What is Polyester Fabric? How Polyester is Made

Polyester might bring to mind thoughts of coarse synthetic garments in bright, bold colors for some individuals. However, polyester exists in a variety of textures and weights. It can be used on its own, blended with other fibers, or even made to resemble more luxurious materials like silk.

Where does polyester come from, and what is it made of? This ubiquitous fabric has a fascinating history and production process. Let’s look at where polyester comes from and where you can find it today.

Key Takeaways

  • Polyester is a synthetic fabric primarily derived from petroleum and is widely used in numerous consumer and industrial applications.
    • It is a chemical polymer made up mainly of the ester functional group.
    • Commonly used in clothing, household items, and various industrial products due to its durability and resistance to environmental conditions.
  • The fabric was first developed in 1926 in the UK and mass-produced by DuPont in the US. It gained popularity due to its durability compared to natural fibers.
    • Initially celebrated for its durability, the environmental impact of polyester has been scrutinized in recent decades.
  • Polyester is created through different processes, with Ethylene Polyester (PET) being the most common type.
    • The production involves chemical reactions to form a stable fibrous compound, which can be processed into filament, staple, tow, and fiberfill.
  • China is the largest producer and market for polyester, followed by Taiwan, Korea, India, Japan, and Indonesia.
    • The global production network mainly keeps the produced fibers in Asia for making apparel and other consumables.
  • Polyester negatively impacts the environment at all stages of its lifecycle, from its production, which involves fossil fuels and toxic emissions, to its disposal, where it does not easily biodegrade.
    • The production process is energy-intensive and contributes to pollution and potential harm to workers and ecosystems.
  • Despite its environmental drawbacks, polyester remains popular due to its low cost, approximately $1 per pound for raw fiber, and versatility in manufacturing.
    • Due to its wide range of properties, the fabric can be made into nearly any clothing item and home goods, such as blankets and upholstery.
  • There are three major types of polyester: Ethylene Polyester (PET), Plant-Based Polyester, and PCDT Polyester, each with unique characteristics and uses.
    • PET is the most common, while plant-based options offer a more sustainable, albeit more expensive, alternative.
  • Polyester fabric may receive certifications, like OEKO-TEX Standard 100 for certain textiles and Global Recycle Standard (GRS) for recycled polyester, indicating efforts to mitigate some of its environmental impacts.

Understanding Polyester Fabric

The Basics of Polyester

Polyester is a synthetic polymer primarily made from petroleum-derived ethylene, known scientifically as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It’s characterized by its strength, durability, and resistance to shrinking and wrinkling, making it a popular choice in the textile industry.

Key Properties and Advantages

  • Synthetic Fabric Properties: Polyester is known for its exceptional durability and resistance to environmental conditions, making it suitable for outdoor and long-term use.
  • Polyester Fabric Uses: Polyester’s versatility is unmatched, from apparel like shirts and pants to industrial applications such as ropes and upholstery.
  • Petroleum-Based Textiles: The origin of polyester from petroleum gives it unique characteristics and poses environmental challenges.

If you are curious about how to clean synthetic fabric, we’ve got you covered!

The Production Process of Polyester

From Petroleum to Fabric

The journey of polyester from its raw petroleum state to fabric involves several chemical reactions. Ethylene glycol is reacted with dimethyl terephthalate or terephthalic acid to produce the polymer known as PET. This molten polymer is then extruded into fibers, which can be further processed into yarns for textile production.

Variants of Polyester

  • Ethylene Polyester (PET): The most common polyester used today.
  • Plant-Based Polyester: A more sustainable option from renewable resources like cane sugar.
  • PCDT Polyester: Known for its elasticity and durability, it is suitable for heavy-duty applications.

Polyester in Everyday Use

Polyester’s widespread popularity can be attributed to its extensive use in various domains, from fashion to home furnishings. Its ability to blend with natural fibers enhances fabrics’ functionality, providing a balance between comfort and durability.

What is Polyester Made From?

Synthetics and semi-synthetic materials fall under the umbrella term of polyester. A polymer is most commonly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can be found in polyesters. Plant cutin, however, may be present in some polyesters when they contain a synthetic or naturally derived ingredient.

Then polyester is plastic. That’s right. This is just a tiny part of what it is. There are several fabrics in the polyester category that you may recognize, including:

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

Even though many of us think of polyester as a fabric, different types of polyester have a variety of applications. Polyester is used in thermal blankets and foil balloons such as Mylar. The PET plastic used in beverage bottles is another everyday polyester. Packaging and other applications use PETF (PET film).

How is Polyester Made?

What is the origin of polyester? Coal, air, water, and petroleum are the four main components of polyester material. The chemical reaction between an acid and an alcohol produces long, strong polyester molecules.

Fabric fibers made from polyester are extruded like rayon. Once long molecules are formed by the chemical reaction, they are pushed out into a long ribbon. Chips are then cut from the dried ribbon. A spinneret forms fibers by melting the chips and spinning them. A further process may be applied to the fibers after that.

Calendered, for instance, is one way to do this. The process of calendering involves pressing fibers at high temperatures with high-pressure rollers. Strengthening and smoothing fibers are achieved through this process.

It is also possible to singe polyester fibers. This makes them more pill-resistant and improves their texture. Additionally, the fibers may be treated at this point to make them more stain- and water-resistant.

The fibers can then be knitted or woven into fabrics once treated. Polyester fibers may make up the fabric alone or may be mixed with other fibers. In addition to adding stretch and durability to natural fibers like cotton, polyester fibers provide wrinkle resistance.

When Was The Polyester Invented?

The first synthetic fabrics, which included nylon, were developed in the 1920s based on research into synthetic fibers. At the time, W.H. Carothers worked for DuPont and was largely responsible for this research. The International General Electric Company was also granted a polyester patent in Britain.

Imperial Chemical Industries’ John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dixon further developed Carothers’ research. In 1941, PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and Terylene, the first polyester fabric, were produced. Imperial Chemical Industries sold the rights to these materials to DuPont in 1946.

In 1950, DuPont began producing Dacron. The technology used to manufacture nylon is incorporated into dacron, a polyester fiber. In the following years, Dupont produced Mylar, PET film, and other products.

Polyester materials multiplied and became more diverse after that. Today, polyester can be found in hundreds of applications, from garments to housewares and furnishings to surprising industrial uses.

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What Is The Difference Between Nylon and Polyester?

What Is The Difference Between Nylon and Polyester?

There are many similarities between nylon and polyester. Both fabrics are petroleum-based synthetics. UV rays and mildew are resistant to both, and both fabrics are easy to wash and dry. The two are found in various clothing items, housewares, and furnishings. Industrial applications are also available for both fabrics.

There is a subtle chemical difference between the two. Polyester is a polymer composed of molecules. In other words, it’s a chemical compound composed of small molecules of the same kind arranged in a large structure. Polyamides such as nylon are polyamides. An amide bond connects molecules in a polyamide, a type of synthetic polymer.

To what extent do consumers care about these differences? Generally, you’ll find that:

  • Polyester is weaker and less durable than nylon
  • In addition, nylon is more resistant to the elements
  • The weight of polyester is greater than that of nylon
  • The cost of polyester is lower than that of nylon
  • As well as having a negative environmental impact, each material has a positive side. Oil refineries produce nylon as a by-product. It is possible to recycle polyester into other polyester products.

What Are The Different Types Of Polyester Fabric?

Given polyester’s multitudinous uses and forms, you might think there are many types. Polyester fabrics, however, can be categorized into two categories: PET and PCDT.

PET Polyester

Polyethylene terephthalate is used to make PET polyester materials. PET polyester is primarily composed of petroleum-derived ethylene, which is converted into a polymer by catalysts. After extrusion and drying, the polymer is ready for use. After the dried PET ribbon has been cut into tiny pieces, it will be blended with yarn and spun.

The most widely used polyester is PET polyester. Food and beverage containers probably familiarize you with the term. The use of PET fabric in garment construction is also widespread.

PCDT Polyester

PET polyester and PCDT polyester are both produced similarly. The difference is the molecule. Terephthalic acid and 1,4-cyclohexane-dimethanol are combined to make PCDT polyester.

Polyester Yarns

Two types of polyester fibers, PET and PCDT, can be spun into yarn. The diameter and staple length of polyester yarns can vary greatly. Because of this difference in processing, different polyester fabrics have various weights and textures.

PET Filament Yarns

Monofilament and multifilament yarns can be spun from PET fibers. Both types have different subtypes with different properties.

Many industrial applications use PET filament yarn with high tensile strength. Semi-dull PET filament yarn is commonly used in blouses, dresses, and lingerie garments.

On the other hand, Tulle, voile, and organdy are made of sheer, lightweight fabrics made of regular-tenacity PET filament yarn.

Textured Yarns

Various textures can be achieved by processing PET multifilament yarns.

PET or PCDT Spun Yarns

It is possible to make yarn from PET or PCDT fibers that have been cut or stapled (short fibers). The fiber may have regular, mid, or high tenacity and a bright, semi-dim, or dull luster.

It is possible to spin these yarns on their own. Blends of cotton, rayon, and wool are also expected before they are spun.

What is Polyester Used For?

What it isn’t used for might be a better question. Below are a few of the different types of polyester you might find.

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?

The question is comprehensive. Let’s limit our discussion to polyester fabric. Its unique characteristics make it a trendy choice, whether you like it or not.

What Is The Stretchability Of Polyester?

Due to its unique chemical properties, polyester is naturally stretchy. The figure-forgiving and comfortable nature of polyester clothing is due to this property. It is possible, however, for polyester blends to have varying degrees of stretch.

Stretching polyester fabric generally results in the fabric snapping right back into place. Try blending polyester with a natural fiber, like cotton, if this isn’t what you want. Compared to 100 percent polyester, a blended fabric has some stretch, but not as much as a 100 percent polyester fabric.

Is Polyester Soft?

This depends on a variety of factors. It can be scratchy to wear 100 percent polyester. The texture of some treatments, however, is soft and silky. Moreover, polyester can be softer if it is blended with other fibers.

Is Polyester Waterproof?

Both yes and no. Waterproof fibers are made of polyester. They repel moisture. Polyester fabrics may leak water through the gaps between fibers. The good news is that polyester fabric quickly dries due to its fibers’ ability to repel water.

Does Polyester Shrink?

In general, no. Polyester fabrics resist shrinkage and wrinkles. Cotton and wool, which shrink and wrinkle easily, are often combined with polyester fibers.

Is Polyester Breathable?

In general, no. Polyester fibers are synthetic, petroleum-based materials that do not allow air to pass through. Nevertheless, some air may pass through a loosely woven polyester fabric.

What Does Polyester Feel Like?

Several factors determine this, including the type of yarn used, how the fibers were processed, and whether they were blended with other fibers.

The feel of 100 percent polyester is scratchy and plasticky. It is also very stretchy and does not breathe well. Polyester blends may have a smoother, softer texture.

What Is the Reason for the Popularity of Polyester?

Why is polyester so popular? I’m sure you’re wondering why. Here’s what we at SewingWithEase can tell you.

100% polyester
  • Versatile – Would it be possible for your gym bottle, athletic shoes, the carpet underneath your workout equipment, and clothes to be made from any other material? There are a lot of uses for polyesters. There is no doubt that life would be very different without polyester.
  • Shrink Resistant—Polyester fabric is undoubtedly highly shrink-resistant. Even though polyester can melt at high temperatures, you can wash it without worry. The shrink resistance of cotton/polyester blends is one of the reasons they are so famous for t-shirts and other clothing.
  • Wrinkle-Resistant – You do not have to iron polyester clothing, which is one of the reasons it is so popular. Effort and time can be saved by doing that.
  • Abrasion Resistant – Polyester fabric is durable due to its abrasion resistance. Pilling can also be prevented with unique treatments.
  • Resilient – Besides holding its shape, polyester snaps back into shape after stretching.
  • Easy to Wash and Dry—Polyester is one of the easiest fabrics to care for. It is stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, machine washable, and quick-drying.
  • Moisture Wicking – Besides being waterproof, polyester fabric is also not absorbent. Moisture will be wicked away from the skin and dissipated outside your garment.
  • Insulating – Although polyester is not exceptionally breathable, it can act as a wind barrier and trap heat against your skin. Windbreakers and outerwear made from this material are excellent.

Is Polyester Easy to Work With?

This depends on the treatment, spinning, and blending of the fibers. Is sewing polyester something you want to learn? After that, you’ll need to know a few tips and tricks.

  • Polyester Should Be Pre-Treated—Wash and press your polyester with cold water before laying out your pattern. This will prevent seam interference caused by excess coatings or dyes.
  • A Good Layout Is Essential – When laying out your pattern pieces, keep an eye on the direction of your fabric’s stretch. Stretch fabrics should be considered when designing your pattern. When cutting and laying out the pattern, follow the directions provided.
  • The Right Thread—Synthetic fabrics should always be matched with synthetic threads. Polyester fabric will also stretch the thread, preventing puckering and thread breakage.
  • The Right Needle – It is always a good idea to start with a new needle for any project. Match the needle’s weight rating to the fabric’s weight, and use a ballpoint needle labeled for stretch fabrics.
  • The Right Stitch—The zigzag or stretch stitch is best for sewing polyester. To achieve the best results, stitch between 0.5 and 1.5 millimeters (0.020 and 0.059 inches).
  • Stabilize if Necessary – Slippery fabrics, such as polyester satin, are made from polyester. Make a test swatch. To stabilize your polyester, you may want to pin it to tissue paper if it slips under the needle.

What Are The Downsides Of Polyester?

Polyester’s most significant downside is its environmental impact. A petroleum-based product, polyester is made from polyester, so fossil fuels are necessary for its operation. In addition, polyester is not biodegradable, even though it is recyclable. Thus, we can look forward to the long-term existence of our polyester products.

Fossil Fuel Derived

Petroleum and coal are two of the main ingredients in polyester. As much as 60 percent of polyester can be petroleum-based. What is the problem with this?

Coal and petroleum are highly polluting fuels that are extracted from the ground. As a result of extraction, methane is released, which is 20 times more destructive than carbon dioxide. Land and water are both polluted by oil spills. As a result of fossil fuel extraction, wildlife is disrupted, and biodiversity is lost.

Pollution

Heavy chemicals are used in the production of polyester. When polyester-producing countries have lax environmental laws, these chemicals often pollute the air, land, and water.

Microfibers are also released into wastewater when polyester is washed. The wastewater destroys aquatic life and pollutes lakes, rivers, and oceans. One-third of the plastic pollution in the ocean comes from these microfibers.

Is Polyester Biodegradable?

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

Is Polyester Toxic?

Many of the chemicals used in polyester production are toxic. Polyester fibers and the processes that produce them are harmful to the environment.

The chances of getting sick from wearing polyester are small, even though you should probably avoid eating it.

Alternatives to Polyester Made from Natural Ingredients

It’s good news that natural alternatives can replace polyester. Unfortunately, they are usually more expensive. Some fabrics are not suitable for specific uses.

Cotton

The following are some similarities between polyester and cotton:

  • Both cotton and polyester are durable materials
  • The hypoallergenic properties of cotton and polyester are the same
  • Cotton and polyester can both be recycled
  • Both fabrics share moisture-wicking properties.

When it comes to cotton vs. polyester, there are also some significant differences:

  • Polyester is a synthetic material, while cotton is a natural material
  • Cotton is breathable; polyester is insulating
  • Polyester repels moisture; cotton absorbs it
  • Stretchy polyester is different from non-stretchy cotton
  • Polyester is wrinkle-resistant; cotton wrinkles easily
  • Cotton is less resilient than polyester
  • Polyester resists shrinkage, while cotton shrinks easily
  • Cotton is biodegradable; polyester is not
  • Polyester is more weather-resistant than cotton.

Manufacturers often pair these two fabrics, which have a great deal of difference. When they are blended, the best qualities of both polyester and cotton are combined.

Linen

Flax fibers are used to weave linen. Hunting-gatherer times can be traced back to the origins of this fabric.

Due to its durability and thickness, linen can be used for various clothing and household items. In addition to being breathable, it is excellent for use in hot weather. Furthermore, it’s quick-drying, hypoallergenic, heat-conducting, and absorbent.

The cost of linen, however, can be pretty high. Additionally, it is very prone to wrinkles, stains, and shrinkage. Depending on your project, linen does not have a natural stretch.

Silk

Polyester fabric is sometimes marketed as a silk substitute. Polyester can also be substituted with silk, another natural material. However, polyester isn’t much more luxurious than silk regarding lingerie, blouses, and bedding.

However, silk has a downside: it can be prohibitively expensive. Additionally, unlike polyester, it can’t be machine-washed. Silk is also very delicate, and wrinkles are a problem.

Polyester vs. Lyocell

Natural alternatives to polyester may be marketed as Lyocell. Both are true.

The cellulose found in wood is used to make Lyocell rayon. Although it is a fabric, it isn’t natural. In technical terms, it’s a semi-synthetic material. As such, it is derived from a natural product, but its fibers are produced through heavy chemical processing.

The following are some of the advantages of Lyocell:

  • The material is naturally biodegradable
  • Neither pesticides nor irrigation is used in the farming of cellulose trees
  • Recycling solvents is part of the production process
  • Water and energy are used less in polyester production than in cotton production
  • Compared to linen and silk, Lyocell is slightly more expensive than polyester.

Polyester Fabric FAQs

What exactly is polyester fabric and how is it made?

Polyester is a synthetic fabric primarily derived from petroleum. It is a polymer combining ethylene glycol with dimethyl terephthalate or terephthalic acid. The process can vary but typically involves melting the ingredients, extruding them into fibers, and then processing these fibers into yarns. Polyester is known for its durability, resistance to environmental conditions, and versatility in various applications, from clothing to home furnishings.

Why is polyester so widely used in clothing and other products?

Polyester’s popularity stems from its high durability, ease of maintenance, and affordability. It resists shrinking and wrinkling, making it a preferred choice for apparel and household items. Additionally, its ability to blend with other fibers enhances the quality and texture of fabrics, making them more versatile for different uses. Polyester’s wide range of applications, from everyday wear to industrial products, demonstrates its adaptability and efficiency.

Are there any environmental concerns associated with polyester fabric?

Yes, polyester production and disposal pose significant environmental challenges. Manufacturing is energy-intensive and relies on fossil fuels, contributing to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, polyester is not biodegradable, and its disposal leads to accumulation in landfills. Washing polyester garments also releases microplastics into waterways, affecting marine life and water quality.

How can consumers reduce the environmental impact of polyester?

Consumers can minimize polyester’s environmental footprint by opting for recycled polyester, which uses less energy and resources than virgin polyester. Additionally, washing clothes less frequently and using filters to catch microfibers can reduce the release of microplastics. Choosing high-quality polyester items that last longer and disposing of them responsibly through recycling programs also helps mitigate environmental harm.

What are the different types of polyester fabric available?

The most common polyester type is PET (polyethylene terephthalate), known for its strength and durability. PCDT (poly-cyclohexylene-dimethylene terephthalate) polyester, though less common, offers superior elasticity and resilience, making it suitable for heavy-duty applications. Plant-based polyesters, made from renewable resources like cane sugar, are emerging as more sustainable alternatives, offering similar benefits with a lower environmental impact.

How should polyester fabrics be cared for to ensure longevity?

Polyester fabrics are generally low-maintenance and durable. Depending on the specific fabric instructions, they can be machine-washed in cold, warm, or hot water. Avoiding high heat when drying and ironing is crucial to prevent melting or damage. Using mild detergents and avoiding bleach can also help maintain the fabric’s quality and appearance over time. Regular care and proper washing techniques can significantly extend the life of polyester garments and items.

Conclusion

In today’s world, polyester is a versatile and widely used material. Polyester is used in clothing manufacturing, medical supplies, electronics, and numerous other machines and industries.

Sewing and caring for polyester fabrics are relatively simple. Polyester is strong, stretchy, and wrinkle-resistant when combined with other fibers, such as cotton and wool.

Meanwhile, polyester production is highly polluting and resource-intensive. Fossil fuels must be extracted to produce it. Additionally, it contributes significantly to plastic pollution.

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