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What Is Polyester? A Complete Guide

You have probably seen clothing that says, “100% polyester”. But what is Polyester, and how can it be used? Find out what you need to know about polyester before using it for your project or product.

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Does Polyester Grow on Trees? A Complete Guide

Polyester is a synthetic or man-made fiber material. Shortened from its technical name, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which, if born, would be its legal name, is made by mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Made in a lab from chemical compounds, polyester is a kind of plastic.

Used for a countless number of applications for its strength and ability to retain its shape, polyester is a base component for several industrial, commercial, and household products.

And whereas polyester had suffered a bad reputation for its negative effect on the environment, now there are ways to make it more sustainable. Read on to learn more about the power of polyester.

How Is Polyester Made?

Since polyester is a synthetic fiber, it doesn’t come from a plant like cotton. Instead, polyester is chemically produced from derived compounds. While the process varies depending on the different types of polyester and the manufacturer, there are five basic steps to creating polyester:

  1. Create a monomer: After being extracted from the earth and transported to a refinery, petroleum is broken down into ingredients that can be used for various applications. The ethylene and p-xylene extracted from petroleum are the two monomers needed for making polyester.
  2. Create a polymer: The monomers are then mixed with dimethyl terephthalate, creating the polymer polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is the plastic in soda and water bottles. PET in this form has a honey-like consistency.
  3. Extrude the polymer: Once the PET is formed, it’s extruded so it can dry and harden. Then, it’s cut up into small pellets.
  4. Melt and spin the pellets: The PET pellets are once again melted, and the molten PET is extruded through spinnerets, which are tiny holes, to form thread. After these long threads cool, they harden into polyester fibers. Depending on what the fibers are for, the spinneret shapes can be altered to create different fiber qualities.
  5. A yarn is born: Finally, the fibers are twisted into polyester yarn and are ready to knit into fabric. At this stage, the fibers can be cut or further altered with various chemicals to achieve specific results.

Depending on the desired outcome, various ways to modify this production process exist. For example, to produce soft and smooth fabrics, the fibers will be adjusted to create a thin filament. There are also ways to alter the ethylene used in the process. When producing plant-based polyester, the source of ethylene is commonly sugarcane rather than petroleum.

The Power of Polyester

Polyester has numerous attributes, many of which are unique to the fabric. These benefits are why polyester became so popular and is still widely used today. Some important polyester characteristics are:

  • Durable: Polyester fibers are much stronger than other natural fibers. Polyester won’t tear or stretch and can withstand abrasions. It’s highly resilient to heat, light, and ultraviolet radiation degradation, making it a good material for boat covers and high sun exposure applications. Easily washable, quick drying, and resistant to mildew and most chemicals, polyester is often used when making outdoor clothing and gear, like jackets, tents, and backpacks, as well as products including home furnishings, safety belts, carpets, and laundry bags. Highly diverse, polyester is even used as a synthetic artery replacement.
  • Moisture resistant: Polyester repels moisture and will wick away liquid droplets instead of soaking them up like cotton. This benefit is another characteristic that makes polyester ideal for outdoor clothing and gear. For example, a tent made of polyester will resist precipitation and moisture, keeping the contents inside dry. Note that this characteristic tends to make the fabric less breathable, so clothing manufacturers often blend polyester with a breathable material, like cotton.
  • Wrinkle resistant: Polyester retains its shape without needing to be washed or ironed as often as cotton or linen. The wrinkle-resistant qualities of polyester allow it to stay rigid and in shape, letting the fabric be worn or used longer between washes. This feature was one of the main advertised characteristics and benefits of polyester when first introduced as an alternative apparel material.
  • Moldable: When heat is applied, polyester is highly malleable and can be formed into shapes. It can be re-melted and reused several times, decreasing the amount of waste in our landfills. Furthering the sustainability of polyester, companies today specialize in separating poly/cotton blends so that the original polyester can be used again and again in textiles.

Like any fabric, polyester has characteristics that may draw consumers away from it or might make the material less ideal for certain applications. For one, most types of polyester aren’t biodegradable, though researchers in textile advancements are striving for polyester that breaks down at the same rate materials such as cotton do.

Polyester also isn’t the most luxurious fabric, which means it can feel coarse on its own. Cheap or poorly made polyester will feel rough, especially on sensitive skin. The texture of polyester can depend on how the fibers were made or tethered together. While some polyester fabrics tend to be coarse and itchy, others can be smooth and silky. Clothing manufacturers can also blend polyester with other materials for a more comfortable garment.

Types of Polyester

There are a few types of polyester, with the most significant difference being what they’re made of. Some types of polyester are more suitable for particular applications because of their distinct characteristics. Let’s take a closer look at three types of polyester fabric.

Polyethylene Terephthalate

Polyethylene terephthalate is the most common type of polyester. Also known as PET, polyethylene terephthalate is the most produced polyester. Polyethylene terephthalate is durable and inexpensive to produce, making it ideal for most applications.

Plant-Based Polyester

While polyester can be recycled, it’s most often recycled in the form of bottles rather than clothing fibers. Compared to the amount of polyester used in fabrics and clothes, less than 15% is actually recycled and reused in new textiles. That’s where plant-based polyester comes in.

Plant-based polyester is made with bio alternatives to petroleum. The ethylene needed for the polyester comes from plants like sugar cane or bio-waste, or waste that mainly includes organic materials, such as food scraps or sawdust. Using these biodegradable materials helps reduce the use of petroleum resources.

While it’s not produced as heavily as PET due to higher costs, plant-based polyester fabric is biodegradable. This characteristic makes plant-based polyester more sustainable and better for the environment, given that the crops are farmed sustainably. This polyester type may not be as popular or durable as other types; however, it is more environmentally sustainable.

PCDT Polyester

PCDT is similar to PET, though their chemical structures are different. PCDT stands for poly-1, 4-cyclohexylene-dimethylene terephthalate, which is what makes up this polyester. PCDT polyester is less popular than PET, even though it is often more elastic and durable. These properties make this polyester ideal for heavy-duty applications like curtains or upholstery.

Uses of Polyester

Polyester is found in several products and industries. Its durability makes it ideal for various items ranging from clothing to consumer products and industrial applications:

  • Clothing: Polyester fiber can be used to make anything cotton fibers would be used for. Any apparel items for business, formal or casual wear can be made from polyester. From socks and underwear to suits and everyday shirts, polyester fabric has endless applications in apparel.
  • Housewares: Polyester is used to make various home items like microfiber towels, blankets, curtains, and upholstery. The moisture-resistant properties make polyester an excellent fabric for pillows, chairs, and sofa cushions.
  • Automotive: When you enter your car and buckle up, chances are the safety belt is made with polyester. Additionally, it’s used as a reinforcement for car tires, as it adds strength, making the tire last longer.
  • Geosynthetics: Used in civil engineering projects and construction jobs, polyester can be found in roads and landfills, as it’s a good fabric for water filtration, drainage, and soil erosion control.
  • Industrial applications: Polyester material can also be found in bottles, ropes, cords, boats, LCDs, tarps, food containers, and other industrial products.

Polyester is also commonly used as stuffing for blankets, bedding, and sleeping bags because of its ability to insulate. Many everyday items are made with polyester, many of which you may not even think about.

The Cost of Polyester

The price of polyester fluctuates and largely depends on supply and demand, the quality of the fibers, where you purchase from, and whether the raw materials have been altered already. Before 2016, polyester pricing remained relatively consistent from quarter to quarter, but since then, that stability has been replaced by accelerated movement, exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic.

Polyester pricing is dependent on a few factors:

Price of raw materials – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, aka Polyester) is produced by combining Mono- Ethylene Glycol (MEG) and Purified Terephthalic Acid (PTA), found in crude oil. As the price of oil increases, so does the cost of PTA, affecting the cost of polyester.

Ocean Freight – Since China operates about 70% of the world’s industrial polyester production, ocean freight cannot be avoided. As shipping costs increase, so does the cost of polyester. With the pandemic, international shipping has slowed, making the acquisition of polyester difficult, thereby hiking prices.

Market Demand – Although polyester is used in many industries, the automotive sector significantly impacts demand. Used in several components of car production, including seatbelts, tire carcass piles, airbags, hose reinforcement, power transmission belt reinforcement, and interiors; when automobile production slows (currently due to the lack of computer chips), so does the supply of polyester. Overall, the supply/demand equation directly impacts market pricing.

Quality Polyester Fabrics from Apex Mills

If you’re in the market for polyester fabric solutions, Apex Mills can help. Our fabric specialists have satisfied customers in various fields from health care to the military, achieving the textile solution necessary for their specific needs.

Contact our team today to find out how we can customize a solution for you. 



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