Polyester use in apparel has been on the rise in recent years, but it wasn’t always so. Polyester, a synthetic, has changed to meet changing demands.
History of Polyester
After its invention by DuPont in 1950, polyester fabric steadily grew in popularity.
Back in the days of disco, polyester became synonymous with bad taste. It was so out of favor, fabric makers hid polyester behind names like Dacron, Kodel, Fortrel and many others. In the 1970s part of the problem was polyester couldn’t shake its connection with double-knit leisure suits. For a time polyester makers couldn’t keep up, and then the look went from must-have to must trash.
Beginning in the mid 80s, some of the same manufacturers took another stab at marketing what they were calling “the miracle fiber.”
They moved beyond its synthetic qualities. Polyester can take well over a hundred forms and can create the illusion of silk, linen, wool, cotton or more. It can be made fluffy or it can be a hard plastic.
Above all, polyester is extremely durable and it is cheap, especially when oil prices are low. There was a time when people wearing cotton shirts didn’t mind a few wrinkles and were ok with dark underarm discoloration due to sweat. Polyester is made to wick moisture and prevent wrinkling. It doesn’t shrink and it is generally colorfast.
In 1970 polyester production was half that of cotton. In 2010, 65% of world fiber production was synthetic and 35% was natural fibers.
The challenge for polyester makers is that cotton is more breathable, doesn’t have an iron grip on sweat odors and has a natural, comfortable feel.
Combining the best of cotton and polyester has been the objective of blends. The results have been mixed.
Polyester has embraced the challenges and you’ll find a high percentage of Men’s/Unisex or Ladies knit shirts are 100% polyester. Moisture-wicking and easy care have become an important consideration for most buyers.
Polyester has also become an important ingredient for those who need layered dress. Polyester t-shirts help retain heat. Polyester has also come to the front for performance shirts and caps in the sporting world. Jacket shells are commonly polyester, as is the insulation.
Apparel makers have responded to polyester’s challenges by utilizing anti-odor, antibacterial treatments. For those concerned about it being a petro-chemical, more and more makers are using polyester recycled from used drink bottles. The treatment and use of recycled materials make no visible changes to the fabric.
Consider This With Fabrics Like Polyester
Polyester and other synthetics are prohibited by OSHA regulations from being used in apparel destined for use around high power electricity. A person wearing even a tiny percentage of polyester will experience fabric melting into their skin if they make contact with power.
All of the leading fabrics, natural or synthetic, cotton or polyester, recycled or virgin, have ecological issues. These include water consumption, chemical use and trace heavy metals. If those are a concern, the most conservation conscious products have bluesign approval for meeting environmental, health and safety standards. WRAP is another standard focused on responsible manufacturing.
Bio-based polymer research may lead to plant-based polyesters in the future, especially if oil prices increase. These would be the most ecologically conscious products yet.
Read Beyond the Plain White T-shirt to learn more about fabrics, decoration and other apparel trends.