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What is Polyester Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • August 24, 2019 • 8 min read

Fabric name Polyester
Fabric also known as Polyethylene terephthalate, PET, microfiber
Fabric composition Polymers derived from fossil fuels or organic sources
Fabric possible thread count variations 200-1,000
Fabric breathability Very breathable
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities Medium
Stretchability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling Medium
Country where fabric was first produced United States
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Cold, warm, or hot
Commonly used in Shirts, pants, hoodies, dresses, jackets, underwear, socks, blankets, hats, sheets, rope, upholstery

What Is Polyester Fabric?

Polyester is a synthetic fabric that’s usually derived from petroleum. This fabric is one of the world’s most popular textiles, and it is used in thousands of different consumer and industrial applications.

Chemically, polyester is a polymer primarily composed of compounds within the ester functional group. Most synthetic and some plant-based polyester fibers are made from ethylene, which is a constituent of petroleum that can also be derived from other sources. While some forms of polyester are biodegradable, most of them are not, and polyester production and use contribute to pollution around the world.

In some applications, polyester may be the sole constituent of apparel products, but it’s more common for polyester to be blended with cotton or another natural fiber. Use of polyester in apparel reduces production costs, but it also decreases the comfortability of apparel.

When blended with cotton, polyester improves the shrinkage, durability, and wrinkling profile of this widely-produced natural fiber. Polyester fabric is highly resistant to environmental conditions, which makes it ideal for long-term use in outdoor applications.

The fabric we now know as polyester began its climb toward its current critical role in the contemporary economy in 1926 as Terylene, which was first synthesized by W.H. Carothers in the UK. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, British scientists continued to develop better forms of ethylene fabric, and these efforts eventually garnered the interest of American investors and innovators.

Polyester fiber was originally developed for mass consumption by the DuPont Corporation, which also developed other popular synthetic fibers like nylon. During World War II, the Allied powers found themselves in increased need of fibers for parachutes and other war materiel, and after the war, DuPont and other American corporations found a new consumer market for their synthetic materials in the context of the postwar economic boom.

Initially, consumers were enthusiastic about the improved durability profile of polyester compared to natural fibers, and these benefits are still valid today. In recent decades, however, the harmful environmental impact of this synthetic fiber has come to light in great detail, and the consumer stance on polyester has changed significantly.

Nonetheless, polyester remains one of the most widely-produced fabrics in the world, and it’s hard to find consumer apparel that doesn’t contain at least some percentage of polyester fiber. Apparel that contains polyester, however, will melt in extreme heat, while most natural fibers char. Molten fibers can cause irreversible bodily damage.

How Is Polyester Fabric Made?

The production processes used to make polyester may vary depending on the type of polyester is made:

Ethylene Polyester

Ethylene polyester (PET) is the most commonly-produced form of polyester fiber. The primary component of PET is petroleum-derived ethylene, and in the process of creating polyester fiber, ethylene serves as the polymer that interacts with other chemicals to create a stable fibrous compound.

There are four ways to make PET fiber, and the polyester production process varies slightly depending on which method is used:

1.Filament: Polyester filaments are continuous fibers, and these fibers produce smooth and soft fabrics.

2.Staple: Polyester staples resemble the staples used to make cotton yarn, and like cotton staples, polyester staples are usually spun into a yarn-like material.

3.Tow: Polyester tow is like polyester filament, but in polyester tow, the filaments are loosely arranged together.

4.Fiberfill: Fiberfill consists of continuous polyester filaments, but these filaments are produced specifically to have the most possible volume to make bulky products like pillows, outerwear, and stuffing for stuffed animals.

The process of creating polyester fiber begins with reacting ethylene glycol with dimethyl terephthalate at high heat. This reaction results in a monomer, which is then reacted with dimethyl terephthalate again to create a polymer.

This molten polyester polymer is extruded from the reaction chamber in long strips, and these strips are allowed to cool and dry, and then they are broken apart in to small pieces. The resulting chips are then melted again to create a honey-like substance, which is extruded through a spinneret to create fibers.

Depending on whether filaments, staple, tow, or fiberfill fibers are desired, the resulting polyester filaments may be cut or reacted with various chemicals to achieve the correct end result. In most applications, polyester fibers are spun into yarn before they are dyed or subjected to other post-production processes.

PCDT Polyester

The process of creating PCDT polyester is similar to the process of creating PET polyester, but this polyester variant has a different chemical structure. While PCDT also consists of ethylene glycol reacted with dimethyl terephthalate, different production processes are used to make these two common polyester variations.

Plant-Based Polyester

Most types of plant-based polyester are also made from ethylene glycol reacted with dimethyl terephthalate. While the source of the ethylene used in PET and PCDT polyester is petroleum, however, producers of plant-based polyester use ethylene sources like cane sugar instead.

How Is Polyester Fabric Used?

It’s important to recognize that the PET used to make polyester fabric is the same type of petroleum-based plastic used to make many of the synthetic consumer products we use in our daily lives. For instance, this plastic is used to make food containers, water bottles, and a variety of other types of industrial and consumer products.

In its fiber form as polyester fabric, however, PET is used in hundreds of different consumer applications. Traditionally, PET has been used as an alternative to cotton, and in some applications, it may also serve as a reasonable alternative to other natural fibers like wool and silk.

Essentially, anything made from cotton can also be made with polyester. From everyday shirts and pants to glamorous eveningwear, the apparel applications of polyester fabric are endless. Manufacturers use polyester fabric to make suits, jackets, socks, underwear, and pretty much anything that you can wear for casual, business, or formal occasions.

Additionally, manufacturers also use polyester to craft various homewares. In particular, a type of polyester called microfiber has gained prominence in the bath and kitchen homeware categories. Consumers value the softness and absorbency of microfiber in applications like bath towels, face towels, and kitchen towels. Manufacturers may also use polyester to make homewares like blankets, rugs, upholstery, and curtains.

Polyester fabric may be used as cushioning for chairs, sofas, and pillows, and due to the impressive stain-resistance of this material, many parents and pet owners prefer polyester products. Industrial applications of polyester include LCD displays, holographic film, boats, tarps, and bottles.

Where Is Polyester Fabric Produced?

According to a 2006 study, China is the largest producer of polyester fibers. China is also the world’s largest polyester market, which makes this nation the hub of the international polyester industry.

Taiwan, Korea, India, Japan, and Indonesia are also major manufacturers of polyester, and some polyester production still occurs in the United States. Once polyester fibers are produced in China and other Asian countries, they mainly remain in Asia to be made into apparel and other polyester-based consumables. From there, these finished pieces of polyester apparel are exported to various nations in the Western world and beyond.

How Much Does Polyester Fabric Cost?

The current price of raw polyester fiber is approximately $1 per pound, but this price rises and falls on a daily bases. Even accounting for minor fluctuations, polyester remains one of the most inexpensive textile products in the world, and this factor contributes greatly to its global popularity.

Once manufacturers have made polyester into fabric, its price rises to approximately $10 per yard. Producers of apparel and other polyester consumables then turn this fabric into final products, and these products are marketed to the consumer.

While the price differences between polyester and other fabrics equalize significantly by the time this fabric reaches the consumer market, low global prices of polyester have traditionally contributed to the overall popularity of this fiber in consumer apparel applications. The continued affordability of polyester keeps apparel prices down, but it also disincentives consumers from trying natural fibers with less harmful environmental impacts.

What Different Types of Polyester Fabric Are There?

To further your knowledge of polyester fabric, it’s important to learn more details about the three major types of this textile:

1. Ethylene Polyester

Ethylene polyester, also known as PET, is the most popular type of polyester on the market. In most contexts, the word “polyester” is synonymous with “PET” even though other types of polyester exist.

2. Plant-Based Polyester

The main advantage of plant-based polyester is that this fabric is biodegradable. Plant-based polyester, however, costs more to make, and it may be less durable than its PET or PCDT textile equivalents.

3. PCDT Polyester

While PCDT polyester isn’t as popular as PET polyester, it is more elastic, which makes it ideal for certain applications. PCDT polyester is also more durable than PET polyester, so this fabric is frequently preferred for heavy-duty applications like upholstery and curtains.

How Does Polyester Fabric Impact the Environment?

Polyester has a generally negative impact on the environment. From its production to its use to its disposal, this fabric has unfortunate environmental impacts at every stage of its use cycle.

To derive the basic materials used in the production of polyester, it’s necessary to obtain fossil fuels, which are limited resources that are also used for vital energy and plastics production applications. The process of refining crude oil into petroleum introduces various toxins into the environment, which can harm living things both in the water and on land.

Once refineries have produced petroleum, further refinement processes are required to produce the ethylene that is used to make polyester. These extraction processes are wasteful, and they introduce more toxins into the environment.

The process of transforming ethylene into polyethylene terephthalate fibers produces more harmful synthetic byproducts, and the dyes and treatment processes used by polyester fabric manufacturers may also make their way into the surrounding environment and poison the area’s ecosystems.

Furthermore, the manufacture of polyester often has significant social and cultural costs. The vast majority of polyester producers worldwide essentially engage in slave labor, and polyester workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that may cause neurological damage, cancer, or other potentially fatal conditions. Major polyester manufacturing companies are almost always owned by major international corporations, which enrich themselves while exploiting uneducated people in impoverished countries.

The environmentally harmful impacts of polyester continue as this fabric makes its way into the consumer market. According to a groundbreaking 2014 study, washing polyester fabrics by hand or in washing machines releases tiny synthetic microfibers into the water supply.

While acrylic fabric was found to be the worst offender in terms of microfiber pollution, polyester came in as a close second. Microfiber pollution in the water supply harms the health of marine life, and it also contaminates drinking water in locations all over the world.

As they do with all types of apparel, consumers inevitably discard their polyester garments. Unlike biodegradable fibers like wool, cotton, or silk, however, polyester does not naturally degrade in the environment. While it’s impossible to know exactly how long polyester will remain in the Earth’s ecosystems before it degrades, environmental scientists all agree that synthetic fabrics like polyester may take centuries to fully break down due to natural environmental conditions.

Overall, polyester harms the environment at every stage in its production, and it inevitably accumulates in the world’s ecosystems with no viable methods for removing it. The advent of plant-based polyester fiber would seem to be a step toward reversing this unfortunate state of affairs, but it’s unclear whether this alternative to petroleum-based PET alternative will gain traction within the textile market significant enough to make an impact on the polluting effects of polyester.

Polyester Fabric Certifications Available

Polyester fabric may be eligible for a variety of certifications, and recycled polyester is eligible for more certifications than new forms of this fabric. For instance, OEKO-TEX provides its Standard 100 certification for certain polyester textiles, and the Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certifies recycled polyester as genuine.

Other organizations, such as Intertek, also certify recycled PET fabric, and consumers may view certified recycled polyester more favorably. Since polyester is a synthetic fabric, however, it is not eligible for organic certification; even plant-based forms of polyester have gone through such significant chemical manufacturing processes that the organic status of the original plant materials is irrelevant.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.