If you have ever tried to button a too-tight shirt, you know how important it is to have just a little stretch in your clothes! You may not always pause to think about which fabrics are stretchy before you purchase your clothes, though. For example, is polyester stretchy?
Polyester fabric is supple and slightly stretchy, though polyester fibers, which are made of synthetic material, do not stretch. Modern textile experts have created stretchy 100% polyester fabrics by employing new weaving methods. Several polyester blends, such as polyester and spandex, are even more stretchy.
In this article, you will find out what makes polyester stretchy, what to expect from poly blends, and how polyester measures up compared to other popular fabrics.
What is Polyester?
Polyester is a man-made material that is synthesized from petroleum. Advanced textile science transforms what is essentially plastic into a versatile, popular fabric.
This synthetic fabric forms through a process called polymerization, which combines an acid and a type of alcohol into a polymer, or plastic. This plastic then undergoes a manufacturing process to shape it into pellets. After a melting period, the plastic extrudes out of a fancy nozzle and solidifies into threads.
Depending on what style of cloth the manufacturer wants, the thread can either be woven by itself into 100% polyester material or blended with fibers from another kind of material to create a blended material.
Though this sounds like a complex process, manufacturing polyester actually costs far less than growing and processing a natural material like cotton. The low cost of production has catapulted polyester into the fast lane of fashion. Today, roughly 60% of all off-the-rack clothes sold around the world contain polyester.
Polyester is known for its versatility, durability, water resistance, flame resistance, and ability to hold its shape. Home furnishings like upholstered furniture and curtains often sport extra-durable polyester material because it holds up so well over time. Outdoor gear like tents and umbrellas often contain polyester as well, for the same reasons.
Its versatility makes polyester a great material for many different kinds of clothing. If you check the labels of the clothes you are wearing right now, you will very likely discover that they contain some polyester! The garment industry uses polyester heavily in types of clothing like t-shirts, athletic wear, and swimwear.
Is 100% Polyester Stretchy?
The stretchiness of polyester depends on the construction of the material. For this reason, some kinds of 100% polyester will stretch more than others.
To give you a quick mental image of how this works, picture a coil of stiff rope. On its own, the rope doesn’t stretch at all. However, if a talented fisherman knots that rope into a fishing net, the net will have a stretchy, giving weave!
The construction of the fabric, rather than the nature of the fibers, really determines the stretch of the material.
How Much Does Polyester Stretch?
Polyester fibers do not stretch at all. In fact, they are quite rigid and tough. This toughness gives the cloth its strength and durability.
Traditionally woven fabric, in which two sets of threads interlace over and under each other at right angles, will not stretch if you pull on it from the top and bottom at the same time, or side to side simultaneously. However, almost all cloth will stretch when tugged on diagonally. For this reason, even non-stretchy, woven 100% polyester will have some give if you cut it on the diagonal.
Knit material, on the other hand, has much more stretch to it. The meshed, loose structure of knit fabrics allows for more give (think of the fishing net again!). Polyester knits provide that bit of easy flex that feel comfortable in a close-fitting t-shirt or a pair of leggings.
Even polyester knits won’t stretch a whole lot, though. In order to achieve a generous amount of stretch, manufacturers often choose to blend another fabric together with polyester, creating a material that combines the strengths of both materials.
A polyester and spandex blend, for example, can stretch in all four directions. Depending on its design and type of weave, 100% polyester will have a certain amount of give, but will not pull generously in all four directions like polyester and spandex.
Does Polyester Stretch Over Time With Wear?
Polyester material does not stretch out even after heavy wear. Actually, it is so resilient that many garment manufacturers began blending it with other materials like cotton because the polyester will keep the cotton from getting stretched out so easily!
What makes polyester so long-lasting? Well, this cloth has a remarkable recovery rate. This means that if you grab a handful of your polyester t-shirt and stretch it out as far as you can, it will snap back into shape the minute you let go of it.
Because this material holds its shape incredibly well, clothing manufacturers often use it for things like pleated skirts or fancy collars because the fibers inside the cloth will bounce back into their original shape even after washing or stretching.
Is Polyester Stretchy in Jeans or Dresses?
The amount of stretch inherent in polyester depends on the structure of the material. The comfy knit polyester sweater-dress you wear with your fall leggings will have a nice stretch to it. However, if your dress is a ruffled, fancy affair made out of sheer woven polyester, it probably has no stretch at all.
While polyester fibers are often blended into jeans, this is usually intended to give the jean or denim material more durability. To make jeans stretch, manufacturers often include other kinds of fibers in the blend as well, like a small percentage of spandex.
Polyester dresses are often made from soft and thick knits, which allows for a close-fitting, stretchy style. For a silky, ruffled, or floral design, manufacturers often use a poly-rayon blend, which lacks the stretchiness of a knit fabric.
Does Polyester Stretch When Wet or After Washing?
Like most cloth, polyester stretches a little more easily while wet. That said, it is naturally hydrophobic, which means it does not absorb water. Getting it wet will not dramatically change its ability to stretch.
Polyester also dries very quickly and will bounce back into its original shape once dry. If you want the material to remain stretched out, you can try some of the tips for fitting polyester included later in this article!
Does Polyester Stretch if You Put It in the Dryer?
Because of its fantastic recovery rate, polyester does not typically stretch or shrink in the dryer. It holds its shape quite well during normal washing and drying.
This does not hold true for many natural materials. Cotton fibers, for example, expand and contract depending on the moisture and temperature around them. Polyester’s synthetic fibers don’t fluctuate like this so easily.
However, polyester does melt at very high heat. Some people report finding shiny melted patches on their garments after leaving them in the dryer on a high-heat setting.
If you want to be extra careful and avoid any possible heat damage to your clothes, you can easily hang them to drip-dry in your shower. Polyester dries super quickly because of its water resistance!
Does Polyester Fit Well?
A lot of factors play into whether or not a piece of polyester clothing fits well. The stretch or elasticity of the material certainly matters, but so does the size and cut of the garment, and even your body type.
That said, many popular close-fitting clothes feature a significant percentage of polyester.
Does Polyester Run Big or Small?
Polyester itself does not run big or small. However, various manufacturers may design clothes with sizing that differs from brand to brand.
Remember, though, that polyester will not stretch or shrink easily, so buy the size you want! You know how you sometimes buy jeans a size too tight because you expect them to stretch out as you wear them?
That doesn’t happen with polyester clothes! Don’t expect these to change over time as you wear the garment.
People love polyester for athletic clothes like workout shirts and leggings because you can wear and wash them again and again and they won’t go saggy or lose their shape like many other materials.
The downside of this resiliency is that your polyester leggings won’t grow with you if you find your waistline expanding after the holiday season! You can try a couple of techniques to force your polyester clothes to stretch, but it’s pretty difficult to stretch this cloth more than a fraction of a size.
On the bright side, polyester clothes tend to be cheaper than their natural-fabric counterparts, so at least you can replace your outgrown clothes without spending a fortune!
Since the 1950s and the iconic movie stars who made wearing rolled-up t-shirt sleeves look cool, t-shirts have become one of the most popular pieces of clothing in the world! Originally clothes manufacturer’s made t-shirts almost exclusively out of 100% cotton. Today, you can find t-shirts made from many different materials, including 100% polyester!
Polycotton also makes great t-shirts because it combines the cheapness and durability of synthetic fibers with the breathability of natural cotton.
More recently, something called tri-blend has edged in on the t-shirt market as well. This kind of cloth combines three different kinds of fibers, usually polyester and something more stretchy, to create the ultra-soft kind of material used in fitted t-shirts.
Recognizable brands like Hanes and Gilden sell polyester t-shirts.
Looking for something to wear to yoga class or for a morning jog? People love polyester for workout clothes because it holds its shape after multiple washings, but also because it has a pretty amazing moisture-wicking capability.
Wicking fabrics pull moisture away from your body. Pretty much only synthetic materials have this ability. These synthetic fabrics are sometimes termed “performance fibers” because of this!
Cloth made from natural fibers will usually trap and hold moisture. Have you ever sweated through a cotton t-shirt and then had to wear a clammy, wet shirt for hours afterward? Gross, right?
A polyester shirt will wick that moisture off your skin and send it on its way to evaporate into the air, keeping you nice and cool.
Most name-brand sportswear manufacturers, including Under Armor, Danskin, and Old Navy, all sell polyester workout clothes.
What makes polyester great for swimwear? Well, admittedly, polyester is always blended with another material (usually something very stretchy) to create nice flexible, fitted swimwear. That said, polyester provides resistance to fading and that keeps your bathing suit from washing out in the strong chlorine present in most swimming pools.
Polyester also resists UV rays and doesn’t lose its bright colors even under direct sunlight.
Lots of brands such as Lands End and Old Navy sell polyester swimsuits.
Not all jeans contain polyester, but it’s more prevalent than you might think. Many manufacturers include at least a tiny amount in their denim blends, sometimes as little as 2% of the overall fabric composition.
Even this tiny fraction of polyester gives the jean or denim material longevity and durability. It helps prevent the jeans from shrinking in the wash or fading over time.
While you may not find many high-fashion jeans brands selling pants that contain polyester just yet, more affordable brands like L.L. Bean and Sonoma sell many different styles of jeans that contain polyester.
Polyester makes great athletic leggings because of its moisture-wicking capabilities (nobody wants sweaty legs during a morning run!).
Those of you who prefer your leggings soft and stretchy to pair with your fall boots, sweaters, and pumpkin spice lattes won’t be disappointed, either. Lots of casual-wear leggings feature a soft and elastic polyester-spandex blend.
Everyone from Nike to Apt. 9 sells polyester leggings.
Polyester Blends: How Stretchy Are They?
Whether or not a poly blend stretches depends on the characteristics of the additional fabric. Some poly blends stretch like a rubber band; others don’t stretch at all.
You probably remember that polyester material can stretch a bit on its own, depending on the construction of the cloth. Most of the time, though, manufacturers blend polyester with another kind of fiber to achieve a high level of elasticity.
Some of the most popular poly blends include polyester and spandex (by far the stretchiest of all the blends), poly-cotton, and polyester and rayon.
Polyester and Spandex
Polyester and spandex blended together form a tough, durable, and incredibly stretchy cloth commonly used in sportswear and leggings, among other things.
You may also see spandex referred to as elastane. Technically, spandex is a particular brand of elastane, which is the general term for this super-elastic type of synthetic material.
Spandex is another popular synthetic cloth, known for its extreme elasticity. Many synthetic materials undergo a similar manufacturing process, though each one is made from slightly different chemicals.
Spandex, for example, gets its start in life as a polymer called polyurethane. This polymer has a long and very stretchy structure.
If you check the manufacturer’s label inside a piece of clothing, you will see the fabric content listed. This will give you a good indication of how stretchy the clothing will be.
For example, a workout tank top made with 20% spandex will have a lot of stretch in it, while a tank made with only 5% spandex will fit comfortably but won’t stretch nearly as much.
The most common poly-spandex blend proportions are 95% polyester and 5% spandex, 80% polyester and 20% spandex, and 92% Polyester and 8% spandex.
Polycotton blends synthetic polyester fibers with natural cotton fibers. Some people love this material for its breathable, sturdy, comfortable feel.
Like poly-spandex, polycotton comes in a variety of percentages. An equal amount of both fibers, sometimes called a 50/50 blend, sells very well in t-shirts. Another popular blend features 65% cotton and 35% polyester.
Polycotton shows up most prevalently in the t-shirt arena, though many people like it other comfortable clothing such as leggings and sweatshirts as well.
However, some people dislike the fact that polycotton production costs a lot, because of the cost of growing and processing cotton. They also complain that because of its synthetic and natural composition, polycotton tends to pill badly over time.
Polyester and Rayon
You won’t see this blend as often as something like polycotton, but it has a smooth, soft quality that makes it perfect for some kinds of clothing.
Rayon feels light and silky, despite the fact that it is made out of wood pulp! People disagree about whether or not rayon is truly synthetic since it is derived from a natural source but undergoes a lot of processing to become cloth.
Rayon brings a lovely soft, lightweight quality to a polyester blend. You will find this blend most often in garments light dresses and blouses.
How to Stretch Polyester Clothes
As you know from reading about the amazing recovery ability of its synthetic fibers, polyester clothes will not stretch or shrink without a lot of effort.
If you want to alter a too-small polyester garment, you can try putting it on while it is wet and letting it dry while you wear it. This may stretch the fibers enough to set the garment into the new size.
If this doesn’t work, try soaking the garment in warm water with a splash of hair conditioner. After about half an hour, wring out the garment to remove most of the water and put it on while still damp. Let it dry onto the shape of your body.
If you have the opposite problem and you need to shrink your clothes instead of stretching them. You can try ironing a damp clothing item on extremely low heat. Be careful, though! You could easily melt the clothing if you turn up the heat too high.
You can also try tailoring your clothing, especially if it is just a bit too big. You can hem a too-long skirt really easily, for example.
In general, though, the best advice is to buy polyester clothes that fit you without any alteration.
Polyester vs Cotton: Which is more stretchy?
Interestingly, cotton and polyester stretch in exactly the same way. Neither type of fiber is elastomeric, meaning that they do not stretch. Whether or not the fabrics stretch depends on their construction.
Woven cotton does not stretch. This is because woven cotton merely interlaces already non-stretchy threads in straight lines. Think about your favorite set of cotton bedsheets; they may feel smooth and soft, but they don’t stretch when you pull on them.
However, cotton knits do stretch, because of the way the threads mesh together. Knit fabrics give you a flexible and cozy feel that works well for everything from leggings to softly draping dresses.
Cotton t-shirts, for example, usually feature something called jersey knit. This type of material uses a method of construction called single knit, which creates a thin, flexible, stretchy material.
To give you an idea of the complicated process of making cotton into cloth, it involves a lot of cleaning to get the cotton fibers out of the bole it grows inside, followed by a scouring that uses a special wash to remove the waxy coating on the cotton fibers, and then a purifying wash, and then finally a lubricating coating to keep the fibers from sticking to each other as they get twisted together into threads.
Plus, of course, the cotton plants have to grow and get harvested, too!
All of that said, cotton remains one of the most popular fabrics of all time.
People often wonder which material is better, cotton or polyester. The truth is, both of them work great in certain circumstances. Here are a few pros and cons of cotton to consider:
- Cotton is more expensive than synthetic materials, because you have to grow, harvest, and process the natural cotton before manufacturing it into the fabric
- Cotton fibers lack the tensile strength of synthetic fibers
- On the plus side, cotton is super breathable, which makes it comfortable in many temperatures
- People disagree about whether cotton is softer than polyester. Usually, cotton’s softness depends on whether it is woven or knitted.
Of course, you can always just settle on a nice polycotton blend, and score the best characteristics of both kinds of material!
Polyester vs Nylon: Which is more stretchy?
Nylon is far stretchier than polyester because nylon fibers can absorb moisture, giving them more elasticity. However, on their own nylon fibers do not stretch, and woven nylon is not inherently stretchy.
Manufacturing nylon looks a lot like manufacturing polyester: both processes involve creating polymers. Nylon typically has a lighter and shinier texture, though.
To give you an idea of what nylon feels like, scientists invented nylon as a silk substitute because of extreme shortages during WWII. Ever since consumers have embraced the lustrous fabric!
As with most fabrics, the amount of stretch depends on the construction of the nylon fabric. For example, special circular knitting machines weave even the super sheer fabric of nylon stockings their characteristic spiderweb-light but elastic consistency.
Again, neither fabric is necessarily better or worse. Each material performs best in certain circumstances. For example, people love the silkiness of nylon for fancy undergarments, while polyester makes great, sturdy t-shirts and workout clothes.
Here are a few pros and cons of nylon to consider:
- Though it is also a synthetic fabric, nylon costs more than polyester to produce, which makes nylon clothing more costly to buy
- Nylon is one of the few fabrics that is actually stronger than polyester. It makes great outdoor products like tents and umbrellas!
- Nylon has more limited uses than polyester but is very popular in outerwear, undergarments, and silky clothing like dresses
- Nylon is water-resistant but lacks the extreme hydrophobic quality of polyester
Sometimes these fabrics serve the same function interchangeably. For example, winter coats, rain jackets, and backpacks are commonly made out of both materials.
Now you know all about what makes polyester stretchy! The construction of the fabric makes a big difference, but most really elastic clothing blends polyester with another type of fabric, such as spandex.
Are you in the market for workout clothes, jeans, or t-shirts? Have you compared the stretchiness of polyester against the stretch of another fabric? Leave a comment below and let us know!