Polyester and cotton are two of the popular go-to fabrics for garments and home décor. As they’re used in many of the same applications, it can be easy to think they are similar materials. But are they? What’s the difference between the two, and which is better?
The main difference between polyester and cotton is how they’re made. Polyester is a man-made synthetic material made from oil products. Cotton is a natural and sustainable fiber harvested from cottonseeds. Polyester is the best choice for water-resistant, durable clothing. While cotton is best for breathable, cool summer garments.
So, how do you know if you should be using cotton or polyester? This article will look at the strengths and weaknesses. Helping you make an informed choice for your next sewing project.
Polyester vs Cotton: Key Points
Cotton and polyester are both popular materials and are the main go-to fabrics for clothing and home décor. Their popularity is down to their usable characteristics and unique benefits. While both are seemingly interchangeable when it comes to their uses, there are distinct differences between them.
- Cotton is a natural fiber and polyester is made from oil.
- The synthetic nature of polyester can give it a cold persona.
- Cotton has a reputation for warmth and cozy softness.
It’s easy to think of the two materials being 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 soft to wear. It has been used in the production of textiles for thousands of years all around the globe.
Its popularity stems from its versatility. Cotton can be used to make carpets, clothing, bedding, and upholstery. Adaptable, malleable, and easy to work with, it remains a firm favorite with home sewists and clothing manufacturers.
It comes in three fiber lengths that are suitable for use in a range of products. Long-staple fibers create a high-quality fabric; medium-staple is the fiber used for everyday wear and short-staple is used for carpets and low-quality items.
- Absorbs moisture
- Strong and durable
- Soft next to the skin
- Does not dry quickly
- Prone to wrinkles
- Wears out over time
What Is Polyester?
Polyester is a petroleum-based synthetic material. Lighter and more durable than cotton, it is used for many of the same products. Developed in the 20th century, polyester was introduced as a garment fabric in the 1970s and became a cheaper alternative to cotton.
The artificial nature of polyester makes it durable and long-lasting material. It is a popular fabric for outdoor and activity wear due to its moisture-wicking and quick-drying characteristics.
- Easy to care for
- Dries quickly
- Feels like plastic when worn
- Can be cold next to the skin
- Does not breathe
- Melts under too much heat
- Is not sustainable
What’s the Difference Between Polyester and Cotton?
Cotton is a very breathable fabric. The term breathable refers to the fabric’s capacity to allow moisture to escape from the body and air to circulate through the fibers. It’s one of the features that has made the fabric a staple part of the garment making for centuries. The ability to breathe makes cotton an ideal choice for the clothing worn next to the skin, particularly underwear.
There is a downside to cotton. It may be a breathable fabric, but it doesn’t wick moisture away. Cotton absorbs water and tends to stay wet. Depending on the thickness of the fabric, it can take a long time to dry. This can spell disaster in colder climates. A slow-drying fabric in lower temperatures can lead to hypothermia.
Polyester is petroleum-based and doesn’t breathe. This can make garments uncomfortable in hot climates and summer temperatures. The reason for this is moisture, or sweat, from the body is retained next to the skin. This can cause the fabric to become wet and clingy, creating discomfort for the wearer.
Being a synthetic material, polyester dries quickly. This is because it doesn’t absorb liquids. They stay on the surface and dissipate through evaporation. Being water-resistant is a definite advantage in outerwear or rainwear.
Both polyester and cotton are durable fabrics, albeit in different ways. Cotton’s strength lies in the different weaves of the fabric. Some cotton fabrics, like twill, are more durable than others.
This is down to the density of the weave or the number of fibers per inch. The heavier the cotton weave, the stronger the fabric. Interestingly cotton is strongest when it is wet, which helps it withstand numerous washes in hot water.
Cotton can also be soft and easily damaged. Again, this is down to the way it is woven. A cotton lawn, for instance, isn’t going to be as tough as denim.
The cotton fibers are biodegradable, so they will break down. Even heavier-weight cotton will wear out. Sunlight and time are both enemies of cotton. Too much of each will cause cotton to degrade.
Polyester is incredibly durable. Being plastic, the fibers are resilient to water, stains, and creases. They don’t break down, making it strong and capable of withstanding many wear and tear.
Its durability can be an issue when it comes to the disposal of polyester. It can’t be composted and like any plastic, will last for eons in a landfill.
Cotton comes in different weights and has a variation suitable for the changing seasonal temperatures. It’s also a great layering fabric. Even the lightest summer top can be worn in winter when it’s used as a layer under another garment.
The ability to be worn in layers makes it an ideal choice for cooler climates. As the fabric is breathable, it allows air to flow between the layers, creating little insulation pockets. If you wear undergarments, a tee-shirt, shirt, and maybe a sweater, you’re sure to be super toasty.
Some kinds of cotton are made to be a winter weight, which means they are a heavier weave. Think flannel or twill. Both are cotton fabrics known for their warmth.
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as being too warm. Cotton absorbs body sweat and takes it away from the body. But, the fabric stays wet. This means you get chilly wet clothing next to your body, making you feel cold.
Polyester isn’t a breathable fabric so air can’t flow through it, creating insulation. It’s also not great next to the skin as it can cause you to sweat. Moisture next to the skin in colder climates is bad news for your body. It will reduce your temperature and you’ll freeze.
The fabric can keep you warm to a point. Fleece, a fabric made from polyester, is a well-known material used in jackets and hoodies. While it does trap heat next to your body, fleece is not a good insulator on its own.
It’s also one of the few polyesters that aren’t waterproof. Cold air or winter rain hitting fleece will reduce the fabric’s temperature, making you feel cold and wet. To be an effective cold-weather fabric, fleece needs layers of other garments made from cotton or wool underneath.
The best use of polyester in colder climates is as an outer garment. A polyester shell over your winter clothing, or even your fleece jacket, will help trap heat inside, keeping you warm.
Cotton is made from the fluffy fibers of the cotton plant, so it is naturally soft. This softness makes cotton clothing, particularly when it’s 100% cotton, soft to the touch and even softer to wear.
Not all cotton is produced to be soft and fluffy though. The term cotton covers a wide range of different types of fabric. From lightweight cotton voile through to a heavy-weight twill, the weave you choose will impact the level of softness you get.
If you feel denim or cotton canvas, although both fabrics are cotton-based, they are coarse and hard. They are designed to withstand heavy use or industrial work. The weave reflects this.
Flannel, on the other hand, is incredibly soft and super cozy. It’s weaved in such a way the inherent softness of the cotton fibers is maintained. This weave is designed to trap warmth.
Polyester is an artificial fabric made from manmade fibers. As it’s petroleum-based, it can feel a little bit like plastic. It doesn’t have the same softness qualities as a natural fiber.
The fabric has changed over the years, though. Modern technology has made leaps and bounds in polyester production to make it more pleasurable to wear.
In the same way cotton has different weaves, polyester can be processed in different ways. One way is to create a double-brushed polyester fabric. This is a super-soft material to wear and feels as comfortable as its natural counterparts.
As polyester is a synthetic fiber, it can be manipulated and molded into whatever fabric is needed. Some fibers retain the coldness of plastic. Others are manufactured to imitate the softness of cotton fabrics. So much so, sometimes it can be difficult to tell if the fabric is polyester or cotton.
Polyester and cotton both come in different thicknesses depending on the weave of the fabric and the product it is designed for. They may have different characteristics, but both materials are used to make a range of lightweight items to heavy-duty.
The thickness of a fabric or yarn is known as the denier. Denier refers to the number of threads per inch of material. Fabric with a low denier would be a thin weave like cotton voile. A higher denier would indicate something with a heavier weave, like corduroy.
While the two fabrics have thread count in common, weight is a different matter. Thicker polyester fabric is going to feel lighter than heavy-weight cotton fabric.
Although the thread count of a polyester fabric could be high, this only makes the weave thicker and the fabric more durable. It will change the weight slightly, but a heavy-weight polyester will feel lighter than the thickest denim.
The reason for this is bulk. Increasing the fiber count per inch in a cotton fabric creates tighter weaves of threads. Depending on the size of the yarn used in the material, extra threads will add extra weight. Making heavy-duty cotton a lot 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.
Of the two, polyester is better at moisture-wicking than cotton, which is strange as it’s a synthetic material. Its ability to allow sweat to evaporate makes it an ideal component of activewear.
One of polyester’s disadvantages though, it doesn’t wick away odors. It can dry quickly but holds on to the smells from your last exercise session. Making it a fabric that needs timely and regular washing.
Cotton doesn’t wick away moisture. It absorbs it. In some ways, this is better than having moisture wicked away. The absorption of liquid moves it away from the body quicker, allowing you to stay cool. The clothing holds on to the moisture and becomes soggy. 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. Due to being a natural fiber, cotton produces a deeper, richer color than polyester.
However, cotton is susceptible to sun damage and the colors are quick to fade. It tends to shrink too. As dyeing requires washing and drying, this could cause your garment to end up a size too small.
Polyester may start with a less vibrant reaction to dyes, but it can hold on to the color for longer. Resistant to both fading and shrinking, your favorite pink shirt will stay true to its shade for the lifetime of the garment.
Not as easy to dye as cotton, polyester can be a challenge. It takes a special synthetic-specific dye that doesn’t affect cotton. This could create a bit of a blotchy effect in a polycotton blend. Similarly, if you want to dye cotton that has a polyester thread, the cotton dye will not change the color of the thread.
Due to its synthetic properties, polyester is resistant to shrinking. This makes it a go-to fabric for items that need regular washing. It doesn’t like to be washed too hot though. Heat and polyester don’t mix well. As it’s essentially plastic, it can melt.
Cotton is famous for its tendency to shrink. The first wash and dry is always the one that sees the most shrinkage. This is particularly true with denim and is the reason why years ago, people would buy jeans one size bigger to allow for shrinkage.
These days cotton fabric shrinkage isn’t so much of an issue. Modern-day processes and adding a stretch fiber or polyester to cotton fabrics have reduced the shrinking nightmare.
Cotton comes in a range of weights and quality. Each different weave and type of cotton used has an impact on the price you pay. The better the quality, weave, and durability of the fibers used, the more expensive the fabric.
Long-staple cotton fibers tend to be the priciest of all cotton. The long fibers create a high quality, fine and durable fabric ideal for bedding and expensive garments. Types of cotton made with long fibers are Egyptian and Pima cotton, both considered luxury items.
Short-staple cotton is used for the production of carpets and lower-grade products. The quality is not as good so the resulting fabric is cheaper.
Polyester tends to be cheaper than most cotton, although its actual price is determined by the current popularity of the fabric and that of cotton. It has high points and lows but on the whole, costs less when compared to its natural fiber cousin.
The easy-care, crease-resistant properties of polyester make it a popular choice. Compared with the expense of decent quality cotton, polyester is an affordable option.
Care and Maintenance
In some ways, polyester is easier to care for than cotton. Polyester is crease-resistant and dries quickly. It is both water-repellant and doesn’t stain easily. Another benefit with polyester, it doesn’t need ironing before wearing and can air-dry in no time. Reducing time in a dryer and time spent ironing will save you money on your electric bill.
It does have a slight downside. Due to its construction from synthetic fibers, it can hold on to odors. Dirt and stains will slide right off in a wash, but odors are a little harder to get rid of. Especially if the garment has been left forgotten at the bottom of the washing basket for a few days. A key element to the care and maintenance of polyester is to wash it often and as soon as possible to prevent smells.
There are a few things to keep in mind when washing polyester. It doesn’t like to be boiled or washed at high temperatures. Neither can it withstand too much spinning. The fabric pills and puckers if treated roughly.
Cotton, on the other hand, wrinkles and needs to be ironed after every wash. It doesn’t dry quickly, which means either a lengthy stay in the dryer or a day out on the line. The fabric stains easily, which can lead to the use of stain removers or even a long soak.
Cotton is easier to wash than polyester. It can endure hotter water temperatures meaning odors can be lifted out of the fabric quicker. Cotton is less likely to snag on other garments so it can be washed alongside items with zips. As it’s stronger when wet, a vigorous spin cycle won’t harm it.
One of the key differences between cotton and polyester is how they are made. Cotton is a natural fiber from plant seeds. Polyester is petroleum-based.
Unfortunately, polyester due to its origins as a product of oil is not thought to be very sustainable. The manufacturing process may not use much water, but it is heavily reliant on another, quickly disappearing natural resource. Polyester is dependent on fossil fuels.
The fabric is essentially a material made up of chemical-based plastic fibers. Polyester is made from polyethylene terephthalate. The same substance is used in the construction of plastic water bottles.
These days, plastic water bottles can be recycled into polyester thread, reducing the carbon footprint of the material a little. The resulting polyester fiber can also be recycled. Even so, polyester isn’t particularly environmentally friendly as it doesn’t break down and decompose.
While that can be a huge disadvantage, it can also be an advantage. Not breaking down or decaying means polyester is a long-lasting material. Garments made from the fabric will outlast the same apparel made out of cotton.
Cotton, on the other hand, is sustainable, or at least slightly more so than polyester. It’s harvested from the cotton plant and is a natural fiber. Completely biodegradable, 100% cotton fibers will break down and can be turned into compost. The fibers can also be recycled into new garments or other products like paper bags.
However, there is a drawback with cotton’s sustainable title. It takes a lot of water to process the cotton. Each stage from growing the seed to making the garment can take up to 20,000 gallons depending on the clothing being made.
It’s plant-based and prone to attacks from pests like the Boll Weevil. To combat this, large amounts of pesticides are used throughout the growing phase. These chemicals can end up contaminating soil and water sources.
They may be different in the way they are manufactured, but their sustainability is about the same.
Both cotton and polyester can be used for the same things. They each have their place in garment making and fabric is the most well-known use of both materials. Some uses are better suited to one or the other though.
Polyester is used to create an artificial stuffing material for pillows and comforters. Even sofas have polyester padding. It doesn’t stop there. The fibers are used to make plastic bottles, high strength ropes, hoses, and even balloons. If you are a musician, the high-quality wood of your guitar or piano could be finished with a polyester coating.
Cotton is one of those materials where every part gets used. The main use may be as a fabric for clothing but, when it comes to cotton, it has some other uses you probably weren’t aware of.
Processing the cottonseeds produces animal feed for farm livestock. What doesn’t get used for animals can be turned into fertilizer, which can add nutrients back to the soil.
The outer coating of fuzz, known as linters, on cottonseed contains high levels of cellulose. This cellulose can be used to make plastics. One of the uses of cotton-based plastic is the making of television screens.
What Is Polycotton?
Polycotton is a blend of both polyester and cotton. The percentage of both fibers can differ. Sometimes there is a higher cotton content. Most of the time, the polyester content is the greatest. Most polycottons today are around 35% cotton, 65% polyester.
One of the main advantages of polycotton is it boasts the benefits of both fabrics. When combined, the best parts of one fabric works to counteract the disadvantages that can be found in the other.
The two fabrics were first blended back in the 1960s in a joint effort by an American textile manufacturer called Bill Klopman, and a company called DuPont. They discovered the 65/35 blend produced the ideal formula for a successful fabric.
Originally, the fabric was invented for workwear that could withstand industrial washing. Since the 1970s it has become a staple part of everyday wear. Polyester’s resistance to creases and moisture-wicking properties coupled with the cool, softness of cotton make polycotton one of the most popular garment fabrics available today.
Which Is Better: Cotton vs Polyester?
Knowing which fabric is better is a tough question to answer when it comes to polyester and cotton. They each have their good and bad points. Because of this, they are both popular choices when it comes to fabric.
Polyester tends to be cheaper and water repellent and more suitable for constant wear due to its durability and crease-resistant properties. While cotton is soft, cool, and comfortable, outshining polyester as the go-to fabric for garments worn next to the skin.
Whether one is better than the other is down to personal preference. It’s also dependent on what project you’re working on and the fabric characteristics it needs.
There isn’t much of a difference between cotton and polyester. This makes choosing between the two a hard task. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. The truth is, the best choice isn’t one or the other. It’s a mixture of the two.
I hope this article helps you make the decision on which fabric is the best for your project. Let me know in the comments which material you like working with the most.