Polyester vs Cotton: Differences and Comparison

Polyester vs Cotton: Differences and Comparison

Jackets come in all types and designs, but many of them also share similarities.

Most jackets are made from similar materials, which can typically be either polyester or nylon. However, there are materials such as Cotton and specialized membranes that are also commonly found in many jackets.

In our previous material comparisons, we have looked at Nylon and Polyester, both separately and together, where we compared them to each other as well as learned more about their use in jackets.

Today we will do the same thing for two very different materials, Cotton and Polyester, and understand them and their usage better.

Contents:

1. Polyester

Polyester is one of the most commonly used fabrics in clothing and other essentials of our daily lives, such as bed sheets, table cloths, socks and underwear.

Regarding outdoor wear, especially jackets, polyester is one of the staple fabrics that is used on its own or as part of laminates and insulation. We will discuss more on its use in jackets further down below.

Polyester was first developed in 1941 by British scientists James Dickson and John Whinfield, and it was patented in 1945 by DuPont, an American company that bought the right to make it.

In its composition, as the name of polyester suggests, it is a long-chain polymer composed of several esters linked together.

Its chemistry is of course more complicated and if you are interested in learning more about it, we have written a piece solely dedicated to polyester and its qualities, which you can find here.

As a fabric, polyester exhibits certain qualities, which are the reason for it being so widely used in the clothing industry.

To give you a quick rundown, its main features are the hydrophobic nature and its durability. Polyester fibers are very durable in that they are resistant to most chemicals, have adequate heat and abrasion resistance and are also extremely strong.

Polyester as a fabric is wrinkle-resistant and it quite good at retaining its shape.

All those qualities play a major role in how the fabric behaves when used in clothes. Being anti-pilling, is also a great quality of polyester, as it tends to keep its appearance for a long time, despite regular use.

Pilling is the formation of tiny fluff balls on the surface of the fabric. It does not really affect the performance of it, but it is not the most flattering appearance-wise, because it tends to make the fabric look over worn and old.

The higher the quality of the fabric used, the lower the risk that it will pill.

There is, however, one major issue with polyester, which is due to the oleophilic nature of the fibers.

What this means is that it is prone to staining from oil-based stains and holding on to body odor, even after several washes.

This takes time to happen, anyway, which is not an immediate concern when purchasing a jacket or any other garment made of polyester.

You might also like: Fleece vs Wool: What’s the Difference? Which One is Better?

2. Cotton

While polyester is a man-made, synthetic fiber, cotton is 100% natural. Cotton, as a raw material, is plant-based and grows on plants that are annually planted.

The fibers themselves are made of cellulose and are originally shaped as thin ‘tubes’, with a hollow opening in the middle, which runs across the fiber. When the boll opens, the lumen collapses due to the fiber drying, which then twists and remains so.

Cotton is renowned for its comfort and high absorbency as a fabric, but you would be surprised to know that on the plant it is quite hydrophobic, due to it being coated with a wax film that helps it withstand rain out on the fields.

The reason why it loses this ability is due to the processing of the fibers into yarn or through the process of purification, during which the fibers are spun into fiber form for textile use.

We use cotton in fabrics and other textiles every day, similarly to polyester.

The reason for it being so popular is due to its ability to breathe well, which means that it allows considerable moisture evaporation and air flow, a very necessary quality for clothes.

The fabric is also quite durable and its strength increases when wet, which is unique to cotton fibers.

Being hypoallergenic is another quality that makes cotton so great, and it does not irritate the skin either. This is why cotton pads are exclusively made of cotton, for example.

Aside from such qualities, cotton, unlike polyester, nylon and other synthetic fibers, is also biodegradable and sustainable, which is important in this day and age, as we try to slow down global warming and find better solutions for the environment.

3. Polyester vs. Cotton: Comparison and Differences

Performance and Composition

As we said, these two fabrics are very different regarding their composition.

Polyester is entirely synthetic and requires chemical reactions to be produced, whereas Cotton is natural and organic as a material, which then requires processing to be ready for textile use.

Cotton is far superior in its comfort and softness, even when wet, as opposed to polyester which might be very uncomfortable in certain instances, especially when it comes to shirts and underwear.

Cotton is also better at wicking moisture away from the body, and it is also far more breathable than polyester, which tends to stick to wet skin.

While polyester is also good at moisture wicking, which is why it is widely used for athletic clothing, cotton performs and wears better.

Polyester, however, is better at maintaining its shape as is not prone to wrinkling or shrinking, which cotton is notorious for.

person in sweater riding bicycle

You might also like: Spandex (Lycra, Elastane) vs Polyester: Differences and Comparison

Weather Resistance, Durability and Sustainability

Regarding weather resistance, polyester has the upper hand. The fibers are oleophilic, which in turn makes them hydrophobic, meaning that they do not absorb much water, but rather let it pass through. For this reason, polyester exhibits better weather resistance than cotton.

Cotton fibers are very absorbent and will hold on to water considerably and for a long time, leading to slow drying time, as opposed to polyester, which dries quickly.

As for durability, polyester, once again, fares better. The fibers are extremely strong and durable, while their flexibility also helps them maintain their shape for much longer.

Cotton does, however, make for a more sustainable choice due to being plant-based. But it is pricier overall than polyester, which is very affordable cost-wise.

Care and Maintenance

This is another category in which the two fabrics differ quite a bit. They are not difficult to care for and maintain, but there are certain things that bear mentioning.

Polyester washes better overall because it does not shrink, and it also holds onto colors much better.

Cotton will shrink with the first wash and requires a bit more care when washing and drying. It does, however, tolerate higher temperatures better than polyester and it can also tolerate high ironing temperatures.

Polyester will melt if it is ironed in high temperatures. Luckily it is not prone to creasing, which makes ironing unnecessary.

When it comes to stains, polyester is only susceptible to oil-based stains and odors, whereas cotton will be stained by pretty much anything that can stain it.

It can be cleaned, but in some cases the stain will require numerous washes and stain-removal treatments to be completely gone.

You might also like: Lycra vs Spandex vs Elastane: Are They the Same Material?

4. Frequently Asked Questions

Does Polyester Shrink?

As we mentioned previously, Polyester is not a fabric that is prone to shrinkage when washed in a washing machine. Its synthetic fibers make it durable to heat, which is in contrast to cotton and other similar natural fibers.

If it is washed in the recommended settings, in accordance to the care label on the garment, then there will be no issues with polyester after its first or hundredth wash.

It is different when the drying machine comes into the picture. Many polyester garments will have the “Do not machine dry” warning on the label, and that is for one reason: heat.

Drying machine heat can and will shrink polyester, which can be either disastrous or useful when you are looking to shrink a large-fitting garment.

In short, high temperatures will shrink polyester, but the recommended washing and machine drying (when permitted) temperature settings will not affect it.

Ironing Polyester: Can You Iron It? How To Do It Properly?

While polyester is highly wrinkle-resistant as a fabric, as mentioned above, there are some instances that it will require ironing.

The good news is that it can be ironed in a variety of ways, the bad news is that it is a bit bothersome to iron because it can be easily damaged from high temperatures or direct contact with an iron.

For that reason, it’s best to rely on steam to remove wrinkles from a polyester garment.

To help with properly ironing polyester, we have recently compiled a guide on this very same topic. You can find it here.

Does Polyester Breathe Better than Cotton?

While polyester’s ability to allow moisture wicking, “breathing” per se, will depend greatly on the yarn used to make the garment, it is not better than cotton in regards to breathability.

Cotton breathes much better than polyester because it allows airflow to pass through the fibers, however it is highly absorbent, which can spell trouble if you are looking to wear cotton garments for physical activity.

Polyester is better suited for activewear because of its low absorbency and moisture wicking tendency.

Is Cotton Cooler than Polyester?

In short, yes. Especially when damp. It’s for this reason that you will see people in cotton shirts doused in water during heat waves. As it dries, cotton helps cool you down, which is great for summer, but awful for winter, as it can lead to hypothermia.

person walking on sand with cotton clothes

Polyester is warmer, which is why it is so widely used in jackets and winter garments and accessories. Besides, polyester dries much faster than cotton, which is why it is so useful in the sports clothing industry.

For these two very opposite qualities, it is best to rely on light cotton garments during summer, when you are not intending to break into a sweat, that is, and use your polyester garments for sports.

Is Polyester Cotton?

We are fully aware that this question is strange, but a quick Google search will show how many people are confused about these two fabrics.

Well, to be fair, it is not so much confusion about whether these fabrics are the same, but rather whether they wear and feel the same, hence the question.

The answer is no. Polyester and cotton, as you saw from today’s comparison, are fabrics that differ not solely in their composition and manufacturing, but also in their qualities.

They wear differently, feel differently and behave very differently. Where one is better suited for cold and wet conditions, the other works great in warm and dry weather.

5. Use in Jackets

Polyester and cotton are both used in jackets; however polyester is the most commonly used one.

It can be used as a standalone fabric, as part of laminates or as insulation in winter jackets. Polyester’s mild weather-resistance and its considerable durability are two of the main reasons why it is so widely used in jackets.

It also provides adequate levels of breathability and can be made into different types of fabrics.

The most renowned 100% Polyester type of jacket is the Softshell, which is designed for physically-demanding activities and provides great breathability and insulation.

A Geographical Norway Softshell Jacket

Cotton is usually used as lining in jackets, because of it is soft and very comfortable.

A great processing quality of cotton is that it can be woven into many ways and weights, making it versatile for use as a standalone material in jackets that are 100% cotton, and as part of a jacket, be it as a lining or material blend.

Cotton is not as widely used in jackets because it is not great at weather-resistance, unless it has been treated to be waterproof. Enter waxed cotton, which is the preferred cotton for jackets, as it is both waterproof due to the wax, and very breathable because of the cotton fibers.

What bears mentioning, though, is the poly-cotton blend usage, which can, in fact, be found in many jackets. This blend of polyester and cotton combines the best qualities of both and helps counteract their downsides to a considerable extent.

Cotton makes polyester more breathable and comfortable, while polyester helps cotton not wrinkle and shrink as much, as well as increasing the longevity and weather-resistance of the jacket.

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Last updated: July 2019

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