“Polyester is a non-biodegradable fabric which can take up to 20-200 years to decompose”. This statement that I recently read in a science book has colored all my subsequent clothing purchases. But my conviction, wrong or otherwise, does not matter to the world and Polyester today is one of the top fabrics for making clothes.
When I ask google “What percentage of clothing is made from polyester?” it quotes this website that “Polyester is found in approximately 60 percent of garments on retail shelves today. That equates to approximately 21.3 million tons of polyester—a 157 percent increase between 2000 and 2015”.
What is Polyester Fabric?
Polyester fabric is a synthetic man-made fabric made from polyester fibers which are manufactured from a category of polymers made from oil. Polyester fiber is the most commonly used manufactured fiber worldwide.
The polyester fabric is one of the strongest fabrics with many qualities that make it suitable for manufacturing apparel and home furnishing and many items for industrial purposes. It may be knit or woven to make silk-like fabrics.
It was first manufactured in 1941 by Dupont and the first polyester fiber called Terylene.
In 1951 when the first U.S. Commercial Polyester Fiber Production was undertaken by the DuPont Company polyester was not much to write home about. But since then a lot has changed about Polyester. By 2007 polyester has emerged as one of the most prominent fibers for fabric production – a decreased cotton production, as well as other natural fabrics, has to lead to polyester gaining unprecedented popularity in the fashion stakes.
Reference: History of Polyester
Most of the Polyester polymers are made by mixing ethylene glycol (derived from petroleum) and terephthalic acid. Terephthalic acid is also made from para-xylene, which is distilled from petroleum and then highly purified. The most common polyester for fiber purposes is polyethylene terephthalate(PET) which is used to make bottles.
Polyester Fiber is described as :
”A manufactured fiber in which the fiber-forming substance is any long chain synthetic polymer composed of at least 85% by weight of an ester of a substituted aromatic carboxylic acid, including but not restricted to substituted terephthalate units, and para-substituted hydroxy-benzoate units.” in 2 Rule 7(c) of Federal Trade Commission of USA. You can find this info on page 2 of the document here.
More details on polyester production as found on the website of Tecnon Orbichem, a chemical data company,as found here
- Polyester (filament and staple) makes up 95%+ of future global synthetic fibre production growth
- Global polyester staple production growth during last five years 6.4%Production increases in 2012/13 for polyester staple production slowed significantly after above trend growth in 2010/11 due to cotton substitution
- As with polyester filament, China dominates with 65% of global production
Polyester fabric test
But do you really have the polyester fabric? – Check it with a simple fabric testing as mentioned in detail here – When you try to burn polyester the fabric will shrink from the flame at first. But then it will burn slowly giving off black smoke. The fibers will give out a chemical odor. The residue will look like a hard cream-colored bead at first but then it will turn to a darker color.
Major types of Polyester fabrics used today.
Microfiber fabric, produced with polyester fibers, have properties like moisture wicking and moisture resistance which makes them ideal for making sports apparel. They are very lightweight and comfortable to wear. They can also be water repellent and can be worn to resist rain and wind conditions. Microfiber can also be a blend of polyester and nylon fibers.
PET polyester is used to produce polar fleece fabric, after combining it with acrylic, nylon, or virgin polyester fiber to add strength.
Polyester fabric – blends
Polyester yarns are woven or knitted as they are or combined with other fibers forming blended fabrics. Cotton, linen, ramie, rayon and wool fibers are blended this way.
These blended fabrics have qualities that belong to the extra fibers combined with the properties of polyester fibers. When blended with cotton the fabric takes on qualities like wrinkle-resistance and low shrinkage and breathability to a degree. But the bad qualities may also be inherited like a tendency to melt with high heat.
Velvet is a cotton/polyester blend fabric and it is one of the most used fabric for making clothes and upholstery. Broadcloth is a blend of cotton and polyester and it is very popular as a dressmaking fabric. Rayon and polyester blends (Rayon challis) are great as dressmaking fabric as they are very soft and drapey. Polyester/spandex blend is used to make fitting figure-hugging clothes
Many polyester fabrics are woven or treated with fabric finishes that make them look like natural fabrics- this fabric looks like jute but is really polyester.
What is Polyester Fabric used for?
Today polyester fabric is used to make affordable, functional, easily maintainable garments and to make low cost and easy to maintain home furnishings like bed sheets, upholstery covers, curtains.
A blend of cotton and Polyester is used to make shirts, blouses and other clothes; the polyester /wool blend is good as suit fabric. 100% polyester is used to make upholstery cloth, awning fabric, jackets, lining. Polyester fiberfill is used as stuffing in cushions, comforters, mattresses, quilts, and pillows.
Monofilament thread used in sewing and embroidery is made with polyester fiber. Sewing thread made with polyster is very strong.
Polar fleece made with polyester fibers is used to make outdoor clothes. Pleated fabrics are almost always polyester
Characteristic qualities of the Polyester fabric.
Polyester is inexpensive
The topmost quality that trumps everything for the textile industry is the fact that polyester fabric is cheap compared to any other fabric. It is cheaper to produce. Polyester is made from crude oil and the decreased price of oil means that the production cost of polyester is low.Polyester/cotton-blended fabric is cheaper than 100% cotton.
Polyester is very strong and durable
Polyester fiber is counted as an extremely strong fiber. Straps made of Polyester are said to be stronger than steel. It is not easily damaged by most chemicals/alcohol/oil. It is also resistant to stretching and shrinking when washed. It remains strong even when it is wet, unlike natural fibers. A major quality that I read everywhere about polyester is its abrasion resistance. It is also not damaged by sunlight
Polyester is lightweight and flexible
Though polyester is strong the fabric is very fine and lightweight. It also has elasticity.
Polyester is easy to maintain
Polyester is easy to wash and clean and dries very quickly. It does not wrinkle easily and also may not need ironing if taken out from the washing machine immediately after washing/drying. In fact, during the early days of Polyester discovery, this was one of the selling points that Dupont company used – a fabric that does not need ironing.
It also resists mildew, moths fungi and rot and cannot be damaged by insects. Polyester is somewhat stain resistant. Polyester clothing can also be dry cleaned
You can learn more about details like whether Polyester will shrink and other questions on Polyester care here
Related post: Know whether the fabric is really polyester or something else with the post on Burn test for fibers.
Polyester retains creases when heat pressed
Polyester is the fabric most often used to make pre-pleated fabrics as it can be pressed into heat set pleats without the use of chemicals. The quality of polyester to retain creases is called thermoplasticity.The best thing about pleated polyester fabric is that it remains soft even when heat is applied, unlike other fabrics.
More and more advances in technology results in polyester fabric with many desirable qualities that one would expect from a high quality highly used fabric -like sweat-wicking, the addition of anti-static fibers and flame-retardant fibers
Polyester is recyclable
The polyester can be recycled to form new fibers. Polyester fiber, yarn and fabric can be recycled.
Polyester has a high melting point
Polyester shows high resistance to heat. It does not burn with high heat till about 200-degree Celsius, even then it only softens and never burns, which is in contrast with natural fabrics which can burn easily with heat and hence they are reported to be unsuitable for making sleepwear for kids.
Polyester is non-absorbent
This quality is useful in making athletic apparel as it will manage moisture /sweat by wicking it away from the body during strenuous activity, keeping the body comfortable. Polyester microfiber is such a fabric that allows moisture to wick to the surface and quickly evaporate.
Disadvantages of Polyester fabric
There are many disquietening things about polyester – especially the fact that the production of this fabric involves high energy consumption and toxic emissions. The fact that the oil required for making Polyester is a non-recoverable resource is something to think about.
Dye carrier used to dye polyester fabrics is supposed to be toxic to humans.
When cotton is blended with polyester the resultant fabric pills a great deal. This is also true for other blends of polyester like rayon/polyester blends.
Another disadvantage of polyester as a dressmaking fabric is that it is not breathable like natural fabrics. So when you wear a polyester garment you will not be as comfortable. But newer innovations like Polyester microfiber are changing this aspect. Microfiber fabric can wick moisture and is breathable and comfortable
The worst thing about Polyester is that it does not decompose, but remain in the soil for many many years.
So is Polyester a bad fabric?
I have been wary of buying anything in polyester because of this ethical conscience thought lingering in my mind that maybe I am doing something good to the landfills in not buying polyester fabric.
But now I ease my mind saying that if the production process of polyester is bad, then this is so for all processes in the textile industry, even for natural fabrics. And Polyester can be recycled, which cannot be said about any other fiber.
Today polyester has replaced even cotton as the most popular fabric made on this earth -and I know I cannot take a vow ‘not-to-buy-polyester-ever’ anymore. It is already there in many of our clothes and accessories – as a lining material, as straps, as trims, or masked after being blended with natural fibers
You may not ‘love-or-hate’ Polyester but you cannot ignore it anymore.