korea in the 1980s, then to Taiwan, "and then from Taiwan to southern China, then from southern China to northern China, and then from northern China to Indonesia, Vietnam and such," explained Monica Fitzhugh, the California- based director of product development for Aurora World, founded in Seoul.

Consumers have come to expect low prices. But inexpensive doesn't necessarily mean "cheap." The quality of stuffed toys has also improved.

"It's a better product than it was years ago, and it's not that much more expensive," said Steven Meyer, the third-generation owner of Mary Meyer Corp., a Vermont-based toy company. Meyer joined the company in 1986, helping his father weather the tough transition to manufacturing in Korea.

For example, Meyer explained, Korean and Taiwanese toymakers introduced safety procedures, later copied in China, to assure the toys didn't contain hidden hazards.

"Every one of our toys is put through a metal detector before it goes into a box, and that's because a little shard of a sewing needle can break off and go into the toy," Meyer said. "We never thought of that when we produced in the United States."

More immediately apparent is how the toys feel. A stuffed animal that would have delighted a baby boomer now seems rigid and rough. Today's toys are stuffed with soft, fibrous polyester rather than the foam rubber, sawdust or ground nut shells of the past. Plush outer fabrics no longer have stiff backings; the yarns are knitted to one another rather than attached to a rigid fabric like a carpet. "The whole stuffed toy feels softer and slouchier," Meyer said.

The real magic, however, is in that silky faux fur.

I first noticed it about a dozen years ago while buying Christmas presents for my nephew, who has super-sensitive skin and hates clothing tags and scratchy fabrics. Stuffed animals, I discovered, were as different from my childhood toys as a wickable polyester workout T-shirt is from a sweat-sticky polyester disco suit.

The secret to both wickable T-shirts and softer Easter bunnies lies in polyester microfibers. These high-tech textiles have replaced the acrylic and polyester plushes that once covered stuffed toys just as they've nudged aside cotton for exercise apparel.

It's a remarkable technical and cultural achievement. Post-disco, polyester was synonymous with cheap, uncomfortable and unfashionable. "Pity poor polyester. People pick on it," the Wall Street Journal said in a 1982 article chronicling manufacturers' attempts to rehabilitate the fiber's image.

What brought polyester back into fashion wasn't marketing but years of innovation, with textile engineers on three continents making extraordinary gains in producing ever-finer fibers.

Textile fibers, including polyester filaments, are measured in decitex or deniers, almost equivalent units unique to the business. For reference: Silk measures about 1.1 to 1.3 decitex, while human hair is 30 to 50. A microfiber is anything less than 1 decitex.

Although polyester microfibers date to Toray Industries' development of Ultrasuede in 1970, they have become widespread only in recent years, thanks in part to massive plant investments in China that have swamped the polyester market and driven down prices. Back when I was buying toys for my nephew, polyester fibers of around 3 decitex "were considered fine," said Frank Horn, president of the Fiber Economics Bureau, the statistical collection and publication arm of the American Fiber Manufacturers Association. But over the past decade or so, true microfibers have "become ubiquitous."

Now, Horn estimated, the average is about 0.5 decitex -- a reduction of about 85 percent -- and some popular microfibers are as fine as 0.3 decitex. The finer the fiber, the softer the final fabric - making today's stuffed animals extraordinarily silky.

Largely unheralded outside the textile business, this progress was "not one particular technology but many," explained textile chemist Phil Brown of Clemson University's materials science and engineering school. "Some involved changing fiber shape, some involved using chemical treatments to reduce fiber size, some involved new fiber extrusion technologies in which fibers have more than one polymer component."

Making more delightful children's toys wasn't the primary goal of these innovations, of course. Much bigger is the apparel market, where we also tend to take low prices and higher quality for granted. A super-soft Easter bunny is a nice reminder that not all technological progress involves programming and pixels. Some of it you can hug next to your face.

Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics, and public policy.

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