Cotton and polyester are the most commonly used materials for clothing. The former usually stands for high quality, the latter less so. What's wrong with the prejudice? What are the real benefits of cotton clothing and when is it better to use polyester? In this article, you'll learn everything you need to know about the two most popular clothing fabrics in the world.
Polyester and cotton are two of the most popular fabrics for clothing and home textiles. Since they are used for many of the same applications, one might think that they are similar materials. But are they? What is the difference between the two, and which is better?
The main difference between polyester and cotton is how they are made. Polyester is a man-made, synthetic material made from petroleum products. Cotton is a natural and sustainable fiber harvested from cotton seeds. Polyester is the best choice for water-resistant, durable clothing. Cotton, on the other hand, is best for breathable, cool summer clothing.
So how do you know whether you should use cotton or polyester? This article highlights the strengths and weaknesses. It will help you make an informed decision for your next sewing project.
Cotton vs Polyester: The most important points
Cotton and polyester are both popular materials and are most commonly used for clothing and home textiles. Their popularity is due to their utility properties and unique benefits. Although both are seemingly interchangeable when it comes to their usage, there are distinct differences between them.
- Cotton is a natural fiber, polyester is made from oil.
- The synthetic nature of polyester can give it a cold character.
- Cotton has a reputation for being warm and cozy and soft.
It's easy to imagine that these two materials are like chalk and cheese. So why are they used for similar things, and what makes one better than the other?
What is cotton?
Cotton is a natural fiber that is hypoallergenic, breathable and comfortable to wear. It has been used to make textiles around the globe for thousands of years.
Their popularity comes from their versatility. Cotton can be used to make carpets, clothing, bedding and upholstered furniture. Because it is adaptable, malleable and easy to work with, it remains popular with home sewers and clothing manufacturers.
Medium-strength fibers are used for everyday clothing, while short-staple fibers are used for carpets and lower-quality items.
- Absorbs moisture
- Strong and durable
- Soft on the skin
- Doesn't dry quickly
- Tends to form wrinkles
- wears out over time
What is Polyester?
Polyester is a petroleum-based synthetic material. It is lighter and more durable than cotton and is used for many of the same products. Developed in the 20th century, polyester was introduced as a clothing fabric in the 1970s and became a cheaper alternative to cotton.
The man-made nature of polyester makes it a durable and long-lasting material. It is a popular fabric for outdoor and activity clothing due to its moisture-wicking and quick-drying properties.
- Easy to maintain
- Fast drying
- Moisture wicking
- Feels like plastic when worn
- May be cold on skin
- is not breathable
- Melts with too much heat
- is not sustainable
What is the difference between polyester and cotton?
Cotton is a very breathable fabric. The term “breathable” refers to the ability of the fabric to allow moisture to escape from the body and allow air to circulate through the fibers. This is one of the properties that has made the fabric an integral part of clothing manufacturing for centuries. The breathability makes cotton an ideal choice for clothing worn directly against the skin, especially underwear.
There is one downside to cotton. Although it is breathable, it does not wick away moisture. Cotton absorbs water and tends to stay wet. Depending on the thickness of the fabric, it may take a long time to dry. This can be disastrous in colder climates. A fabric that dries slowly can cause hypothermia at low temperatures.
Polyester is petroleum based and is not breathable. Clothing can therefore be uncomfortable in hot climates and summer temperatures. The reason for this is that the body's moisture or sweat is retained on the skin. This can cause the fabric to feel wet and tight, which is uncomfortable for the wearer.
Because polyester is a synthetic material, it dries quickly. This is because it does not absorb liquids. They remain on the surface and are removed through evaporation. Being water-repellent is a definite advantage when it comes to outerwear or rainwear.
Both polyester and cotton are durable fabrics, although in different ways. The strength of cotton lies in the various weaves of the fabric. Some cotton fabrics, like twill, are more durable than others.
This is due to the density of the fabric or the number of fibers per inch. The more densely woven the cotton fabric is, the stronger the fabric is. Interestingly, cotton is strongest when wet, which helps it survive numerous washes in hot water.
However, cotton can also be soft and easily damaged. Again, it's because of the way it's woven. For example, a cotton lawn is not as durable as denim.
The cotton fibers are biodegradable, meaning they will break down. Heavier cotton will also wear out. Sunlight and time are both enemies of cotton. Too much of either will cause the cotton to decompose.
Polyester is incredibly durable. Because the fibers are made of plastic, they are resistant to water, stains and kinks. They do not decompose, making them strong and resistant to a lot of wear and tear.
Longevity can be an issue when it comes to disposing of polyester. It cannot be composted and, like any other plastic, will remain in a landfill for ages.
Cotton comes in different weights and in different variations that adapt to the changing temperatures of the seasons. It's also a great layering fabric. Even the lightest summer top can be worn in winter if used as a layer under another item of clothing.
The ability to layer it makes it an ideal choice for cooler climates. Because the fabric is breathable, air can flow between layers, creating small pockets of insulation. If you wear underwear, a t-shirt, a shirt and maybe a sweater, you are guaranteed to feel comfortable.
Some types of cotton are suitable for winter use, meaning they have a heavier weave. Think flannel or twill. Both are cotton fabrics that are known for their warmth.
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as an item of clothing that is too warm. Cotton absorbs body sweat and wicks it away from the body. But the material stays wet. This means that the wet clothes on your body freeze and you feel cold.
Polyester is not breathable, so air cannot flow through the fabric, resulting in insulation. It also doesn't feel good on the skin as it can cause sweating. Moisture on the skin is bad news for your body in colder climates. It will lower your temperature and you will freeze.
The fabric can keep you warm to a certain extent. Fleece, a fabric made from polyester, is a well-known material used for jackets and hoodies. Although fleece retains heat on the body, it is not a good insulator on its own.
It is also one of the few polyester fabrics that is not waterproof. When cold air or winter rain hits fleece, the temperature of the fabric drops, leaving you feeling cold and wet. To be an effective cold weather material, fleece must be layered with other cotton or wool garments.
In colder climates, polyester is best used as outerwear. A polyester cover over your winter clothing or even your fleece jacket will help keep the heat in.
Cotton is made from the fluffy fibers of the cotton plant and is therefore naturally soft. This softness makes cotton clothing, especially if it is 100% cotton, soft to the touch and even softer to wear.
However, not all cotton is made to be soft and fluffy. The term cotton covers a wide range of different types of fabric. From lightweight cotton voile to heavy twill, the weave you choose will impact the level of softness you receive.
Although denim or cotton canvas are cotton fabrics, they are coarse and hard. They are designed for heavy duty or industrial work. The weave reflects this.
Flannel, on the other hand, is incredibly soft and very cozy. It is woven in such a way that the natural softness of the cotton fibers is retained. This fabric is designed to retain heat.
Polyester is a man-made fabric made from man-made fibers. Because it is petroleum-based, it can feel a little like plastic. It does not have the same softness properties as a natural fiber.
However, the material has changed over the years. Modern technology has made great strides in the production of polyester, making it more comfortable to wear.
Just as cotton has different weaves, polyester can also be processed in different ways. One option is to make a double brushed polyester fabric. This material is super soft and feels just as comfortable as its natural counterparts.
Because polyester is a synthetic fiber, it can be manipulated and shaped into any fabric. Some fibers retain the cold of plastic. Others are made to imitate the softness of cotton fabrics. So much so that it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether it is polyester or cotton.
Polyester and cotton come in different thicknesses depending on the weave of the fabric and the product it is intended for. While they have different properties, both materials are used to make a range of light to heavy items.
The thickness of a fabric or yarn is called denier. Denier refers to the number of threads per inch of material. A low denier fabric would be a thin weave like cotton voile. A higher denier means a heavier woven material such as corduroy.
Although the two fabrics have the same thread count, the weight is a different matter. Thicker polyester fabric feels lighter than heavy cotton fabric.
Even though the thread count of a polyester fabric is high, this only makes the weave thicker and the fabric more durable. This will change the weight slightly, but a heavy polyester fabric will feel lighter than the thickest denim.
The reason for this is the volume. Increasing the number of fibers per inch in a cotton fabric causes the threads to be woven more tightly. Depending on the size of the yarn used in the material, additional threads result in increased weight. This makes durable cotton much heavier than the same thickness of polyester.
Some of the best fabrics for wicking away moisture are natural fibers. Cotton and polyester are exceptions to this rule.
Polyester is better at wicking moisture than cotton, which is strange since it's a synthetic material. Its ability to evaporate sweat makes it an ideal component of activewear.
However, one disadvantage of polyester is that it does not remove odors. Although it can dry quickly, it retains the smells of the last training session. This makes it a fabric that needs to be washed on time and regularly.
Cotton does not wick moisture away. She sucks them up. In some ways this is better than having the moisture sucked away. As you absorb fluid, it moves away from your body more quickly, keeping you cool. Clothing retains moisture and becomes damp. It may sound uncomfortable, but your sweat-soaked shirt can also help you stay cool in hot climates.
Both cotton and polyester can be dyed and retain colors well. Because cotton is a natural fiber, it has a deeper, richer color than polyester.
However, cotton is susceptible to sun damage and colors fade quickly. It also tends to shrink. Since dyeing requires washing and drying, your garment could end up a size too small.
Although polyester initially reacts less vividly to dyes, it can retain the color longer. Your favorite pink shirt is resistant to fading and shrinking, remaining true to its hue throughout the life of the garment.
Polyester is not as easy to dye as cotton and can be challenging. It requires a special synthetic dye that does not attack cotton. This can result in a slightly stained effect on a poly-cotton blend. Even if you want to dye cotton with a polyester thread, the cotton dye will not change the color of the thread.
Due to its synthetic properties, polyester is resistant to shrinkage. This makes it an ideal fabric for items that require regular washing. However, it should not be washed too hot. Heat and polyester don't mix well. Since it is essentially plastic, it can melt.
Cotton is known for its tendency to shrink. It shrinks the most after the first wash and dry. This is especially true for denim and is the reason people used to buy jeans a size larger to account for shrinkage.
Nowadays, shrinkage of cotton fabrics is no longer a big problem. Modern processes and the addition of stretch fibers or polyester to cotton fabrics have reduced the nightmare of shrinkage.
Cotton comes in different weights and qualities. The different weaves and types of cotton affect the price you pay. The better the quality, weave and durability of the fibers used, the more expensive the fabric is.
Long-staple cotton fibers are typically the most expensive among cotton fabrics. The long fibers create a high-quality, fine and durable fabric that is ideal for bed linen and expensive clothing. Types of cotton with long fibers include Egyptian and Pima cotton, both of which are considered luxury items.
Short-staple cotton is used to make carpets and lower-quality products. The quality is not that good so the fabric made from it is cheaper.
Polyester is typically cheaper than most cotton fabrics, although the actual price depends on the current popularity of the fabric and that of cotton. Polyester has its advantages and disadvantages, but is generally cheaper than its natural fiber cousins.
The easy-care and wrinkle-resistant properties of polyester make it a popular choice. Compared to the cost of high-quality cotton, polyester is an affordable option.
Care and Maintenance
In some ways, polyester is easier to care for than cotton. Polyester is wrinkle-resistant and dries quickly. It is both water-repellent and stain-resistant. Another advantage of polyester is that it does not need to be ironed before wearing and can air dry in no time. Spending less time in the dryer and less time ironing will save you money on your electric bill.
However, there is a small disadvantage. Since it is made of synthetic fibers, it can absorb odors. Dirt and stains are easy to remove with washing, but odors are a little more difficult to get rid of. Especially if the item of clothing has been lying forgotten at the bottom of the laundry basket for a few days. A key element in the care and maintenance of polyester is to wash it often and as soon as possible to avoid odors.
There are a few things to consider when washing polyester. It does not like to be cooked or washed at high temperatures. It also cannot tolerate excessive spinning. If handled roughly, the fabric will wrinkle and warp.
Cotton, on the other hand, wrinkles and needs to be ironed after every wash. It doesn't dry quickly, which means either a long stay in the dryer or a day on the line. The fabric stains easily, which may require the use of stain removers or even long soaking.
Cotton is easier to wash than polyester. It can tolerate hotter water temperatures, which means odors can be removed from the fabric more quickly. Cotton is less likely to get caught in other clothes and can therefore be washed with clothes with zippers. Since it is firmer when wet, a vigorous spin cycle will not harm it.
One of the most important differences between cotton and polyester is the way they are manufactured. Cotton is a natural fiber made from plant seeds. Polyester is made from petroleum.
Unfortunately, polyester is not considered particularly sustainable due to its origins as a petroleum product. While the manufacturing process doesn't use much water, it relies heavily on another, rapidly dwindling natural resource. Polyester is dependent on fossil fuels.
The fabric is essentially a material made from chemical-based plastic fibers. Polyester is made from polyethylene terephthalate. The same material is also used to make plastic water bottles.
Today, plastic water bottles can be recycled into polyester yarn, reducing the material's carbon footprint a bit. The polyester fiber obtained from it can also be recycled. However, polyester is not particularly environmentally friendly because it does not decompose and rot.
While this can be a big disadvantage, it can also be an advantage. Because polyester does not decompose and rot, it is a durable material. Garments made from this fabric last the same lifespan as garments made from cotton.
Cotton, on the other hand, is sustainable, at least slightly more sustainable than polyester. It is harvested from the cotton plant and is a natural fiber. 100% cotton fibers are completely biodegradable and can be made into compost. The fibers can also be recycled into new clothing or other products such as paper bags.
However, the sustainability of cotton also has a disadvantage. A lot of water is required to process the cotton. Each step from growing the seed to making the garment requires up to 20,000 liters of water, depending on the type of clothing.
Cotton is plant-based and is susceptible to pests such as the Boll Weevil. To combat this, large amounts of pesticides are used during the growth phase. These chemicals can contaminate soil and water sources.
They may differ in how they are made, but their sustainability is roughly the same.
Both cotton and polyester can be used for the same things. Both have their place in clothing manufacturing, and fabric is the most well-known use for both materials. However, some uses are better suited to one or the other.
Polyester is used as artificial filling material for pillows and down duvets. Even sofas are upholstered with polyester. But that's not all. The fibers are used to make plastic bottles, high-strength ropes, hoses and even balloons. If you're a musician, the high-quality wood of your guitar or piano might have a polyester coating.
Cotton is one of the materials used in every part. The main use may be as fabric for clothing, but there are other uses for cotton that you probably didn't know about.
When the cotton seeds are processed, animal feed for farm animals is created. What is not used for the animals can be processed into fertilizer, which adds nutrients back to the soil.
The outer fluff layer of the cotton seed, the so-called linters, contains a high proportion of cellulose. This cellulose can be used to make plastics. Cotton-based plastic is used, among other things, to make television screens.
What is polycotton?
Polycotton is a blend of polyester and cotton. The proportion of the two fibers can be different. Sometimes the cotton content is higher. In most cases the polyester content is the highest. Most polycottons today consist of around 35% cotton and 65% polyester.
One of the main advantages of polycotton is that it combines the advantages of both materials. By combining the best properties of one material, the disadvantages of the other material are compensated for.
The two fabrics were first mixed in the 1960s in a joint effort between American textile manufacturer Bill Klopman and the DuPont company. They discovered that the 65/35 blend was the ideal formula for a successful fabric.
The fabric was originally invented for work clothing that was intended to withstand industrial laundering. Since the 1970s it has become an integral part of everyday clothing. The wrinkle resistance and moisture-wicking properties of polyester, coupled with the cool softness of cotton, make polycotton one of the most popular clothing fabrics available today.
Which is better: cotton or polyester?
The question of which fabric is better is difficult to answer when it comes to polyester and cotton. They both have their good and bad sides. For this reason, both fabrics are very popular when it comes to fabrics.
Polyester is typically less expensive and water-resistant, making it more suitable for constant wear due to its durability and resistance to wrinkles. Cotton, on the other hand, is soft, cool and comfortable, surpassing polyester as the preferred material for garments worn next to the skin.
Whether one is better than the other is a matter of personal preference. It also depends on what project you are working on and what fabric properties it needs.
How does the wearing comfort differ between products made from cotton and polyester?
Whether a cotton or a polyester T-shirt is more comfortable to wear depends primarily on the personal taste of the wearer. Natural fibers are often better suited for people with particularly sensitive skin, as synthetic fibers can irritate their skin. Cotton T-shirts or polo shirts for men and women are often the better choice.
- Polo shirts for women made of polyester & cotton mixed
- Men's polo shirts made of polyester & cotton mixed
In hot weather or during exercise, polyester clothing can quickly feel damp. In general, however, synthetic fibers absorb less moisture than natural fibers.
There is hardly any difference between cotton and polyester. This makes choosing between the two difficult. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. The truth is that neither one nor the other is the best choice. It's a mix of both.