Polyester is a synthetic fabric that’s usually derived from petroleum. This fabric is one of the world’s most popular textiles, and it is used in thousands of different consumer and industrial applications.
Chemically, polyester is a polymer primarily composed of compounds within the ester functional group. Most synthetic and some plant-based polyester fibers are made from ethylene, which is a constituent of petroleum that can also be derived from other sources. While some forms of polyester are biodegradable, most of them are not, and polyester production and use contribute to pollution around the world.
In some applications, polyester may be the sole constituent of apparel products, but it’s more common for polyester to be blended with cotton or another natural fiber. Use of polyester in apparel reduces production costs, but it also decreases the comfortability of apparel.
When blended with cotton, polyester improves the shrinkage, durability, and wrinkling profile of this widely-produced natural fiber. Polyester fabric is highly resistant to environmental conditions, which makes it ideal for long-term use in outdoor applications.
The fabric we now know as polyester began its climb toward its current critical role in the contemporary economy in 1926 as Terylene, which was first synthesized by W.H. Carothers in the UK. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, British scientists continued to develop better forms of ethylene fabric, and these efforts eventually garnered the interest of American investors and innovators.
Polyester fiber was originally developed for mass consumption by the DuPont Corporation, which also developed other popular synthetic fibers like nylon. During World War II, the Allied powers found themselves in increased need of fibers for parachutes and other war materiel, and after the war, DuPont and other American corporations found a new consumer market for their synthetic materials in the context of the postwar economic boom.
Initially, consumers were enthusiastic about the improved durability profile of polyester compared to natural fibers, and these benefits are still valid today. In recent decades, however, the harmful environmental impact of this synthetic fiber has come to light in great detail, and the consumer stance on polyester has changed significantly.
Nonetheless, polyester remains one of the most widely-produced fabrics in the world, and it’s hard to find consumer apparel that doesn’t contain at least some percentage of polyester fiber. Apparel that contains polyester, however, will melt in extreme heat, while most natural fibers char. Molten fibers can cause irreversible bodily damage.