What is a synthetic polyester fabric?

Written by e.c. rosenberg
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Introduction
  • Introduction

    What is a synthetic polyester fabric?

    Polyester fabric is, by definition, synthetic: a fabric made by chemical synthesis rather than from natural materials (such as wool, cotton, linen, silk) or quasi-synthetic cellulose-based materials (rayon, acetate). First marketed in 1951, polyester is a petroleum-based product. When spun as a fibre, it is extremely strong, quick-drying, long-lasting and water-resistant. Polyester is used in nearly all categories of fabric production.

    Polyester fabric has a bad cultural reputation, but is nearly indispensable in the modern world. (sewing spool image by AGphotographer from Fotolia.com)

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    Chemical Makeup

    The word "polyester" gives an indication of its manufacturing process. An "ester" is a molecule produced by the combination an alcohol and an acid--in this case, ethylene, which is created by the breakdowns of the alcohols and acids in petroleum. "Poly" means "many." Polyester fabric is made from long chains of ethylene-based polymers, which can bind together to make a strong material.

    Synthetic polymers make incredibly strong, flexible fabrics. (grey fabric image by Dmitry Grishin from Fotolia.com)

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    Manufacture

    Petroleum-based acids and alcohols are placed in a high-temperature vacuum to create "condensation polymerization." The condensed polymer is formed into long chemical ribbons that are dried and cut into "chips." The chips are extruded into filaments, and these are spun on machines called "spinnerets" until the resulting fibres are as long, thin and flexible as organic or quasi-synthetic thread. The threads are textured and shaped to resemble the organic material the polyester is intended to duplicate.

    Synthetic fibres can be made to look and feel like organic fabrics. (manufacture image by cem orter from Fotolia.com)

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    Evolution

    The American public was first introduced to polyester fabric in 1951, under the brand name Dacron. Dacron was used in the first "wash and wear" clothing, substituting for both cotton and wool. Double-knit polyester fabrics--sewn by two parallel machines for extra strength--were introduced in the 1960s; fireproof clothing in the early 1970s; Lycra in the late 1970s; and microfiber polyester in the 1990s.

    Women's jeans are usually made of 98 per cent cotton and 2 per cent Lycra, for added stretch. (lycra trousers image by weim from Fotolia.com)

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    Environmental Effects

    Because polyester is petroleum-based, it has a reputation for being environmentally unsound. However, many otherwise "natural" fibres are grown with harsh pesticides, and are unsustainably harvested, then transported, bleached, dyed and otherwise altered to such an extent that polyester may be more environmentally friendly by comparison. Polyester fibre can also be manufactured from recycled materials. As petroleum becomes more scarce, polyester may no longer be as inexpensive to make, forcing manufacturers to experiment with other, perhaps more earth-friendly, synthetic materials.

    As the price of petroleum rises, so does the price of polyester manufacturing. (crochet de grue image by JEAN-MARC MEDINA from Fotolia.com)

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    Future Trends

    Research and development is continuing on new forms and uses for polyester and other synthetic fabrics. These include better moisture wicking; microbe shields; integrating small amounts of polyester into natural fibres for easier care; softer, "circular" knits for greater comfort; improved abrasion resistance to prevent fabric wear-down and pilling; and numerous ways to reuse or recycle polyester and its byproducts.

    Swimsuits will increasingly be made of eco-friendly quicker-drying materials. (maillot de bain et lunettes 2 image by Nathalie P from Fotolia.com)

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