As one of the most popular textiles available today, polyester is a synthetic fabric that is a type of plastic derived petroleum. Polyester is beloved for its ability to hold its shape well, as well as dry quickly when wet. While pure polyester can be fashioned into a variety of garments, polyester is often blended with other textiles, such as cotton and rayon, to create a blended fabric that combines polyester’s best qualities with the breathability of natural and semi-synthetic fibers.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the various benefits and properties of polyester, the fabric’s history and place in fashion through the decades, different polyester blends, and proper care to get the most from polyester garments.
Polyester is a man-made fabric that is derived from petroleum. Technically, it’s a plastic! Ethylene glycol, a petroleum, is put through a process that produces a polymer. This polymer is then melted and transformed to create fibers. These fibers are twisted and woven together in such a way that it has a soft, smooth feel that’s comfortable to wear. The end result is a bolt of polyester fabric used to create stylish garments.
So, what does polyester feel like? Polyester has a smooth, silky feel that glides over the body. But beyond its smooth drape, polyester is known for its durability and wrinkle-resistance. Better yet, an item of polyester clothing can stay looking like new for years – or even decades.
Speaking of decades, although polyester was first invented during the 1930s by W.H. Carothers, a chemist with DuPont who also developed nylon. In 1941, British scientists C.G. Ritchie and W.K. Birtwhistle built upon Carothers’ work to refine synthetic fabrics. That year, a polyester fabric called Terylene was released. Then, in 1946, DuPont purchased the rights to the British team’s work and used it to create the Dacron polyester blend.
After WWII, polyester was more actively marketed to the public as a fashion fabric. In the era of time-saving modern innovations (like TV dinners and kitchen gadgets), polyester was touted for its wrinkle-resistant properties in that it could be worn without ironing. The 1960s and ‘70s capitalized on the fabric, weaving it into mod shift dresses and other styles that exemplified the Swingin’ ‘60s and leisure suits in the 1970s.
The fabric fell out of favor since it could sometimes feel itchy and uncomfortable. Although polyester held its shape and color and didn’t need to be ironed, many found that the synthetic fabric didn’t “breathe” as well as natural fibers like cotton, linen, and silk.
When high fashion designers like Calvin Klein began to blend polyester, the fabric found a resurgence. Similarly, new technology and weaving techniques have made polyester much more comfortable and soft-to-the touch. Today, it’s used in microfiber that mimics silk, microfleece that feels similar to genuine sherpa, to poly-cotton and tri-blend t-shirts that are super soft and a wardrobe staple for men, women, and kids.
Polyester itself isn’t a stretchy material. However, it can be blended with other textiles – such as spandex, Lycra, or elastane – that can make it stretchier. Different weaving techniques can make polyester an ideal fabric for apparel that moves with the body and offers a form-fitting silhouette. Check the care label of your favorite pair of yoga pants or moisture-wicking polo and you’ll likely see polyester as one of the key materials included alongside spandex or other stretchy textiles.
Although polyester isn’t inherently stretchy, different weaving techniques can help make the fabric stretchier – even without blending it with other, more pliable fabrics. Some of these weaving techniques include:
Knit polyester weave: Knit-weave fabrics tend to have a lot more stretch than woven fabrics. This technique involves knitting polyester yarns in two opposing directions – vertical and horizontal – on a continuous loop. If you take a look at a piece of polyester clothing and stretch it in either direction, you’ll likely see little “loops” that comprise the fabric. This is a prime indicator that your item of clothing uses a polyester knit weaving technique.
Stretch-weave: The stretch-weave process makes use of a weaving technique that gives structure to a garment, but also weaves a primary yarn like polyester with other, stretchier fabrics (like spandex, for example). Compared to knitted fabrics that use loops, woven fabrics weave fibers over and under each other – like a basket. The weaving process typically offers less stretch than a knitting technique, but adding in spandex, elastane, or Lycra fibers give a piece of fabric much more pliability.
Warp-knit: Warp knit differs from more traditional knit in that yarns and fibers form a vertical loop for one cycle, then switch to a diagonal loop on the adjoining cycle before switching back to a vertical loop. As a result, yarns form a zigzag pattern that blocks wind and moisture due to the density this technique creates. You’ll often find warp knitting on active wear, such as yoga pants.
In addition to weaving techniques, polyester can be blended with other fabrics to give it more stretch – and also make it more breathable. Some of the most common polyester blends you’ll find today include:
Polyester stretch fabrics that make use of different weaving techniques and that blend polyester with other fibers can be an excellent choice for so many reasons. A polyester garment is strong and durable, and can last for years. Just pop into any vintage shop and you’ll see polyester apparel from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that looks almost new. As a synthetic fabric, polyester holds color during the dye process really well and won’t fade to the degree that natural fibers (such as cotton) might after multiple washings through the years.
Beyond durability, polyester is also quite versatile. It plays well with other fabrics to produce innovative blends that combine the best properties of polyester and any other fabric it’s merged with. You can find polyester or blended polyester garments that span the gamut from formal cocktail dresses to active wear like leggings, yoga pants, or moisture-wicking polos, like the Gildan 8800. Blending polyester with other fibers like cotton and rayon also greater breathability, offering stretch, longevity, and comfort!
Durable and wrinkle-resistant, polyester is pretty easy to care for and known for its wash-and-wearability. That said, it’s still important to read the care labels on your polyester and poly-blend garments to be sure they continue to look and feel great.
Polyester Washing Tips
Because polyester is extremely durable, it can hold up well under multiple washings – even in warm water. That said, because polyester is essentially a type of plastic, do not use hot water, as it can damage an item.
Also, only use laundry detergent and avoid bleach when washing polyester. In addition to potentially damaging the fabric, bleach can actually turn white polyester fabrics a dingy yellow instead of keeping it bright.
Avoid using high heat when drying or ironing polyester fabrics. Thankfully, polyester dries pretty quickly and only requires a short tumble in the dryer on a low or medium setting. A polyester garment can air dry completely within one to four hours, compared to cotton apparel that may take a minimum of three hours to air dry.
When ironing polyester, only use low settings or a specific polyester setting on your iron. Because polyester is essentially a plastic, do not allow the iron to linger too long in one spot. If you do, polyester fibers can melt and leave you with an unattractive black or brown “char mark” on the surface of your garment. Fortunately, because polyester is mostly wrinkle-resistant anyway, you likely won’t have to do a great deal of ironing on your favorite polyester and poly-blend clothing items.
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