Polyester, which is available as a natural, synthetic, or combination blend, is a type of fabric that is used extensively across industries. The clothing industry is among the largest economic sectors that has made great use of this fabric.
A Short History of Polyester
Polyester was first discovered in the 1930s by a DuPont scientist, who put aside this discovery to study nylon instead. In the 1940s, a pair of British chemists applied this newly-discovered material and science to create Terylene – the first-ever commercial fiber made of polyester. Terylene was originally marketed as a fabric that could be worn for many consecutive days without wrinkling.
Several years later, DuPont bought the rights to Terylene, ultimately creating the next generation of polyester – Dacron – its trade name for polyester.
Three decades later – in the fabulous 1970s, polyester hit the big time, as it overtook the clothing manufacturing industry by storm. Ultimately, its overuse became the butt of many ‘leisure suit’ jokes, highlighted by John Travolta’s famous white three-piece suit in Saturday Night Fever.
In the world of early computer gaming (circa the 1980s), one of the most popular adult-themed games was Leisure Suit Larry – which is still available through re-release.
Perhaps polyester’s biggest perk is that even after washing, the material dries quickly and automatically becomes wrinkle-free – without the need to waste time ironing the garment.
Polyester can resist shrinkage (and mold) when compared to other natural materials.
So, What Exactly is Polyester?
Polyester is a generalized category that refers to any textile or fabric that is built with the use of polyester fibers/yarns. Polyester is a member of the larger class of thermoplastic polymers. Some polyester is made using organic plant materials, but most are manufactured using petroleum-based products. Note that synthetic types of polyester are not considered biodegradable and, therefore, not eco-friendly.
Polyester is a heat-sensitive, man-made material with the chemical name Polyethylene Terephthalate, more readily known by its acronym – PET or PETE. Polyester begins with a chemical reaction between an acid and alcohol – ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Check out this video that offers step-by-step visual instructions on how polyester is manufactured.
When combined at high heat, these chemicals create a type of molten plastic that can be spun into tiny threads or fibers. Essentially, the plastic fibers created by this process have the resilience characteristics of strengthened plastic. But for all its remarkable properties, plastic does have a kryptonite – heat.
Does polyester shrink? Yes, it can, and a fundamental cause of shrinkage is the application of heat in various ways.
How is Polyester Used Commercially?
Polyester is used to manufacture various kinds of garments and clothing– from shoes to hats and everything in between. But it is noted that not all polyesters are created the same. Each type of polyester fiber has a distinct set of physical characteristics.
Polyester, which is made by weaving or knitting these chemically-created plastic fibers, develops into a silky-textured garment that offers a variety of benefits to the wearer of the garment. Because of its versatility, anything made of 100% polyester can be precisely shaped or patterned using accurate laser cuts and other techniques. Note: however, anything made of 100% polyester is highly flammable.
Polyester fibers are used in the commercial marketplace to make seat belts, plastic reinforcements & even conveyor belt fabrics, among others. The strong fibers also have many domestic uses – including pillows, draperies, and mattresses, to name a few.
What Does Polyester Feel Like?
Modern versions of polyester are designed to offer a comfortable and soft feel, some quite similar to cotton. The higher-quality polyesters are often cool on the skin and silky smooth.
When blended with cotton, polyester tends to offer a less synthetic and softer feel but will also lack some of the beneficial properties offered by 100% polyester.
The Reasons for Polyester’s Popularity in the Textile Industry
Polyester fabrics consist of some remarkable characteristics and physical properties that make it ideal for manufacturing and consumer use –
- The fibers of polyester fabric are lightweight but extremely strong and durable.
- Polyester can be used to make many different types of clothing, including outdoor or sports uniforms.
- Clothing made from polyester fabrics is soft and comfortable to wear and extremely stain resistant.
- Polyester fabric offers affordable clothing options.
- Dyes can be easily applied to polyester fabrics.
- Polyester, because it cannot absorb sweat like cotton, naturally resists odors. This is one of the many reasons for its widespread use among athletes.
- Polyester materials are resistant to stretching and fabric abrasions.
- Polyester dries faster than most other fabrics.
- Polyester fibers are versatile and have dry-wicking options. Moisture wicking refers to the process by which the polyester fiber draws moisture from the skin into the fabric, which ultimately allows it to evaporate more quickly. In contrast, the only natural material to offer moisture-wicking is wool. This can help to keep the person wearing the garment cool and dry. Moisture wicking has become a science unto itself, with improvements in fiber weaving.
- Polyester materials can be made with great consistency.
- Polyester can be recycled.
The Reasons Why Polyester is Not Always the Ideal Choice
Manufacturing polyester requires the use of coal, water, and oil. It is for this, and other reasons, that polyester has taken some criticism as its manufacturing process is not eco-friendly.
- Polyester is not a breathable fabric, so it is not ideal for hot, humid conditions. This is changing as technology enhances fabric options. Many performance materials can now offer a balance of wicking and breathability.
- Polyester is made with chemicals that may be uncomfortable for those with sensitive skin.
- Polyester fabric will begin to fade with time, with its edges often curling.
- Certain stains, like oil, cannot be removed from the garment or fabric easily.
- Because polyester is made with plastic parts, excessive heat can potentially damage the material.
- Polyester materials are difficult to sew.
- 100% polyester is highly flammable.
Caring for Polyester Fabrics
Most of the care and concern for polyester has to do with excessive heat or water –
- Polyester fabrics kept too close to high heat will harden and even start to shrink.
- Polyester is highly absorbent of oil. It is important not to wash polyester clothing with other materials that may have been stained with grease or oil.
- For polyester fabrics that are colored white and in need of brightening, it is best to soak them in warm water that has been combined with automatic dishwater detergent.
- Polyester fabrics should be dried on a cool-heat setting.
- Do not use a hot iron on a damp polyester material, as it can be dangerous.
Washing Polyester Material
As noted above, polyester is a preferred fabric because it naturally resists shrinkage. The caveat is that you must wash 100% polyester fabrics in accordance with its instructions to expect full use of the product.
Consider these helpful tips to extend the life of your polyester fabrics –
- Garments should NOT be washed using harsh detergent.
- Soaking these materials in hot water (140°+F) is potentially harmful to the fabric. Even soaking in cooler water for long periods can damage the fabric.
- Do not try to wring out polyester fabrics.
- Never dry polyester fabrics in direct sunlight; instead, use a shady outdoor spot.
- Keep the fabric away from a hot or tumble-dry warm dryer.
- Never attempt to bleach polyester.
- If you iron, only use a cool on the fabric’s reverse side.
How Not to Damage Polyester Fabrics
Anything made of 100% polyester should be maintained using the following best practices –
When Cleaning –
- Always read the garment’s specific care instructions for using and washing.
- The most cautious washing approach is handwashing rather than machine washing.
- If you choose to use a washing machine, polyester materials and garments should be washed using the gentle cycle.
- If you can, wash polyester materials and fabrics apart from other material types.
- The best washing process for your polyesters materials and garments includes the following –
- A cold or lukewarm washing cycle.
- A gentle detergent.
- Do not bleach polyester materials.
- Polyester materials that are soaked in any liquid for too long will likely age in wear and appearance faster.
Polyester is susceptible to static electricity simply by its natural properties. To help avoid static electricity, add a liquid fabric softener to the wash cycle. You can also raise the temperature of the water and add a dryer sheet if you tumble dry the fabric on a cool setting.
After Cleaning –
- Hang polyester garments right after they have been washed to help de-wrinkle the fabric.
- Drying polyester fabrics in a natural and open-air environment is preferred.
When Pressing or Ironing –
- If wrinkles are present, you can steam press the fabric – beneath a pressing cloth – at the iron’s mildest setting. Note that some types of irons have a specific polyester setting, but if your iron does not, choose the iron’s nylon setting. Low heat is essential to avoid the shrinkage, melting, and/or hardening of the material.
- Iron on the garment’s reverse side to help keep the fabric’s sheen.
- Use an iron ONLY if it is not possible to hang dry the polyester garment after it has been cleaned.
Note that certain polyester fabrics are made with low-quality materials mainly because they are manufactured in jurisdictions without manufacturing standards. Low-quality polyester tends to become weaker faster than polyester fabrics made of higher-quality components. As a result, poor-quality polyesters may shrink even if they are not positioned near excessive heat or washed incorrectly.
Will Polyester Shrink in the Dryer?
Yes, there is a potential for shrinkage of the polyester fabric if the temperature of the dryer is set above the fabric’s basic properties of resistance. To maintain the original size of a polyester item, the recommended cleaning instructions should be followed carefully.
Note that polyester has an upper-temperature limit, after which it is likely to become hardened or melted.
As a rule, when drying polyester, the highest temperature you should set the dryer is 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
Will Dry Cleaning Affect Polyester Fabrics?
Polyester materials and garments should be unaffected if a professional dry-cleaning company handles them correctly. Because dry cleaning doesn’t involve water, polyester materials are safe to dry clean. However, it is more economical (and safe) to wash polyester in cold water and hang it to dry.
How Much Does Polyester Shrink?
The amount a polyester fabric will shrink is dependent on water and dryer temperature in the washing process. But in general, the fabric will shrink only a few inches maximum.
How to Shrink Polyester
While polyester is likely not to shrink when washed in cold water (and hung dry), it will shrink when washed in hot enough water or thrown into a dryer with high heat. Some people intentionally want to shrink a polyester garment. This can be done by washing it by hand (or machine) in warm water.
For example, if you want to intentionally shrink a loose-fitting polyester shirt, wash it several times on the machine’s hottest temperature setting. In addition, you can toss the garment into a hot dryer but pay attention to ensure you do not over-shrink the item.
Does Polyester Shrink – The Take-Away
Fabrics made of polyester are among the easiest to care for and maintain. But, while polyester fabrics are designed to resist shrinking, at least to a large extent, polyester materials have the potential to shrink under certain circumstances.
To avoid accidental shrinkage, follow the garment label’s instructions carefully.
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