If you are shopping for hiking clothes or workout attire, you have probably noticed that most athletic wear is made out of either polyester or nylon. If you consider polyester vs nylon, what’s the difference between them? Is one of these fabrics better than the other?
The main difference between polyester and nylon is that nylon is softer, while polyester is more water-resistant. Polyester is also more versatile and is produced in much greater quantity. Both fabrics are lightweight synthetics characterized by excellent durability and weather resistance.
In this article, you will learn about the key differences between these fabrics. We’ll also look at the most popular uses of each fabric and compare the comfort and appeal of both nylon and polyester in a variety of uses.
Polyester vs Nylon: Key Points
These popular synthetic materials share several key characteristics, but each fabric has its unique strengths and weaknesses. Here is a quick overview to give you a general idea of what these fabrics are like.
What is Polyester Fabric?
Polyester is a polymer or plastic. This synthetic fabric is manufactured through a process called polymerization, which uses heat and pressure to combine monomers into the larger and stronger polymer. Polyester is usually made out of the monomers terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol.
After the polymerization process, the plastic melts down once again and extrudes into long filaments. These filaments are wound into thread or twisted with another fabric’s fibers to create a polyester blend.
Did that seem like a bit of a science lesson? The fact is that these fabrics are quite similar. To understand the slight differences between these two synthetics, you’ll have to look through a microscope and consider the materials at a chemical level!
Now for a bit of history. Invented in the late 1930s, polyester closely followed the discovery of nylon. Scientists correctly assumed that this super-tough, super-strong fabric would have many industrial uses.
For a while, polyester was featured as a scratchy, thick fabric called double knit. This fabric became popular in clothing in the 1970s, an era known for its striking colors and bell-bottom pantsuits.
The fabric industry advanced rapidly. Polyester fabric is now made in many different weights and textures, many of them light and smooth.
Today some manufacturers make polyester out of recycled plastics. This offsets the environmental impact of manufacturing this nonbiodegradable fabric. Recycling polyester costs more than making it new, though.
What is Nylon Fabric?
Like polyester, nylon is a polymer made out of petroleum through a process that combines individual monomers into a long, distinct polymer. Nylon is made out of the monomers adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine.
Like polyester, nylon polymers melt from bead-like pellets into long strings extruded through industrial nozzles to make filaments that will become a thread.
You can see the many similarities in the manufacturing processes of both materials. However, one key difference is that the bonds holding the monomers together in nylon are weak hydrogen bonds. The bonds forming the monomers in polyester together are quite strong.
The discovery of nylon dramatically altered the fabric world. Invented in the 1930s, slightly ahead of polyester, nylon was the first synthetic fabric. Its lightweight, silky properties launched it into instant popularity as a silk substitute since silk was desperately needed during WWII for military items like parachutes.
After the war, like many military inventions, nylon filtered its way out into public use. It became a popular replacement for expensive silk in items like women’s stockings and underwear. In fact, your mom or grandma may still refer to sheer stockings as “nylons”!
Nylon still has a strong presence in women’s apparel, though its weatherproof qualities have made it a popular material for outdoor clothing as well.
Like polyester, nylon is not biodegradable. Some ethical manufacturers try to reduce the potential environmental impact of making this synthetic fabric by using recycled materials to create the fabric. Unfortunately, this process is more costly for nylon than for polyester, which means that recycled nylon isn’t made as often.
What’s the Difference Between Polyester and Nylon?
The main difference between these fabrics is that polyester is more versatile and water-resistant. Nylon is softer but has more limited uses.
Both synthetic fabrics are made through a similar manufacturing process. These fabrics share many characteristics and can be used interchangeably in some products.
However, the fabrics also have key differences. Here is a more in-depth look at the key qualities you saw earlier.
Many athletes complain that polyester is hot to wear during a workout because it lacks breathability. Its moisture-wicking capabilities offset this flaw somehow, but these days, polyester is often blended with another fabric, like cotton, to increase its breathability.
Nylon is a worse offender in this category. It lacks breathability and tends to trap heat and moisture against the skin, making it clingy in hot or humid weather. If you have ever worn a pretty nylon dress to picnic on a sunny day, you will know exactly what this feels like!
Both fabrics receive full marks for durability. Nylon has a greater strength to weight ratio, meaning that it has greater tensile strength than polyester fabric. Because of this, nylon has many industrial uses outside of the garment industry.
Polyester is also incredibly durable, however. It is heat resistant, water-resistant, mold-resistant, and UV resistant, as you will see further down!
Originally, nylon’s light and silky texture made it by far the softer of the two materials. Polyester had a long, rather unfortunate entrance into the garment industry as a thick and scratchy double-knit.
Today, nylon still rules as one of the most popular fabrics for underwear, blouses, and dresses.
Modern manufacturing techniques have advanced a lot, though, and one of the benefits of polyester is that it usually forms finer threads and can have a high thread count. This means polyester makes excellent household items like bedsheets, which can be very soft!
Neither synthetic material is fully waterproof. However, polyester is hydrophobic, meaning that it does not absorb moisture. Water beads on its surface instead of sinking through, though enough pressure will force the water through the tiny air gaps between the threads in the weave of the fabric.
Nylon, on the other hand, does absorb moisture. It also shrinks slightly in very dry environments because of this.
Both fabrics have high moisture-wicking abilities. Wicking draws moisture away from the body and spreads it out across the surface area of the fabric, allowing it to evaporate. You can see how this would be helpful during a sweaty workout!
Both materials resist mildew. Mildew is a powdery, white form of mold that forms on damp surfaces.
Synthetic fabrics are non-biodegradable and are quite difficult to damage. This makes them ideal for many outdoor uses.
However, any damp surface left alone will eventually mold. It takes a while for mold or mildew to sink beneath the surface of the fabric, but the mold will eventually stain the material.
The key thing to remember here is that most synthetic fabrics resist any mold.
Odor retention is a key difference between these synthetic fabrics. Hikers, athletes, and other people who commonly wear workout clothes have noted that polyester sometimes holds onto smells even after washing.
This happens because polyester absorbs oils, which transfer body odors from your skin to the fabric. These oils will cling to the fibers of the fabric and often do not come out in the wash. If you put on a freshly washed polyester shirt that you wore a few days earlier for a workout, you may notice an odor as the remaining oils heat up against your skin.
On the other hand, nylon does not absorb oil and thus does not retain body scents.
So, nylon is less breathable and will make you sweat more during a workout, but polyester will stink more later!
Polyester is highly UV resistant, which makes it great at holding its color even under direct sunlight. Nylon is less UV resistant. Why is this important?
Most of the time, this slight variation in UV resistance won’t matter a lot. Nylon is extremely weather-resistant in most other areas. However, if you want something that will remain outside for a long time, like a flag, it will fade much more quickly.
Both fabrics have strong flame resistance, which means they do not catch fire easily. However, they will both melt at high heat, which can be very dangerous. Both fabrics are commonly treated with special chemicals to make them even more heat resistant.
Polyester melts and burns at the same time once it reaches a high enough heat. Nylon melts but then burns fast. The melted plastic of either fabric can cause serious injuries.
That said, polyester is considered one of the safest materials on the market. It is even used for children’s sleepwear because it takes longer to ignite than many natural fabrics like cotton.
Like most synthetic fabrics, polyester and nylon both require very easy care! Both materials are wrinkle-resistant, hold their shape well, and are machine-washable.
Polyester dries a lot faster because nylon absorbs and retains moisture, while polyester does not.
Nylon also has a tendency to pill, meaning that small balls of fabric fibers form on the surface of the fabric over time. Hand washing this fabric will decrease the amount of friction that creates pilling, lessening this effect.
You should keep both fabrics away from high heat. Both materials also tend to have a static electricity problem. You can easily avoid high heat and static by hanging up your garments to air dry!
Generally speaking, nylon costs more because its production is a more expensive process. For example, carpets made of nylon fibers cost more per square foot than carpets made of polyester fibers.
Polyester’s huge popularity in the garment industry largely stems from its low production cost. Manufacturing polyester costs considerably less than making nylon and far less than producing a natural material like cotton.
Cost also depends on the kind of item you are buying, though. Design, brand name, and kind of product will play a role in determining cost as well.
Both fabrics appear almost interchangeably in many popular items like bags, backpacks, and jackets. However, polyester’s versatility makes it popular in many kinds of clothing, while nylon has a more limited appeal in the garment industry.
Nylon has many industrial uses but is mostly limited to outdoor apparel, underwear, and some kinds of dresses and blouses.
Polyester, on the other hand, stars in more than 60% of all garments manufactured worldwide today. Its global production is about seven times greater than the production of nylon.
Pros and Cons of Polyester
Here’s a quick summary of the strengths and weaknesses of polyester. This fabric is:
- Not very breathable
- Super durable and can handle most types of weather without damage
- Highly water-resistant and does not absorb water
- Highly mold-resistant, UV resistant, and flame-resistant
- Not odor-resistant; this material will hold onto smells
- Easy to care for and machine washable
- Very low-cost because of cheap production methods
- Highly versatile, used in many kinds of clothing
Pros and Cons of Nylon
Here’s a quick summary of the strengths and weaknesses of nylon. This fabric is:
- Not very breathable
- Super durable and high tensile strength
- Water-resistant but will absorb water
- Mold-resistant and flame-resistant, but not as UV resistant as polyester
- Much more odor-resistant than polyester
- Easy to care for and machine washable
- Affordable but more costly than polyester
- Primarily used for limited kinds of clothing, like underwear and outdoor apparel
Popular Products Made of Polyester and Nylon
Many common products work just as well made out of both kinds of fabric. For example, take a look at the two coats listed here: though made of two different fabrics, both jackets sport many of the same features.
Women’s Long Hooded Rain JacketMade with an outer shell of 100% polyester, this cozy rain jacket is water-resistant though not fully waterproof. It features a comfortable cotton lining and comes in a variety of colors.
The adjustable drawstring waist offers the option of a more fitted, sleek look. Its trench-coat style will keep out the weather and look cool at the same time!
Handy details like two front pockets and windproof fabric make this jacket perfect for outdoor endeavors like hiking, boating, or camping. The coat is also machine washable for easy care.
Zeagoo Lightweight WindbreakerMade of 100% nylon, the light and smooth fabric will protect you from the wind and is water-resistant for misty days. This lightweight windbreaker comes in ten different colors.
It features a compact design, with a hood that can roll up into the collar and an adjustable drawstring at the hem. Its modern design makes it a stylish choice to protect you from the wind during outdoor activities like hiking, boating, or camping.
The high collar and zippable pockets offer a bit of extra protection against the weather. This coat is easy to care for. You can roll it up and shove it into your purse, then remove it, shake it out, and find it wrinkle-free!
As you can see, both jackets feature water-resistance, wind -resistance, and easy care. However, the type of fabric does make a difference in certain situations!
Should You Buy Polyester or Nylon?
While both materials share many characteristics, each type of fabric works better in certain situations.
Polyester vs Nylon Jacket
As you already saw, these fabrics both work well as the outer shell of a jacket. Polyester’s affordability and rain-proof ability make it a more popular fabric for many coats and jackets, though.
Because it also ranks more highly for UV resistance, polyester might be the better choice for a coat or jacket.
You may also want to consider style, though, and choose a fabric based on its lightness or texture.
Nylon vs Polyester Pants
Again, both fabrics make excellent pants. While polyester steals the show for many different kinds of pants, nylon is a popular fabric for hiking pants.
Synthetic fabrics make a great base layer for outdoor activities because of their wicking properties.
Polyester hiking pants will dry faster, keeping you warm. Nylon pants will not absorb odors, making them ideal for summer hiking.
Polyester vs Nylon Leggings
Athleisure wear like leggings must feature soft, comfortable fabric. Nylon’s softness gives it an edge up over polyester’s more rigid fibers in this context. However, poly blends (such as polyester and spandex) remain a popular choice for legging material.
Brands like Lululemon use a nylon-spandex blend. Victoria’s Secret uses a tri-blend that includes both cotton and polyester for extra softness.
Nylon vs Polyester Workout Clothes
People have varying opinions about what fabric makes the best workout clothes. The most important characteristics of good workout attire are durability, breathability, and moisture-wicking. As you now know, both fabrics feature those abilities!
Many athletes prefer nylon because it is lightweight and does not retain odors. Polyester’s insulating abilities make it more popular for cold-weather workouts, though.
Your choice of fabric probably depends on what kind of workout you like!
Polyester vs Nylon Flag
Let’s take a quick look at a non-clothing item. Many households and businesses fly a national and state flag outside. What fabric makes a better flag?
Both fabrics will survive a great deal of wind and weather without any noticeable damage.
Because nylon is a smooth, shiny fabric, these flags may appear brighter and bolder than polyester flags. They weigh less and will fly more briskly in the air as well.
However, for long-term use, polyester flags will give you more bang for your buck. They will not fade over time because of their high UV resistance.
Polyester vs Nylon Thread
Finally, what about the difference between polyester and nylon thread? Nylon thread is incredibly strong and often features in industrial uses. However, polyester thread lasts longer outside, making it the more popular choice for things like tents.
If you plan to sew with either of these threads, you should know that polyester thread works well in almost all other fabrics. Nylon works best for heavy-duty fabrics.
Do you feel like a fabric expert by now? Understanding the characteristics of these popular fabrics will make you an informed consumer. You will find yourself ending up with clothing that suits your needs if you get in the habit of checking the clothing label or product description to note the fabric type!
When choosing a fabric, remember that polyester is more water-resistant and more affordable. Nylon is softer but is used in fewer kinds of clothing.
Why are you interested in the world of synthetic fabrics? Have you noticed a difference between polyester and nylon? Leave a comment below to let us know!