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Cotton vs polyester


By Maddison Pryor and Maggie Koller


As everyday shoppers browsing the web or combing through the racks of a store, we look for the labels and tags. Often, it’s the price which our eyes are drawn to first, then the size, and of course, the item’s material. Although we might not all have a degree in fashion and fabrics, most of us can differentiate between corduroy, tweed, leather, and the hundreds of others out there. But although aesthetics may reign supreme when choosing between two of these materials, for consumers and designers alike, it has become more significant than ever in the modern age to know the benefits and downfalls of the fabrics we buy and those we sell.


Environmental consequences, vegan components, and even the conditions of the factory where the fabric of your garment was sewed together matter. The 21st century is preoccupied with a new movement; ethical fashion. In this realm of questioning production practices and searching for renewable resources, the two most common fabrics utilized globally today are cotton and polyester. Almost every closet contains one if not both. Albeit aesthetically similar, the two possess starkly different qualities, and over the last decade, the more popular of the two, polyester, has become a demonized emblem of unsustainability.


As with any other fabric, there are definitely drawbacks to its quality and production. Polyester is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn’t absorb perspiration as easily as other materials. In the past, it was regarded as a cheap, uncomfortable option however, since the 1970s, its public image has improved remarkably, with the fabric now making up 55% of global fabric usage. However, for modern supporters of the ethical fashion movement, polyester poses a number of greater environmental repercussions. The manufacturing of polyester is incredibly water-intensive, requiring not only copious amounts of the resource alone, but also that of energy and toxic chemicals like carcinogens. The petroleum which the fibre is derived from is also, by nature, non-renewable, with the oil industry further having proven itself has the world’s largest pollutant. Aside from the production process, once a polyester product in thrown in a land fill, it could take 20 to 200 years for the fibre to completely decompose.

These statements have truth in them, and production methods should be improved upon, as well as the chemical makeup of the synthetic fibre itself, however, when considering which fabrics to ‘shun’ from the environmentally-conscious world of modern fashion, we have to confront similar issues with even the most revered, organic materials. All in all, polyester is not the singular issue within the fashion industry. For the everyday shopper or the homegrown entrepreneur, we must delve into which fibres are actually fit for the purposes of our products. Otherwise, we reduce the effectiveness and long-lasting quality of our clothes, accessories, and the thousands of other items constructed with common fabrics.


A material which is often compared to polyester due to their aesthetic similarities is cotton. Cotton production is prehistoric, its first recorded evidence dates to 6000 B.C. within India and Pakistan. Fast forward several centuries and the 18th century brings along the cotton gin, boosting manufacturing rates and overall usage. During this time, Manchester was even coined "Cottonopolis” due to the overwhelming presence of the city’s cotton industry. Today, the world itself could be called its own “Cottonopolis,” cotton currently being the most commonly used natural fibre in the world due to its variety of benefits and practicalities. One of the most attractive aspects of cotton is its soft texture, used for apparel, bedding, towels, backpacks and a plethora of other products. The fabric is also incredibly breathable, equipped with effective moisture control and a high tensile strength that ensures durability. Organic cotton has recently gained a certain level of reverence in the realm of ethical fashion, however alongside the disadvantages that cotton already poses, organic cotton has been found to require heavy loads of water resources as well as actually producing lower yields per hectare; effectively using up natural resources under the guise that it must be environmentally friendly because of the term ‘organic.’ Despite being a renewable resource, cotton is the most pesticide-dependent crop in the world.


For the wide-brimmed sunhats sold here at Orange Bicycle Designs, a 100% cotton textile is not ideal. The fibre is prone to fading and would therefore be unable to bear the brunt of Australia’s intense sun rays. The products would wear and fade away, and we would be more likely to toss them and contribute to waste. However, cotton’s popularity is warranted. Although perhaps unsuited for a protective sunhat, its breathability has made it a popular option for light summer apparel. It is highly unlikely to disappear from the forefront of fabric usage. What’s clear is that considering the purpose of a product is vital to ensuring the fibre is appropriate.


Having addressed this stigma surrounding man-made polyester and how environmental concerns exist amongst practically all fibres, synthetic or natural, it must be known that polyester has incredible benefits that are often kicked under the rug. In the 1940s, amongst other emerging chemical advances, British chemists John Whinfield and James Dickson would create the first polyester fibre, Terylene. Their innovation aligned with the era’s shift away from cotton and towards cheaper, quicker methods of production.


When first publicly advertised, commercials would claim that the material could be worn for 68 days straight without ironing and still appear presentable. Sales soared as consumers found that they could reap several benefits associated with cotton for less expense. Polyester was stronger, lightweight, flexible, and resistant to wrinkles, shrinking, and stains. For those wide-brimmed sunhats mentioned earlier, polyester is practically the perfect fit. Although polyester normally requires frequent washing and can release fibres into water systems, hats present an exception as they are in fact, washed quite minimally. Harsh sun rays also do not expedite its fading, ensuring a reliable colourfastness that cotton fails to offer.


Polyester also presents the opportunity to recycle plastic for the manufacturing of products. Recycled polyester ultimately serves to minimise waste, aligning with a core value of ethical fashion. With its appealing benefits and low cost, polyester continues dominates the clothing industry, its annual production reaching rates of 22.67 billion tonnes worldwide.


That means choosing products plan to keep for a long time. It means choosing fibres which last, as opposed to those which fade or easily break down. For those wide-brimmed sunhats mentioned earlier, polyester is practically the perfect fit. Although polyester can release fibres into water systems with frequent washing, hats present an exception as they are in fact, washed quite minimally. Harsh sun rays also do not expedite its fading, ensuring a reliable colourfastness that cotton fails to offer. Polyester also presents the opportunity to recycle plastic for the manufacturing of products. Recycled polyester ultimately serves to minimise waste, aligning with a core value of ethical fashion. With its appealing benefits and low cost, polyester continues dominates the clothing industry, its annual production reaching rates of 22.67 billion tonnes worldwide.

In more recent times, a newly engineered fibre, coined Poly Cotton, exhibits properties which could not have been achieved using either fibre alone. The blend combines the soft feel of cotton with the reliable durability of polyester, rarely wrinkles or shrinks and is overall more versatile. However, as with any fabric, there are downfalls. Whether 100% cotton or polyester, or even poly cotton, the choice of fibre impacts the products we buy; how long they can last, how they make the wearer feel, and what conditions they can be exposed to without damage. Despite the stigmas surrounding common fabrics, in the case of cotton against polyester, what has been made evident is that neither is wholly ‘clean’ in terms of environmental consciousness, and therefore, in order to discern which material suits the product you wish to buy or design, we have to consider purpose above all else.

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