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Design & Style

Polyester Fabric Guide: Explore the Look and Feel of Polyester

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Chiffon, crepe, denim, poplin—there are a wide array of fashion fabrics on the market, each with their own history, characteristics, and uses. Most fabrics fall into two categories: Natural fabrics (like linen and silk) and synthetic fabrics (like neoprene and spandex/lycra). One of the most widely known synthetic fabrics is polyester.

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What Is Polyester Fabric?

Polyester fabric (polyethylene terephthalate) is a synthetic woven material known for being durable and relatively inexpensive to produce. It was invented in 1941 by British chemists and brought by DuPont to the United States. Polyester rose to prominence in the 1970s as an inexpensive material for suiting and other clothing. Polyester and polyester blends are now the most popular human-made fabrics in the world, and one of the most popular synthetic fabrics overall.

What Is Polyester Fabric Made Of?

Polyester fabric is a synthetic material made from the polymerization of petroleum-derived ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid, which meltdown to produce polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Manufacturers push the molten PET through a spinneret to form semi-crystalline fibers which are sometimes chemically treated before being weaved together to create polyester fabric.

What Are the Characteristics of Polyester Fabric?

From faux leather to velvet fabric, off-white organza to burgundy broadcloth, all fabrics will have a unique set of characteristics that determine their best use. Some of the most prominent characteristics of polyester are that:

  • It’s durable. Polyester fibers are incredibly strong, meaning they don’t tear, stretch, or pill easily like cotton and other natural fibers. This strength means polyester clothing can easily handle abrasion from machine-washing and doesn’t require special care. The durability of polyester fabric has made it especially popular for outdoor clothing.
  • It’s moisture-resistant. Polyester fibers resist liquid droplets, meaning that the fabric will wick away moisture rather than soak it up—making it a popular material for outdoor clothing and gear (like tents) that need to keep off rain and precipitation. Also, polyester’s ability to resist moisture helps it remain stain-resistant. However, polyester’s moisture resistance makes it a less breathable fabric. If you sweat while wearing polyester, the fabric will trap in the moisture (rather than wicking it away) and make you feel hot and sticky.
  • It retains its shape. While linen and cotton fabrics can retain wrinkles and require ironing, polyester is wrinkle-resistant and will better hold its shape, drape, and rigidity. Polyester’s wrinkle-resistance made it especially popular in the 1970s as an alternative to clothing that required consistent washing and ironing to avoid wrinkling.
  • It can be coarse. Unlike many natural fabrics, polyester doesn’t have a very luxurious feel; cheaply made polyester can have a slightly coarse feel to sensitive skin. However, there are several different methods of creating and weaving polyester fabric that will affect its texture, making some polyester coarse. Other types of polyester like China silk fabric are almost as smooth as natural silk or satin fabric.
  • It’s typically non-biodegradable. Many natural fibers are biodegradable, which means they will break down over time and avoid clogging up landfills. The environmental impact of most polyester yarns is quite the opposite—polyester doesn’t easily break down and is not typically biodegradable.
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How Does Polyester Fabric Feel?

While natural fabrics like cotton blends, wool, and silk are known for their soft texture, polyester is not generally very soft. However, there are several different methods of creating polyester that will determine its softness. The fabric can range in texture from coarse (when it is textured or made with thick yarn to relatively smooth (when it is made with thin yarn).

4 Uses for Polyester Fabric

Polyester fabric has a variety of uses in fashion:

  1. Outdoor apparel. Since polyester garments are both durable and moisture-resistant, it’s a common choice for outdoor clothing that needs to be able to keep you dry in inclement weather. Parkas, windbreakers, and other outerwear are often made of polyester.
  2. Bags and backpacks. Tote bags, workout bags, and backpacks are often made from polyester or polyester blends since it’s cheap, durable, and moisture-resistant.
  3. Microfiber items. Polyester and polyester/nylon blends are the basic for microfiber fabric. While not strictly for fashion, microfiber fabrics are great for deterring moisture or delicately cleaning glass surfaces.
  4. Upholstery and home furnishings. Outside of clothing fashion, polyester is also a common choice in interior design and home decor, used for everything from drapery to tablecloths to cheap bed sheets.

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