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Polyester Fabric Production

Exploring Polyester Fabric: Properties, Production, and Origins

In the world of fabric, there are a lot of different materials with different properties. Some are our long-time organic friends, like cotton and silk. Others are more modern inventions made of chemicals with a far-ranging impact on everything from the convenience and durability of our clothing to long-term impact on the planet.

No synthetic fabric is as prominent or popular as polyester. It’s the most commonly used and problematic synthetic fabrics in the world. Let’s add our voice to that discussion.

A Brief History of Polyester

A hundred years ago, if someone told you that you’d be wearing clothing made out of plastic, you might think of futuristic Sci-Fi space suits from the cover of The Penny Dreadfuls. You might even laugh! You might be intrigued, thinking about novel fashion made from flakes or plates of plastic. What you might not have expected is what we got: polyester.

Polyester was first synthesized in the mid-1930s by W.H. Carothers and his team at DuPont. Initially overshadowed by other polymers, it gained prominence in 1941 when British scientists began exploring its uses, leading to DuPont acquiring the rights. Polyester’s breakthrough in clothing came in 1951, offering a durable, wrinkle-resistant, and low-maintenance alternative to organic fabrics like cotton. Its cost effectiveness, ability to be blended with other fabrics, and water-repellent properties made it instantly popular, especially for outdoor wear.

Polyester Fabric

While many of us think of polyester in terms of the fabric, it’s actually an entire class of materials. Mylar was another synthetic fabric. The foil-like material has been used in balloons, packaging, and even thermal blankets. Mylar is actually Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Other forms of polyester include Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT), Polyethylene Naphthalate (PEN), and Polytrimethylene Terephthalate (PTT). This last one, PTT, is the one most commonly found in textiles and fabrics due to its durability and stain resistance.

For the sake of this post, when we mention polyester, we’ll be talking about PTT and its use in clothing and related fabrics. After all, that’s the one you’re most likely to encounter in our storefront.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Polyester?

On a personal, individual level, there are a few drawbacks to polyester. Perhaps the biggest is that it’s very prone to building up static electricity. This can cause all manner of issues with hair, unpleasant shocks, and different parts of the garments sticking to one another or to your skin in potentially unpleasant ways.

Polyester can also be potentially unsafe. Since it’s plastic, when exposed to high heat or flame, it doesn’t burn, and it’s not burn-resistant; instead, it melts. A stray spark from a campfire searing a hole in a cotton shirt is unpleasant and can leave a burn behind, but that same spark can melt the polyester onto someone’s skin, leaving much more severe burns behind. In extreme cases, high-polyester or 100% polyester clothing can even be deadly.

On the manufacturing side, there are also dangers to polyester. Creating polyester in the first place and turning polyester beads into strands for fabric are both processes that involve heat and chemicals, which can lead to toxic fumes. While you’ll never encounter these just wearing polyester fabrics, it’s a potential hazard to anyone manufacturing polyester materials.

And, of course, there’s the elephant in the room.

As a petroleum product and plastic, polyester is terrible for the environment. Any petroleum product requires extracting oil from the planet, which is obviously generally awful for the environment anywhere it happens. Forming the polyester isn’t terribly damaging beyond the fumes, and wearing or using it isn’t as awful as you might think. But what happens when your polyester dress goes out of fashion, or you want to discard a polyester bag?

Unfortunately, polyester is not biodegradable at all. It doesn’t break down the way organics would since there aren’t microbes that eat it to dissolve it. At most, physical damage will break it down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Various Polyester Fabrics

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic in the environment. Polyester sheds microplastics when you wash it. No material is immune to entropy, and polyester breaks down slowly due to even just mechanical action, chemical interactions, and so on. Every time you throw polyester-blend fabrics in a washing machine, shed microplastics enter the wastewater stream and, thus, the water supply.

Some studies have even estimated that 75% of current microplastic contamination around the world comes from polyester. In part, that’s due to how widespread and frequently used polyester is, and in part, it’s because of the kinds of uses it sees.

There’s an argument to be made that polyester is better than some materials because it’s durable enough to be used for a much longer time before being discarded. However, that alone is not enough to offset the damage it causes. More than that, it relies on keeping polyester fabrics in use for as long as possible, and most people don’t wear their clothes until they fall apart that way.

That’s why, when you browse our store, you only see polyester in products like messenger bags, which are designed to be used for a long time but not laundered like clothing; meanwhile, our apparel is either eco-friendly recycled materials or even 100% cotton.

Manufacturers enjoy using polyester because it is easy to blend and it’s rather durable. It’s very resistant to wear and tear through daily use and is even used in industrial and high-wear applications. There’s a decent chance your car tires have polyester in them to help strengthen and reinforce them. It also helps your clothing from tearing or wearing through. Many fabric producers also love polyester because it holds color well, it doesn’t fade when exposed to sunlight or washing over natural use, and it doesn’t need much in the way of maintenance.

Additionally, it has gained popularity among end users because it is very wrinkle-resistant. It doesn’t bend and kink the way natural fibers tend to, so a folded shirt won’t have creases in it, a shirt left in a pile won’t wrinkle (much), and it generally won’t require ironing to smooth it out. Polyester is very good at wicking moisture away from the surfaces it touches, which makes it ideal for sports and athletic wear; it pulls sweat away from your skin and to the surface of the fabric, where it can evaporate and help keep you cool. It can do this because it’s hydrophobic, whereas other materials like cotton will absorb moisture instead.

Using Polyester Fabric For Apparel

Finally, of course, one of the biggest drivers of any material’s widespread adoption: affordability. Polyester is very cheap to make, both in its raw form and spun out into fabrics, whether or not it’s added to cotton as a blend. However, this does not take into consideration the long-term environmental impacts of widespread plastic and petroleum usage.

In other words, none of the motivators for the use of polyester negates the fact that it is incredibly harmful to our environment.

What About Recycled Polyester?

Polyester is one of many materials that, due to its long-term impact, is seeing a lot of attention turned to recycling and reusing it. Recycled polyester is growing in prevalence as more and more manufacturers are adopting the processes necessary to make it.

Recycling polyester has a few key benefits. It reduces the need to use new fossil fuels, and it removes polyester materials from landfills and the environment so they can be reused. It can also be done with a variety of different kinds of polyester materials, including bottles and other plastics, not just recycled fabrics.

Recycled polyester is, unfortunately, not generally from clothing. It’s primarily PET from bottles, being converted into RPET (Recycled PET) for fabric usage. Once polyester is blended with other fabrics like cotton, it becomes virtually impossible to extract and reuse. Whole fabric scraps can be recycled and reused, of course, but that’s a different process entirely.

This also doesn’t actually address the eventual environmental impact of microplastic shedding and the materials that can’t be recycled ending up in landfills. Indeed, the use of RPET is a mitigation effort more than anything. It does help to reduce reliance on fossil fuel production, making it a solution, even if it’s not a perfect one. In short, any use of recycled polyester is better than fresh, new polyester and should be encouraged.

Recycled Polyester Fabric

There’s also a novel form of polyester made from plants that is slowly growing in popularity. It was only recently invented and is still slower and more costly to make than the petroleum-based version. While cutting out petroleum entirely helps remove one of the key impacts of polyester on the environment, the chemical properties are still essentially the same, so it poses many of the same problems.

Perhaps one day we will reach a way to deal with the environmental impact of plastics through scientific discovery. Recently for instance, there has been bacteria discovered that eat plastic and can – eventually, hopefully – be turned towards our global plastic pollution problem. Some of these processes have the potential to break down polyester into its component chemicals, which can then be recycled to make new polyester. Others may be able to break things down further into something safe for the environment.

Much more study is, of course, necessary, but so it goes with the constant frontier of scientific discovery.

Your Options for Apparel and Polyester

At Ethix Merch, we strive to offer a wide variety of sustainable, eco-friendly, ethically produced, and/or union-made products for you to choose from. As much as possible, we seek out environmentally friendly and sustainable sources for our products. For example, our 100% cotton products are made from cotton fabrics produced locally, which are themselves made from cotton grown locally as well, dramatically reducing the environmental impact of production.

Are you interested in learning about sustainable and ethically produced textiles? If so, you should dig into what the Carolina Textile District has to offer. They are all about connecting brands with American manufacturers – we’re talking real dedication here. The main goal? To empower workers and support local communities. So, if you’re into ethical production, well, look no further. You can learn more about their work here.

Environmentally-Friendly and Sustainable Apparel

For more information, feel free to reach out at any time. Transparency is a key driver of our ethical stance, and we’re more than happy to share any and all information we have about any of our products with you. In the meantime, feel free to browse our shop and check out the array of 100% cotton, recycled material, and ethically-produced apparel and other products. No matter what you need, from a single item to a bulk order customized for your business, we’re ready to produce it for you! Get in touch today for a free quote and to learn how we can help.