At face value, polyester and rayon seem to be similar fabrics. Both create lightweight clothing. So how do you know which one to use for your project? When it comes to Polyester vs Rayon: what’s the difference?
Polyester and rayon are different fabrics. Rayon is a plant material processed with chemicals to make a semi-synthetic fiber. Like silk, it’s a breathable fabric suitable for warm climates and clothing that drapes. Polyester is a petroleum-based synthetic fabric that doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t drape and can feel clammy in hot weather.
Both fabrics have different properties. It’s important to make sure you use the right one for the task. In this article, you will learn about how rayon and polyester differ and when you should use them.
Polyester vs Rayon: Key Points
Rayon and polyester have been popular choices for decades. From clothing to bedding, both materials are versatile and available everywhere. Although they have comparable traits and can be used for similar projects, the two fabrics have different properties and behave in distinctive ways.
Polyester is a synthetic fabric ideal for outerwear, especially rain-resistant garments. Rayon was first introduced as an imitation of silk and has a sleek, smooth-flowing drape. Both are lightweight and can be used for summer apparel, although polyester is less comfortable in hotter climates.
Both fabrics have individual strengths resulting from their contrasting fibers. Even so, they are often confused with each other. It can be tricky to identify which material should be used for a particular project.
Here’s a comparison table to make identifying the differences between the two fabrics a little easier. We’ll look at each characteristic in more detail later in the article.
Does not breathe
|Care||Keep away from heat||Delicate care needed|
|Climate||Cold climates||Warm climates|
|Durability||Very Durable||Not at all durable|
|Shrinking||Does not shrink||Shrinks|
|Texture||Feels like plastic next to skin||Soft and smooth|
|Uses||Outdoor wear, activity wear||Dresses, shirts, pants|
|Warmth||Warm in fabrics like fleece||Not warm|
|Wrinkles||Does not wrinkle||Wrinkles easily|
What Is Rayon?
Developed over 100 years ago, Rayon was first introduced as a cheaper alternative to silk. The fabric is a hybrid of natural and synthetic material. It’s formed from the cellulose of plants like bamboo and trees.
Rayon fibers have the consistency of a rough, woody pulp. During a lengthy process, the pulp is mixed with chemicals to soften it up.
Pairing the plant matter with chemicals creates a semi-synthetic material that can be used to imitate the characteristics of silk. A small change to the processing allows for thicker fibers and a heavier weave, giving rayon the same feel as linen and cotton.
As a clothing material, rayon is breathable, colorfast, and dries easily. With a lovely drape and soft, luxuriant feel, it’s ideal for summer weight blouses and dresses.
The fabric can be used to make lightweight clothing and home décor like bedsheets and curtains. It has also been used for medical products.
Although it is a versatile fabric with several uses, rayon does have a few disadvantages. The natural fiber content within the fabric makes it prone to shrinkage. Another bad point, it’s not durable. Prone to damage from sunlight, it can tear easily.
The production of rayon is another negative aspect of the fabric. It can be harmful to the environment, making its sustainability questionable.
- Soft and comfortable
- Drapes well
- Absorbs moisture
- Great for hot climates
- Tears easily
- Needs delicate care
- Susceptible to sun damage
- Can shrink when washed
- Wrinkles easily
- Can stretch out of shape
- Not environmentally friendly
Types of Rayon
This is the most popular and versatile of all the rayons and is sometimes referred to as viscose. It is the one that is used the most in clothing. Made from a blend of plant matter and chemicals, these fibers can imitate silk, cotton, or linen, depending on the fiber’s thickness.
Modal fiber is the name given to rayon that has been specially developed through stretching to be stronger and more resilient than normal rayon. The fibers are wear-resistant and durable. Often blended with other materials such as cotton, wool, or synthetics, modal rayons are found in clothing, outdoor wear, and home décor. There are two types of modal fiber rayons.
High Wet Modulus Rayon is a modal fiber that is stronger when it gets wet. Also known as polynosic fibers, the material produced is stable and does not shrink or lose shape in water like a regular rayon.
High Tenacity Modulus Rayon is incredibly strong and can withstand a large amount of stress before breaking. This rayon is used for tire cords and to reinforce fabrics.
Cuprammonium rayon is a recycled fabric made from old garments. The used fabrics have copper, ammonia, and caustic soda added to them before they are washed in chemicals to harden.
Also called cupro or cupra, the resulting fabric has stretch coupled with a fine sheerness that’s on a par with silk.
Cupro isn’t a durable fabric and is intolerant to heat. This form of rayon is also less environmentally friendly than the other types due to the toxic chemicals and production process.
What Is Polyester?
Polyester is one of the better-known artificial fabrics. Derived from fossil fuels, the fibers are synthesized during a chemical reaction involving air, water, and petroleum.
The material first gained popularity as a clothing fabric back in the 1970s. It has been used for shirts, pants, dresses, and skirts as a cheap alternative to natural fibers like cotton and silk.
Being a product of oil means it has the same characteristics as some plastics. Particularly the plastics used to make disposable water bottles. There’s a good reason for that. Both the fabric and the bottles are made from the same substance, polyethylene terephthalate.
As an artificial fabric, polyester is durable, long-lasting, and water-resistant. It’s a popular fabric for outdoor activities and sportswear. Its disadvantages include being sweaty in hot weather and feeling a bit like plastic when worn close to the skin.
- Easy care
- Wrinkle resistant
- Can feel like plastic against the skin
- Does not breathe
- Can feel clammy in hot weather
- Heat intolerant
- Not sustainable as it relies on fossil fuels
Types of Polyester
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
The most well-known of the polyester family, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, is a thermoplastic polymer used in the production of plastic water and soda bottles. It is also the most recycled polyester resin in the world.
PET has multiple uses. From filters, screen-printing mesh, bracing wires, and other commercial operations. This polymer is the basis for the polyester fabric used to make clothing and home décor.
Poly-1, 4-Cyclohexylene-Dimethylene Terephthalate (PCT)
While this PCT shares stability and chemical resistance with PET, this thermoplastic polymer is heat resistant.
PCT is a polyester with a high melting point of 545 ºF, making it ideal for injection molding and electronic components. It is also used in industrial filters. The resin is used in LED reflectors due to its ability to hold its color and still be relatively translucent.
Polyester vs Rayon: What’s the Difference?
When it comes to polyester vs rayon, the main difference is rayon is semi-synthetic and polyester is synthetic. That small yet significant distinction gives each fabric a set of unique strengths and weaknesses.
The disparate properties in both fibers make them behave differently in terms of the uses they are best suited to. Let’s find out how each fabric behaves in terms of wearability in certain situations.
Rayon isn’t known for warmth. As a lightweight fabric designed to be an alternative to silk, rayon is a thin, drapey fabric used in summer weight blouses and dresses.
The fabric is breathable, allowing heat to escape from the body in a cooling effect. While it can be layered under a cardigan or sweater on cool summer evenings, the insulation qualities are limited. This is a fabric for keeping you cool, not warm.
Polyester is also a cold fabric if it’s worn next to the skin. It doesn’t breathe, so sweat is kept close to the body, which can be dangerous in cold climates. Any coldness next to the body will reduce your core temperature and possibly lead to hypothermia.
Polyester is used to make fleece, a fabric used in jackets and hoodies. This material can retain heat, but it has to be used with layers underneath to be effective. Fleece next to the skin will allow wind to flow straight through to the body.
As a water-resistant material, polyester is best used as an outer layer or shell over a fleece jacket or hoodie. Combining the two will maximize its heat retention capacity.
Polyester is petroleum-based and essentially plastic. It’s not a fabric that can breathe. This means that it doesn’t allow moisture to evaporate from the body. Instead, it holds perspiration next to the skin creating a feeling of clamminess.
Wetness makes the fabric cling to the body and is generally recognized as being incredibly uncomfortable. The inability to breathe makes polyester undesirable as a material for close-fitting garments or anything worn next to the flesh.
Rayon is semi-synthetic, which means it’s a blend of natural and manmade fibers. The fabric’s natural base derived from plant matter gives rayon an edge over pure synthetics like polyester. This fabric can breathe.
When it comes to breathability, rayon is on the same level as cotton and linen. Moisture is allowed to evaporate from the skin and is absorbed by the fabric, leaving the body cool, fresh, and comfortable.
Climate conditions make a choice between polyester vs rayon as simple as knowing the difference between hot and cold. If the weather is warm or it’s a hot climate, the option to go for is rayon.
A breathable, quick-drying fabric, rayon soaks up moisture. The ease with which sweat can evaporate allows the skin to stay dry and body temperature to stay low—making it as popular in warmer climates as its natural cousins; cotton and linen.
Rayon is not very good in cold climates. With similar properties to silk, it’s a light fabric with a lovely drape. Being light means it’s not so great at trapping air next to the body. Although it can be worn with a sweater for extra warmth, the rayon’s insulation qualities are non-existent.
Polyester, on the other hand, is suitable for colder climates, as long as it isn’t worn next to the skin. Better suited for outerwear due to its water-resistant properties, it can be used as a weatherproof shell for winter jackets or hoodies made from wool or fleece. By retaining heat and keeping inner clothes dry, polyester is fantastic at ensuring the wearer stays warm.
On the flip side of polyester’s warmth-giving qualities, it’s a fabric to be avoided in warm climates or hot weather. The reason it’s so good at retaining heat is that it doesn’t allow air to escape away from the body.
It doesn’t let the water evaporate either. A build-up of warm air next to the skin will cause perspiration. Both can make polyester feel hot and sticky, leading to discomfort.
If you’re looking for a fabric that can withstand rough care and hard work, rayon is the wrong choice. When it comes to durability, rayon behaves like silk. This isn’t surprising as it was first introduced as an imitation silk fabric.
It can tear easily and needs a soft, delicate hand when it comes to washing. Although the fibers can withstand hot water, heat can make them shrink.
The fabric can’t take a vigorous spinning or hard scrubbing either. Too heavy a wash cycle can lead to a garment stretching or pulling out of shape. Hand washing is advisable when it comes to washing rayon.
With the correct treatment and care, rayon clothing can last a long time due to the synthetic properties inherent in the material.
Some types of rayon are used in tire cords and to reinforce some fabrics, particularly those used in industrial settings. These rayons are processed differently and for a specific, commercial purpose but it goes to show, the plastic side of rayon can be extremely durable.
Polyester, on the other hand, even as a clothing fabric, is one of the most durable and strong materials available. Made from the same product as plastic water bottles, the fibers are resilient to water, stains, creases, and constant washing.
Although being plastic can mean the fabric can melt under too much heat, the polyester’s overall durability is far superior to the rayon produced for clothing. Making polyester the go-to option for outer garments requires strength, stability, and resilience.
Even though rayon is part-synthetic, it can still shrink. Similar to silk in both appearance and characteristics, rayon behaves the same as many other natural fibers known for their shrinkage.
One thing rayon does that many other natural fibers don’t, it continues to shrink. Not only can it shrink on the first wash, but it can also shrink on subsequent washes.
Another key thing to watch with rayon is the heat of the dryer and the water. While it can take more heat than polyester, it does so at the cost of its size.
Polyester doesn’t shrink. Being a fully synthetic fabric, it’s more stable than rayon and keeps its shape and size. Both qualities make polyester ideal for clothing that needs regular washing.
Watch the heat with polyester or instead of shrinking, the fabric will melt. This is one material that prefers a colder wash with a cool line-dry out of direct sunlight.
Rayon is a sophisticated fabric with a silky soft, luxurious surface. It drapes and flows as the wearer moves, giving garments a warm, romantic silhouette. With a subtle sheen, the fabric seems to glow with warmth, life, and vitality.
Polyester, in comparison, can look a little flat. Being synthetic, the surface can appear to portray a more artificial or clinical shine. This can make polyester look cold, like sunshine on metal, lacking any depth or dimension. Rather than being soft and luscious, the fabric itself is harder, stiffer, and cool to the touch.
Texture differences in polyester vs rayon mirror their very different personas. Polyester is a no-nonsense fabric designed for durability and easy laundering. Rayon is a romantic, luxury fabric designed to portray fashionable style and easy living.
Another area where both polyester and rayon differ is when it comes to care and maintenance. Polyester is an easy-care fabric. Both wrinkle-resistant and quick-drying, it can be washed and worn almost straight away.
Dirt, dust, and stains tend to slide off with ease. It doesn’t shrink or lose shape, making polyester an ideal fabric for those on the go or in a hurry to be somewhere.
One disadvantage with polyester is it tends to hold on to smells. The quicker polyester is washed after being worn, the better. Leaving it for any amount of time will cause a build-up of bacteria and lead to nasty odors.
Polyester prefers a cool wash and fairs better if left to dry naturally. Dryers and hot water will cause melting and crinkling.
Rayon is a delicate fabric and likes to be treated with care and consideration. Washing can cause it to shrink and pull out of shape. Although rayon can be machine washed, some wash settings, particularly spin cycles, can be too rough. Hand washing is the safer option. Some manufacturers also insist on dry clean only.
Dryers are a definite no-no for rayon. Always allow the fabric to dry naturally. Although the fibers can withstand hot water to a greater extent than polyester, excessive heat from water or a dryer will cause damage. In fact, it’s best to avoid any heat in the washing process to ensure a long life for a rayon garment.
Rayon and polyester are priced differently due to their diverse uses. Rayon tends to sell for twice as much as polyester due to its role as a replacement for silk.
Perceived to be a fabric of style and quality, rayon is relatively cheap to produce, but the overall cost can be impacted by additional charges like import duties or taxes.
Polyester, on the other hand, was introduced as a cheap alternative to natural fiber clothing. The price of the fabric is low in comparison to fabrics like rayon because it is readily available and extremely popular.
Costs for each fabric tend to fluctuate and are determined by current fashion fads. As with most products, the price you ultimately pay will also depend on the quality of the fabric involved.
Should You Choose Polyester or Rayon?
Rayon and polyester are two very different materials. Each one has an area in which it excels and another where it performs badly. The choice between polyester vs rayon relies on what the garment is and what you need it to do.
A lot of the time, the choice will come down to personal preference. Polyester is an easy-to-care-for fabric, a trait that will suit those with busy lives. Rayon is more of a lustrous material needing delicate attention. This fabric would suit a less active life, with an emphasis on looking stylish rather than hands-on.
Another thing to consider is your budget. Polyester is a cheaper fabric and is more durable. Garments will last longer and be able to withstand regular use. Rayon, on the other hand, can be expensive to buy, needs gentle treatment, and can tear at the drop of a hat.
If you are on a limited budget, unable or unwilling to replace garments regularly, it may be better for your wallet if you stick with polyester. It’s a fabric designed to be used and abused time after time.
Comparing polyester to rayon highlights distinct differences between the two fabrics. Choosing which one is better isn’t easy as there isn’t a clear winner. Each fiber has its good and bad points. The key to success with both, make sure you use the best one for the task at hand.
Let me know in the comments if you liked the article. Which of the two fabrics do you like best?