When most people think about polyester, they think of the 1970s and the 1980s – shiny, synthetic jackets stretched tight, tucked into stretchy, polyester bellbottoms in bright colors, or flashdance-esque polyester leggings and oversized, baggy polyester shirts. Luckily, over the past forty years polyester, like all fabrics, has improved, and now there’s key advantages to buying fabrics made from a synthetic fabric, or a combination of synthetics and natural fibers.
Polyester fabrics – knitted from polyester yarns – can be natural or synthetic in origin. Invented in 1941 in England based on earlier research, early polyester was formed through a combination of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, and became a basis for more complicated materials including Dacron and mylar. DuPont Chemical purchased production rights, and rapidly expanded polyester fabric, soon setting up small textile mills. Easy to produce, affordable and durable, polyester rose in popularity until its peak in the 1970s, when a backlash against the fiber – many thought it was tacky and uncomfortable – led to its widespread replacement with other synthetic fibers, including nylon.
Unfortunately, popular perceptions of polyester are still mired in the past. More recently, polyester manufacturers have developed a more luxurious variant of the material – polyester microfiber – which is more expensive to produce and much softer to the touch. In surveys conducted during the 1980s, polyester manufacturers found that, when tested, 89% of people could not tell the difference between polyester and natural fabrics.
Like any fabric, though, polyester has both disadvantages and advantages. Unlike natural fibers, polyester is not biodegradable, which promotes durability, but can be a problem if you’re trying to keep your clothing choices environmentally friendly. Polyesters are also wrinkle resistant, hold their colors dyes well when subjected to washing, and are more water resistant. If you’re still hesitant about giving polyester fabric a try though, look for a blend – more and more fabric manufacturers are producing exotic blended fabrics which include polyester as well as more other fibers, introducing some of the advantages of polyester while maintaining the feel of more natural materials.