Fabric series: All about Polyester

Over the years, humans have created many inventions. Some of them had a more positive impact on us than others. Polyester is one of those inventions which brings a number of advantages, along with unfortunate disadvantages.

What is Polyester?

It has been nearly a century since polyester became a very important part in a number of industries and consequently our life. Its wide range of usage makes polyester almost irreplaceable in today’s world.

In 1941, British scientists J. T. Dickson and J.R. Whinfield patented polyethylene terephthalate which is also known as PET. Their research was inspired from the research by the US scientist W. Carothers. After discovering Carothers’s work which did not include the polyester coming from terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, in 1941, Dickson and Whinfield developed the first polyester fiber ever, called Terylene. It was firstly produced by British company Imperial Chemical Industries, and secondly by US company DuPont which was called Dacron. In the 1970’s, its popularity increased extremely in the fashion sector, and it was advertised as “a miracle fiber that can be worn for 68 days straight without ironing, and still look presentable,”.

Petroleum, coal, water and air are used in the production of polyester, which is a synthetic (man-made) fibre. These fibres are capable of forming new molecules which are very strong and stable.

The most common type of chemical reaction used to make polyester takes place at high temperatures in a vacuum. A petroleum by-product, alcohol, and carboxylic acid are mixed to form a compound known as monomer or “ester”

The material itself is very cheap to produce and multipurpose which is why it very present in the fashion sector. However, its environmental impact is very severe as it is a petroleum-based fibre. It is made from carbon-intensive non-renewable resources, and is unfortunately mostly not biodegradable.

In 2015, Forbes reported that yearly more than 70 billion barrels of oil are used in polyester production. Synthetic-based clothing is one the largest microplastic polluters in the oceans which happens through wash-off of around 1,900 fibers from just one clothing item in every wash.

Who produces it?

Currently, the biggest producer is China, whilst Japan, India, Indonesia, and the United States are also large producers of polyester.

What is Polyester used for?

Due to its versatility and desirable qualities, polyester is used in many cases. High tenacity and durability make it very appropriate for clothing production.  As a strong fiber, polyester can withstand strong and repetitive movements. Its hydrophobic (water-repelling) property makes it ideal for garments and jackets that are to be used in wet or damp environments, coating the fabric with a water-resistant finish intensifies this effect. 

In the fashion industry, this fibre is mainly used for making shirts, trousers, suits, bags, footwear, sportswear, bed sheets and so on.

For industrial use, it is used for making air filters, carpets, ropes, films, fishing nets, bottles, high-quality wood guitar finishes, pianos, liquid crystal displays, wire, phone cases and many more.

Polyester fibres are sometimes spun together with natural fibres to produce fabric with blended properties. Wool and cotton can be a good example as when they are blended together, it improves crease resistance.

Characteristics of Polyester

As mentioned, polyester is very durable, resistant to many chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, lubricants acids etc., stain, stretching, shrining, wrinkling. It is also very lightweight, which is another important advantage. Here are other positive characteristics:

  • Dries very quickly

  • Does not absorb water which is very useful for manufacture of water-resistant products 

  • Very easy to take care of

  • Dying procedure is very easy, and dye lasts longer

  • Retains shape

However, it has also some negative characteristics, such as:

  • Polyester does not absorb water, but does absorb oil, grease, oil-based soaks which is difficult to clean

  • Attracts static electricity, as well as attracting lint and dirt

  • Garments from polyester are not breathable

  • It can cause allergic reactions and create irritation on our skin

Can Polyester be recycled?

Polyester textile recycling has been developed using the clear plastic water bottles, or PET as the raw material, a source of plastic that would otherwise go into landfill. For example, textiles such as fleece, are made from recycled polyester which is used by outdoor clothing manufacturers. Patagonia, Marks&Spencer and other fashion brands are very well known for using recycled polyester in their products. Teijin is a company in Japan who developed their own polyester recycling system back into polyester fabric, for re-use as clothing. 

However, that is not always the case. Sometimes garments are not only made from polyester, but together with some other materials such as cotton. Therefore it makes the recycling process very difficult and even impossible. 

“In some cases, (recycling polyester) is technically possible, for example blends with polyester and cotton. But it is still at the pilot level. The challenge is to find processes that can be scaled up properly and we are not there yet” stated Karla Magruder, a textile professional and the founder of Fabrikology International in her article on Suston Magazine.

So, yes polyester is recyclable, but a very large amount of polyester cannot be recycled although many institutions are working on a solution however a scalable one hasn't been found yet.

At Kleiderly, we have a way to recycle polyester, and even blends of fabric into a circular and very sustainable material.  This innovation is very important to protect landfills from excessive waste by the fashion and textile industries!

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