Explore What Polyester Is–From Origin To Sustainability

Melengo Team

A closer look at polyester, the fabric that dominates most of our wardrobes.

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Open your closet, and you’ll likely find at least a few articles of clothing made from polyester. Why is that, you ask? Because it’s such a versatile and popular fabric. 

In addition to dominating most of our closets, polyester is also used to make a variety of other things that we use in our day-to-day life. So don’t be too surprised if you find that things like your adventure gear, upholstery, and raincoats are made from this multifaceted fabric. 

Polyester’s adaptability makes it a great fabric choice for clothing manufacturers such as yourself. But before you start using this fabric, it’s important to get the basics right. Ready to begin?

What is Polyester? 

Polyester is an artificial, man-made fiber known for its durability, strength, and versatility. It’s fashioned out of a chemical reaction involving petroleum, coal, air, and water in a lab. 

The word polyester is a combination of two words: poly, meaning many, and ester, which is an organic compound. At a chemical level, polyester is a class of polymers, containing the ester functional group throughout its chain. i.e. polyester is made up of many (or poly) esters.

Here’s a fun fact: polyester’s actual name is polyethylene terephthalate (or PET), which is a bit too wordy for us. (Can you imagine saying, “hey, we sell polyethylene terephthalate clothes?”) So, we shortened it to polyester. And if you’re wondering if the PET is the same as those PET bottles, then yes. Polyester is the fiber form of common plastic

History of Polyester: How Did It Come To Be

Back in the 1930s, W.H. Carothers, a DuPont employee, discovered that he could create synthetic fibers by mixing alcohol with carboxyl acids. This marked the first creation of a polyester polymer, although its structure proved to be unstable. This project lay abandoned till years later, when two scientists named W.K. Birtwistle and C.G. Ritchie picked his work back up and created the first polyester fiber known as Terylene

DuPont later purchased all the rights and introduced polyester to the public. It was sold as a “miracle fabric that didn't wrinkle.” But the fabric didn't find a lot of popularity, which is understandable. (Have you seen those shiny “plastic” suits?) 

The years went by, technology advanced, and polyester received a complete revamp to become what it is today! (A convenient, cheap, and durable fabric.)

How, Exactly, is Polyester Made?

Hint (in case you landed straight on this section): it doesn’t come from trees. Polyester is actually made in a lab through this process:

Step 1: Petroleum is broken down into several petrochemical products–particularly ethylene and p-xylene–at refineries through a process known as cracking. Ethylene is further broken down to produce ethylene glycol, while p-xylene produces two acids called dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and terephthalic acid (TPA). We now have all the necessary ingredients to start making the polyester fiber. 

Step 2: The ethylene glycol is combined with purified terephthalic acid using high heat and pressure till polyethylene terephthalate (the PET that’s used to make bottles) is formed. This process is known as polymerization. The PET formed is in liquid form and has a thick, viscous-y consistency. 

Step 3: Once the molten PET is formed, it’s pushed out of the reaction chamber (in a process called extruding) in the form of long strips. After letting them cool down and dry up, these strips are chopped into small plastic pellets. 

Step 4: These pellets are melted again into a honey-like substance, and pushed (or extruded) through spinnerets (devices with tiny holes) to create long threads. The diameter and shape of these holes can be altered according to the type of fiber you want to create. These threads are left to cool down and harden into fiber. This process is known as melt spinning

Step 5: Now, the polyester fibers are turned into yarn, which are then woven or knit to create the desired type of polyester fabric. 

Tada! The polyester production process is complete. 

Advancements in Polyester Production

Conventional polyester depends entirely on petroleum for its raw materials. And since polyester is a type of plastic, it’s non-biodegradable. Petroleum is a fossil fuel, meaning it isn’t good for the environment, either. Overall–polyester? Not very sustainable. 

In an attempt to change this, Toray, the Japanese functional fabrics giant, invented a new plant-based polyester. Instead of relying completely on petroleum-derived products, Toray takes the molasses left over from processed cane sugar and turns them into ethylene glycol. This significant change reduces the fossil fuel reliance of polyester by 30%! It works the same as conventional polyester while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Toray is working on finding a way to derive terephthalic acid from plants as well to create polyester that is 100% plant-based.

Where is Polyester Used in Fashion?

Polyester has infiltrated the fashion world so much that it would be much easier to name where it isn’t used. But we’ll list polyester’s most common applications in apparel. ;)

  • Sportswear and activewear: Leggings, sports bras, tank tops, running shorts, tennis skirts, swimsuits, wet suits.
  • Outerwear: Coats, jackets, hoodies, blazers.
  • Casual wear: T-shirts, shorts, pajamas. 
  • Formal wear: Button-down shirts, slacks, suits, dresses, blouses.
  • Undergarments and intimates: Camisoles, stockings, socks, and other innerwear.
  • Workwear and uniforms: School/ university/ work uniforms.
  • Kids’ clothing: Of all types.
  • Accessories: Hats, sunglasses, handbags.

In short, you can find a polyester version of pretty much any garment or accessory you need!

And Why? (AKA Properties of the Polyester Fabric)

The list of polyester’s applications in apparel is long and varied, which points towards the fact that it’s a favorite fabric among clothing manufacturers. But why? What properties does polyester have that make it so coveted? Let’s explore. 

  • Durability and strength. Polyester is known for its incredible strength; it doesn’t tear, fray, pill, or get worn down easily. This means even if you don’t handle it with care, polyester clothes will last for a very long time (i.e. they’re durable). This is because polyester is a polymer, which means it’s made up of very large molecules that intermingle with each other, making it hard to separate them.
  • Lightweight. As a lightweight fabric, polyester tends to feel more comfortable than other materials when it comes to activewear. It won’t bog you down and you get to move freely. 
  • Water-resistant and quick-drying. Polyester fibers hate water. Their hydrophobic nature means they don’t absorb sweat or any type of moisture; instead they wick it away and dry it off quickly. This is great news for workout gear, but not so great for summer wear (as you’ll be left feeling sweaty and clammy till the moisture dries off). The solution to increasing polyester’s breathability is poly-cotton blends (more on this below).
  • Shape retention. Polyester retains its shape very well (meaning that it doesn’t shrink or stretch), which makes it easier to add permanent pleats and creases to garments. It also drapes well. 
  • Stains-, abrasion-, and wrinkle-resistant. Polyester fibers are long, straight, and are very close to each other, leaving very little room for wrinkles and abrasions. Since polyester repels water, it’s also resistant to stains and mildew, making it a very useful fabric for uniforms. 
  • UV-resistant. A really cool thing about polyester is that it does a very good job of resisting UV radiation. In fact, it provides a UV-protection rate of 30+, making it an excellent fabric choice for sun-protection. 

Different Types and Blends of Polyester

Not only is this synthetic fiber versatile, it also comes in many different types! 

  • PET polyester: This is the most common type of polyester; the one we all know and love. Made using ethylene glycol, it's strong, durable, and inexpensive. You'll likely be using this type of polyester when manufacturing your garments. 
  • PCDT polyester: Like PET polyester, this type of polyester is also made by chemically reacting ethylene glycol with dimethyl terephthalate. But the production process for PCDT polyester is slightly different, wrestling in a different, more elastic structure. It’s commonly used to make heavy textiles such as furnishings or upholstery. 
  • Plant-based polyester: This type of polyester also uses the same base ingredients, except the ethylene glycol is derived from natural sources like cane sugar instead of petroleum. It’s a more sustainable alternative to virgin polyester, and is used to make breathable clothes and packaging. 

While polyester has several coveted qualities, it doesn’t perform so well in the breathability, stretchability, and moisture-absorption departments. This is where polyester blends come in. 

  • Polyester-cotton blends: Polycotton offers the best of polyester (durability, strength, and resistance to shrinkage) and cotton (breathability and comfort). It finds its uses in the making of shirts, t-shirts, pajamas, etc.
  • Polyester-nylon blends: By blending polyester and nylon, the resultant fabric is super sturdy, durable, elastic, and moisture-wicking. It’s commonly used to make outdoor gear such as jackets and raincoats. 
  • Polyester-spandex blends: Polyester is combined with spandex, a super elastic fabric, to create stretchy garments that are form-fitting and allow for flexible movements. The most common uses are activewear, leggings, and swimwear. 
  • Poly-rayon blend: Made by combining two synthetic fibers, this blend is known for its softness, comfort, drape, wrinkle-resistance, and durability. It’s mostly used to make clothes such as dresses as well as home furnishings. 

At Melengo, we work with all sorts of polyester blends. You name it, we’ll help you source it. [Get started now]

How To Care For and Maintain Polyester Clothes

Unlike other fabrics like, say, faux leather or silk, polyester is very low-maintenance and easy to care for. Even so, there are a few washing and caring instructions to keep in mind. 

But, before we get to that..

Does Polyester Shrink?

Polyester is very sensitive to high temperatures, so even 100% polyester fabrics tend to shrink if you repeatedly expose them to heat–such as washing with hot water, drying them with a high heat setting, or ironing them with a hot iron. However, since polyester is normally shrink-resistant, this won’t happen during the first wash (or even the second). You need to constantly subject it to high temperatures to see some shrinkage. 

Some types of polyester blends, such as poly-cotton, poly-rayon, poly-silk, and polyester-wool blends, are more prone to shrinking. Why? Because cotton, rayon, silk, and knit fabrics like wool, are known to shrink more easily. Mix it with polyester, and the resultant blend loses some of polyester’s original shrink-resistant nature. 

But the good news is that you can prevent your polyester clothes from shrinking (ever) by following proper wash and care instructions. 

Washing, Drying, and Ironing Instructions for Polyester Garments

Most garments come with care labels that contain instructions of how to wash, dry, iron, and store, so heed their advice. Didn’t find the care label? No worries. Following these 👇 instructions will prevent your polyester clothes from shrinking, and leave them looking as good as new even after years. 

  • If your polyester garments have any stains, pre-soak them in warm water with 1/4th cup of plain vinegar for about 20-30 minutes. 
  • Turn them inside out and machine-wash them with cold or warm water on a delicate cycle setting. This reduces friction and prevents pillage. Use a light laundry detergent. 
  • Air dry your clothes, but make sure you’re not exposing them to direct sunlight for a long time. This will fade away the colors. If you do have to use a dryer, select a low heat setting.
  • Polyester is naturally wrinkle-resistant, so it doesn’t have to be ironed. However, if you do want to iron your garments, turn it inside-out and iron it using a low heat setting. You can also steam instead of using an iron.
  • You can either fold your polyester clothes or hang them inside your wardrobe, but make sure to store them in a cool and dry place. There might be some clothes that you wear rarely. Store these inside a breathable bag (NOT plastic) to protect them from bugs and mildew. 

Polyester’s Impact On The Environment

Polyester might be a magic fabric for the fashion world, but it’s tragic for the environment. Let’s explore how. 

1. Its raw materials aren't sustainable 

Polyester’s raw materials come from petroleum, which is a fossil fuel and a non-renewable resource. Fossil fuels take a very long time to form in nature, and we’re using them up much faster than they can be produced. This means there’s only a limited amount of crude oil currently available on Earth; once it’s used up, there will be no more petroleum. 

In addition to depleting the Earth’s natural resources, the use of fossil fuels releases CO2 in the air, contributing to global warming. It’s estimated that the fast fashion industry is responsible for releasing 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year!

2. Its production process is water- and energy-intensive, and pollutive

You need lots of energy and water (for cooling) along with toxic chemicals and heavy metals to make polyester. This leads to the emission of a significant amount of greenhouse gasses (GHG). Once the fiber has been manufactured, the toxic cocktail of chemicals and metals are simply released into the water, where they contaminate the health of humans and wildlife. 

Even the process of dyeing polyester isn’t safe from environmental concerns. Known as disperse dyes, these colorants are insoluble in water and don’t decompose. Once again, the wastewater (with the dyes) is simply released into the wild, where they go on to cause environmental and massive health problems such as cancer. 

3. It’s not biodegradable

Polyester clothes don’t decompose. Ever. (It is plastic, after all.) So, after you throw away that polyester t-shirt, it’s going to lie in the landfill, without decomposing, for decades and centuries, all the while destroying the environment

Another thing about polyester is that, every time you wash it, it sheds microfibers. These tiny pieces of plastic enter the oceans and go into the tummies of wildlife and humans. 

What’s The Solution? Eco-Friendly Alternatives To Polyester

One option is to manufacture using plant-based or recycled polyester (typically using post-consumer recycled bottles), which is significantly more eco-friendly than virgin polyester. The best part is that it behaves exactly like virgin polyester, so you won’t have to compromise on performance. 

Melengo works with recycled polyester, helping you achieve comfort and sustainability with your clothes! [Work with us]

Polyester Fabric Certifications for Manufacturers

In addition to quality, what’s one of the most important things that customers look for in clothes? Whether the manufacturers follow best practices in terms of lowering the negative impact of production on the environment and laborers. This is where third-party fabric certifications help. They’re an assurance for the customers that you care since these certificates are only issued after thoroughly vetting your entire production process

Here are some of the fabric certifications that you can get for polyester garments:

  • OEKO-TEX Standard 100: This certificate tests garments (right from the yarn to the finished products) for harmful chemicals. It lets your customers know that the clothes are safe to use and don’t contain any harmful substances that affect human health. 
  • Bluesign®: This certificate guarantees that a garment has been produced with the lowest impact on the environment and people. Bluesign® ensures that manufacturers reduce their water, energy, and chemical use, workers aren’t exposed to toxic chemicals, the factories have strict pollution control measures, and that the products are safe for consumers to use.
  • Global Recycled Standard (GRS): If you use at least 20% recycled polyester in the manufacturing process, you can get a GRS certificate. It sets strict standards for recycled materials, and ensures that they meet supply, chemical, social, and environmental standards. 

Best Places To Source Polyester Fabric

The most popular polyester fabric manufacturing countries are China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, and South Korea, followed by the USA and Turkey.  

When you’re on the journey of sourcing your polyester fabrics, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The type (weave or knit) and weight (in grams per square meter, or GSM) of the polyester fabric you need will depend on what you want to make. For instance, activewear needs a fabric that’s 200 to 300 GSM, while your typical t-shirts are around 130 to 180 GSM.
  • The cheaper the fabric, the lower the quality. 
  • Check for color fastness, structure, durability, and care instructions.
  • If you need your garments to have special properties (such as wrinkle- and stain-resistance, UV-protection, or waterproofing), look for fabrics that have been subjected to treatments or finishes. 
  • If you want certified fabrics, choose suppliers that offer those. 

And here’s how you can make sure that you’re choosing a reliable manufacturer:

  1. Ensure that they have credible testimonials from previous customers. 
  2. Evaluate the quality of their polyester fabrics through a sample. 
  3. Ask them for certifications that prove they’re compliant and maintain fabric production standards. 
  4. Make sure they have a quality control process in place.

🤝Partner with Melengo, and let's take care of the sourcing for you. [Sign up now]

Cost Considerations for Manufacturing Polyester Garments

The price of polyester fabric depends on various factors, such as: 

  • The rise and fall of crude oil prices
  • Production costs
  • Polyester grade
  • National and global regulations that manufacturers have to comply with (such as anti-dumping)
  • Supply chain costs
  • Labor costs, and 
  • Supply and demand

Low-grade polyester can be purchased for $1-$3 per yard, while high-grade polyester typically costs more–at least $10 per yard. Recycled polyester and polyester blends (such as poly-silk or poly-cotton) also tend to cost more than 100% virgin polyester. 

Create Polyester Garments Easily With Melengo

Melengo is a clothing manufacturing company that lets you develop garment ideas, source high-quality fabrics, and launch your products with ease. We take care of the nitty gritty, so you can focus on what you do best–running your clothing business. 

Dream it with Melengo. [Get started now!]

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