What Is Polyester Made Of And How Easy Is It To Work With?

When some people hear the word polyester, they think of scratchy synthetic clothes in garish colors. But there are a lot of different types of polyester, with a wide range of textures and thicknesses. You’ll find polyester by itself, blended with other fibers, and even disguised as more expensive materials like silk.

What is it, and what is polyester made of? The history and processes behind this ubiquitous fabric are quite interesting. So come along and learn where polyester came from and where you’ll find it today.

What is Polyester Made From?

polyester fabric

Polyester is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of synthetic and semi-synthetic materials. Most commonly, the term “polyester” refers to a compound called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). However, different polyesters may contain one or more synthetic or naturally derived ingredients, including plant cutin. [1]

Is polyester plastic, then? Yes, it is. But it’s so much more than that.

You may recognize some specific fabrics which fall into the polyester category, such as:

  • Dacron
  • Mylar
  • Terylene
  • Terycot
  • Terywool
  • PET

Although for many of us, the word brings fabrics to mind, there are different polyesters for a variety of uses. Mylar, the shiny film you might recognize from thermal blankets and foil balloons, is a polyester. PET plastics are another everyday polyester used widely for beverage bottles. And PETF (PET film) is common in packaging and other applications.

How is Polyester Made?

Where does polyester come from?

The four main ingredients of polyester material are coal, air, water, and petroleum. Long, strong polyester molecules are formed by a chemical reaction between an acid and an alcohol. 

Like rayon, polyester fabric fibers are extruded. That is, once the chemical reaction forms long molecules, the mixture is pushed out into a long ribbon. The ribbon is then dried and cut into chips. The chips are mixed and melted down, then subjected to a spinneret to form fibers.

After that, the fibers may go through additional processes. 

They may be calendered, for example. Calendering means using high pressure rollers to press fibers at high heat. This makes fibers stronger and smoother.

Polyester fibers may also undergo singeing. This makes them more pill-resistant and improves the texture.

At this point, a manufacturer may also treat the fibers to make them more resistant to stains or water.

Once treated, manufacturers can knit or weave the fibers into fabric. The fabric may consist of polyester fibers alone, or it may have a mixture of fibers. Polyester fibers add stretch, durability, and wrinkle-resistance to natural fibers like cotton.

You can even recycle some polyester products to make other polyester products, like in the video below.

When Was Polyester Invented?

Research into synthetic fibers goes back to the 1920s, and led to the first synthetic fabrics, which included nylon. This research was largely the work of W.H. Carothers, who was working for DuPont at the time. 

Meanwhile, in Britain, the International General Electric Company patented polyester. 

Chemists John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dixon at Imperial Chemical Industries later expanded on Carothers’ research. Their work would produce PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) in 1941, as well as the first polyester fabric, Terylene.

In 1946, DuPont purchased the legal rights to these materials from Imperial Chemical Industries.

A bit later, in 1950, DuPont produced Dacron. Dacron is a polyester fiber that incorporates the technology used to make nylon. Dupont subsequently produced Mylar, PET film, and other related products.

After that, the number and varieties of polyester materials exploded. Today you can find polyesters in hundreds of different applications, from garments to housewares and furnishings, to industrial applications that may surprise you.

The Difference Between Nylon and Polyester

Nylon and polyester are similar in a lot of ways. They’re both petroleum-based synthetic fabrics. Both are easy to wash, quick to dry, and resist both UV rays and mildew. You’ll find both in a variety of clothing, housewares, and furnishings. The two fabrics also have a wide range of industrial applications. [2]

Chemically, the difference is subtle. Polyester is a polymer. That is, it’s a chemical compound that consists of large molecules made up of smaller molecules of the same type. Nylon is a polyamide. A polyamide is one type of synthetic polymer that has molecules connected by amide bonds. [3, 4, 5]

But what are the differences that matter most to the consumer? In general, you’ll find that:

  • Nylon is stronger and more durable than polyester
  • Nylon is also more weather resistant
  • Polyester is heavier than nylon
  • Polyester is less expensive than nylon

Also, although both materials have a negative environmental impact, they each have an upside. Nylon is made from the by-products of oil refining. As for polyester, it can be recycled to make other polyester products.

Are There Different Types of Polyester Fabric?

polyester sweater

You might think there are a lot of different types, given polyester’s multitudinous forms and uses. However, all of the different varieties of polyester fabric fall into two categories: PET and PCDT.

PET Polyester

PET polyester materials are made from polyethylene terephthalate. The main ingredient of PET polyester is ethylene from petroleum. Catalysts turn the ethylene into a polymer. The polymer is then extruded and dried. The dried PET ribbon is then cut into very small pieces, blended, and spun into yarn.

PET polyester is the most widely used polyester. You no doubt know the term from beverage bottles and food containers. However, PET fabric is also widely used in garment construction.

PCDT Polyester

PCDT polyester and PET polyester both result from a similar process. The difference is in the molecule. PCDT polyester is made by combining terephthalic acid with 1,4-cyclohexane-dimethanol.

Polyester Yarns

Both PET and PCDT polyester fibers can be spun into yarn. Polyester yarns can have a variety of different diameters and staple lengths. The differences in processing at this point account for the many, many weights and textures of different polyester fabrics. [6]

PET Filament Yarns

PET fibers can be spun into either monofilament or multifilament yarn. Both types have different subtypes with different properties. 

High-tenacity PET filament yarn appears in machine belts, ropes, nets, and other industrial applications.

Regular-tenacity semi-dull PET filament yarn is common in garments, including blouses, dresses, and lingerie.

Regular-tenacity bright PET filament yarn, on the other hand, appears in sheer, lightweight fabric like tulle, voile, and organdy.

Textured Yarns

PET multifilament yarns can be processed further to give them a variety of textures.

PET or PCDT Spun Yarns

Cut or staple (short fiber) PET and PCDT fibers can be spun to make yarn. These fibers may have different levels of tenacity (regular, mid, or high) and different levels of luster (bright, semi-dull, and dull).

These yarns may be spun alone. They are also commonly blended with other fibers such as cotton, rayon, and wool, before spinning.

What is Polyester Used For?

An easier question might be what isn’t it used for? Here is a long and incomplete list of where you might find different types of polyester.

Polyester Fabric Uses

  • Clothing
  • Lingerie
  • Linens and Housewares
  • Carpeting
  • Curtains
  • Upholstery
  • Handbags and Luggage
  • Outerwear
  • Tents and sleeping bags

Polyester Film Uses

  • Packaging
  • Audio and videotape
  • Metal can lamination

Other Uses for Polyester Materials

  • Beverage bottles
  • Food storage
  • Industrial belts
  • Synthetic artery replacements
  • Filters
  • Rope
  • Microwave susceptors

What is Polyester Like?

polyester care label

That’s a very broad question. Let’s narrow it down to polyester fabric, shall we? Love it or hate it, polyester fabric has some very unique characteristics.

Is Polyester Stretchy?

Yes.

Polyester’s unique chemical properties make it naturally stretchy. This is what makes polyester clothing so figure-forgiving and comfortable. Different polyester blends, however, may have a bit less stretch.

In general, polyester fabric snaps right back into place after stretching. If this isn’t the quality you’re looking for with your project, try a blend of polyester and a natural fiber, like cotton. A blended fabric will have some stretch, but not quite as much as 100 percent polyester.

Is Polyester Soft?

Again, this depends. 100 percent polyester can be scratchy. However, some treatments produce a soft, silky texture. Also, when blended with other fibers, polyester can be softer.

Is Polyester Waterproof?

Yes and no. Polyester fibers are waterproof. In fact, they repel moisture. But the gaps between fibers in a polyester fabric may let water in. The good news is, though, that because the fibers repel water, polyester fabric dries very quickly.

Does Polyester Shrink?

Generally no. Polyester is a shrink-resistant, wrinkle-resistant fabric. For this reason, polyester fibers are often combined with fibers that shrink and wrinkle easily, like cotton and wool.

Is Polyester Breathable?

Again, generally no. Being a synthetic, petroleum-based material, polyester fibers don’t allow air to pass through them. However, a loosely woven polyester fabric may allow for some air flow.

What Does Polyester Feel Like?

This depends on several things: the type of yarn with which the fabric was created, any processing that the fibers have undergone, and whether the polyester fibers have been blended with other types of fibers.

100 percent polyester has a scratchy, plasticky feel to it. It’s also very stretchy, and not very breathable. Polyester blends may have softer, smoother textures.

Why Has Polyester Become So Popular?

Polyester is everywhere — and for good reason? Why, you might ask. Let us tell you.

Versatile

Is there any other single material that can comprise your gym bottle, the uppers of your athletic shoes, the carpet beneath your workout equipment, and the clothing on your body? Polyesters are incredibly versatile. It would be fair to say that life as we know it would hardly be the same without the different types of polyester.

Shrink Resistant

Polyester fabric is incredibly shrink resistant. Although high heat can melt 100 percent polyester, it’s safe to throw it into the washing machine. Its shrink resistance is one of the main reasons cotton/polyester blends are so popular for t-shirts and other garments.

Wrinkle Resistant

One of the reasons polyester clothing is so popular is that you don’t have to iron it. That saves both time and effort.

Abrasion Resistant

Polyester fabric resists damage caused by abrasion. Special treatments can also make it resist pilling.

Resilient

Not only does polyester hold its shape, but if you stretch it, it will snap back into that shape immediately.

Easy to Wash and Dry

There are fewer fabrics more easy to care for than stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, machine washable, quick-drying polyester.

Moisture Wicking

Polyester fabric isn’t waterproof, but it’s not absorbent, either. It will wick moisture from the skin and dissipate it outside of your garment.

Insulating

Although polyester isn’t particularly breathable, it can provide an excellent barrier against wind, and traps heat next to your skin. This makes it an excellent material for windbreakers and outerwear.

How Easy Is Polyester to Work With?

Once again, this depends upon how the fibers have been treated, spun, and blended. Do you want to know how to sew polyester? Then there are a few tips and tricks that you’ll need to know. 

Pre-Treat Your Polyester

Wash your polyester in cold water and press it with low heat before laying out your pattern. Pre-treating your fabric in this way will remove any excess coatings or dyes that might interfere with your sewing.

Layout is Important

It’s important to pay attention to the direction of your fabric’s stretch when laying out your pattern pieces. Make sure your pattern is designed for stretch fabrics. Follow the pattern directions when it comes to layout and cutting. 

The Right Thread

Always match synthetic fabrics with synthetic thread. Polyester thread will stretch with your polyester fabric. This will prevent both puckering and thread breakage.

The Right Needle

For any project, start with a new needle. Also, use a ballpoint needle labeled for stretch fabrics, and match the weight rating of your needle to the weight of your fabric. Check out our article on needle selection for more information.

The Right Stitch

For sewing polyester, use a zigzag or stretch stitch. For best results, use a stitch length of between 0.5 millimeters to 1.5 millimeters (0.020 inches to 0.059 inches).

Stabilize if Necessary

Polyester fabric, particularly polyester satin, can be slippery. Sew a test swatch. If your polyester slips and slides around beneath the needle, you may want to pin it to tissue paper in order to stabilize it.

Are There Downsides to Polyester?

The most significant downsides of polyester are environmental. Polyester is a petroleum product. As such, it relies on the production of fossil fuels. Also, although polyester is recyclable, it’s not biodegradable. This means that our polyester products will be with us for a very, very long time.

Fossil Fuel Derived

Two of polyester’s main ingredients are coal and petroleum. In fact, polyester can consist of up to 60 percent petroleum. Why is this a problem? [7]

First, the extraction of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum is highly polluting. Extraction releases the greenhouse gas methane, which is 20 times more destructive than CO2. In addition, oil spills pollute both land and water. Fossil fuel extraction also disrupts wildlife and leads to biodiversity loss. [8]

Pollution

The production of polyester requires the use of heavy chemicals. In polyester-producing countries with lax environmental laws, these chemicals are often discharged into the environment, polluting air, land, and water.

On top of that, washing polyester releases microfibers into wastewater. The wastewater then makes its way into lakes, oceans, and rivers, where it devastates plant and animal life. These microfibers comprise more than one third of the ocean’s plastic pollution. [9]

Is Polyester Biodegradable?

No. However, polyester products can easily be recycled into other polyester products.

Is Polyester Toxic?

Many of the chemicals used to produce polyester are toxic. Polyester fibers and the processes that lead to them are definitely toxic to the environment. 

While it goes without saying that you probably shouldn’t eat it, there’s little evidence that wearing polyester will harm you.

polyester yarn on weaving machine

Natural Alternatives to Polyester

The good news is, there are natural alternatives to polyester. The bad news is, they’re often more expensive. And, quite frankly, some fabrics are less fit for certain purposes.

Cotton

When it comes to polyester vs. cotton, there are a few similarities:

  • Cotton and polyester are both durable
  • Both cotton and polyester are hypoallergenic
  • Polyester and cotton are both recyclable
  • Both fabrics are moisture wicking

But there are also some significant differences when it comes to cotton vs. polyester:

  • Cotton is natural, while polyester is synthetic
  • Polyester is insulating; cotton is breathable
  • Cotton is absorbent; polyester repels moisture
  • Polyester is stretchy; cotton is not
  • Cotton wrinkles easily; polyester is wrinkle resistant
  • Polyester is more resilient than cotton
  • Cotton shrinks easily, while polyester is shrink resistant
  • Polyester is not biodegradable; cotton is
  • Cotton is less weather resistant than polyester

Manufacturers love to pair these two fabrics. This is because they’re very different. At the same time, when blended, polyester and cotton provide some of the best qualities of both.

Linen

Linen is a fabric woven from flax fibers. It’s one of the oldest fabrics, and has been traced back to hunter-gatherer times. [10]

Linen is durable and thick, so, like polyester, it’s suitable for a variety of clothing and housewares applications. It’s also breathable and excellent for hot weather use. It’s also absorbent, heat-conducting, quick-drying and hypoallergenic like polyester.

At the same time, linen can be quite expensive. It’s also very prone to wrinkling, staining, and shrinking. And linen has no natural stretch, which may or may not be an advantage, depending on your project.

Silk

Some polyester fabrics are marketed as silk alternatives. Silk, therefore, is another natural alternative to polyester. For lingerie, blouses, and bedding, you can’t get much more luxurious than silk.

The downside, however, is that silk can be prohibitively expensive. It’s also generally not machine washable like polyester. Silk is also delicate and very vulnerable to wrinkling.

Polyester vs. Lyocell

You might see Lyocell marketed as a natural alternative to polyester. It is and it isn’t.

Lyocell is a type of rayon that’s derived from wood cellulose. It’s not a natural fabric, though. Technically it’s a semi-synthetic. That is, it’s derived from a natural product, but undergoes heavy chemical processing in order to produce its fibers. 

Some of the advantages of Lyocell include:

  • It’s naturally biodegradable
  • The cellulose comes from trees farmed without pesticides or irrigation
  • The solvents used in production are recycled
  • Production uses less water and energy than polyester production

Lyocell can be slightly more expensive than polyester, but it’s definitely less expensive than linen and silk. [11]

Polyester: Love It or Hate It?

Polyester is one of the most versatile and widely used materials today. In addition to its ubiquity in clothing manufacture, you’ll find polyester in medical supplies, electronics, and numerous machine and industrial applications.

Polyester fabric is easy to care for and relatively easy to sew. When combined with other fibers, such as cotton and wool, polyester adds strength, stretch, and wrinkle resistance.

At the same time, polyester production is resource-intensive and highly polluting. It depends upon fossil fuel extraction for its core ingredients. On top of that, it’s a prodigious source of plastic pollution.

Do polyester’s uses and benefits outweigh the environmental devastation to which it contributes? This is a question every sewist must answer for themselves.

how to sew polyester

REFERENCES

  1. Biology Online | Cutin | https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/cutin
  2. Diffen Authors | Nylon vs. Polyester | https://www.diffen.com/difference/Nylon_vs_Polyester
  3. Alina Bradford | What Is a Polymer? | https://www.livescience.com/60682-polymers.html
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica | Polyamide | https://www.britannica.com/science/polyamide
  5. Collins Dictionary | Amide | https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/amide
  6. Rilon | What Is the Difference Between Filament and Staple Fibers? | https://rilonfibers.com/blog/difference-between-filament-and-staple-fibers
  7. Sarah Young | The real cost of your clothes: These are the fabrics with the best and worst environmental impact | https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/fabrics-environment-fast-fashion-eco-friendly-pollution-waste-polyester-cotton-fur-recycle-a8963921.html
  8. ResearchGate | Which is more potent on Global Warming, CO2 or CH4? Why do we relate Global Warming to CO2? | https://www.researchgate.net/post/Which_is_more_potent_on_Global_Warming_CO2_or_CH4_Why_do_we_relate_Global_Warming_to_CO2
  9. Ocean Clean Wash | What are microfibers? |https://www.oceancleanwash.org/the-issue/
  10. Kvavadze, Eliso, Ofer Bar-Yosef, Anna Belfer-Cohen, Elisabetta Boaretto, Nino Jakeli, Zinovi Matskevich, and Tengiz Meshveliani | 30,000 Years old wild flax fibers – Testimony for fabricating prehistoric linen | https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/4270521
  11. Lyocell | The lyocell, An Environmentally Sustainable Fiber | https://lyocell.info/

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