Polyester. It’s all bad, right? Wrong.
Yes, it's a somewhat ‘controversial’ view to take, but it shouldn't be. Polyester has come on leaps and bounds – certainly within the past 10 years or so – and yet it can’t seem to shake off its old horrible scratchy, sweaty reputation.
I might even go so as far to say I feel somewhat sorry for polyester. However much it continues to evolve and develop to prove itself as a cool, technical fabric, it keeps being put down and discarded as the fabric to ALWAYS avoid.
It’s like you’ve gone back to your Senior School reunion. You were that socially awkward teenager with a lame haircut and no friends. But you’re not that person anymore! Now you’re going to waltz in there looking a knock-out because you’ve got a kick-ass job, a coveted wardrobe and George Clooney on your arm. But no. As soon as you enter, someone calls you that cringey nickname you tried to bury long ago and that’s all anyone reminds you of all evening. You’ll forever be Brace-Face.
My own personal high-school trauma aside, my point is that polyester should be given a chance. A re-branding if you will. Because those who dismiss a garment as soon as they read the word ‘polyester’ are doing it a huge disservice. Yes, cheap trashy polyester is still around and leaves a lot to be desired, but quality, beautiful polyester does exist.
"This Polyester is Different."
Need proof? For almost a decade now, high fashion has embraced the fabric. Back in 2008 Lanvin’s revered (and now ex-creative director) Alber Elbaz, Nina Ricci’s Olivier Theyskens and the designer Narciso Rodriguez all presented stunning polyester designs at Paris Fashion week, marking a shocking game-changing position for the fabric. Their creations were delicate, danced down the runway and glimmered in the light. And since then, more and more respected brands have been using the fabric.
The sceptic in you might be forgiven for thinking: “This is just a marketing ploy. A way for designers and labels to sell you something new, whilst also increasing their margins by charging just as much for using half-decent materials”. Well think again. Because, aside from it now being an expensive fabric choice (more on that later), this polyester is different.
It’s got something to do with its manufacturing process. Whilst there are many ways of manufacturing polyester, one-way the quality fabric is now made is through pumping air into the molten liquid blob that it starts as, thus turning it into almost a moose. It is only afterwards that it is strung out into fibre strands. So, because it already has pockets of air in it, it’s much lighter and more delicate, and its sweaty, unbreathable property becomes a thing of the past. Indeed, Mr Elbaz spoke of his fascination with the fabric exclaiming ‘it was so light!’
An Irreparable Reputation
In truth, polyester began its ‘transformation’ back in the late 1980s and 1990s. It started to be known as ‘microfibre’, with underwear and sportwear finding use for it’s new thinner, lighter version. Soon Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani starting blending it with cottons and wools for their coats and suits, recognising that natural/synthetic blends offer better, more practical properties to garments.
But unfortunately, despite renowned forward-thinking designers realising polyester’s potential, retailers and shoppers couldn't shake off the memories of the cheesy DACRON® fabric they remembered domineered mass production from the 50s-80s. The fabric’s association with questionable taste, cheap fashion and lower social class, coupled with horror stories of outfits bursting into flames, had scarred people’s opinion of the fabric. So, as Mr Rodriguez pointed out, even when buyers liked the new version, as soon as they discovered it was polyester, they would run away screaming.
"Giorgio Armani admits he prefers using polyesters to natural fabrics"
As a result, it’s taken a long steady push for polyester to be more widely accepted. Its cheerleader? The Japanese. Leaders in high-tech fibre manufacturing in Japan began developing new synthetics with astounding properties such as fabric memory stability and oil resistance – offering designers the chance to create both wondrous pieces as well as highly practical garments. Moreover, nanotechnology has enabled Japanese chemical company, Teijin, to lead production of nano-fibre that is 7,500x thinner than a human hair, whilst textile researchers in the US are now developing ‘super fibre’ polyester for bulletproof vests.
These days quality polyester is common amongst leading designer brands, with Giorgio Armani going so far as to admit he prefers using polyesters to natural fabrics such as linen. A master of tailoring, he urges customers to wear blends for better fit and elasticity. And, as to that price point matter, don’t assume you’re being duped into paying a lot for something that cost near to nothing to make. The cost of quality polyester has climbed, largely due to the price of fossil fuels. In fact, at around £25 per metre, these days the highest-quality polyester fabric can be pricier than some silks!
If you still havn’t been convinced, perhaps it’s because of the eco-sustainability argument, which is still up for debate. Granted, polyester is non-biodegradable, but natural fibres put pressure on agricultural land usage: 60-70 hectares of grazing land is needed for sheep to produce wool, whilst roughly the same volume of polyester requires virtually no land, allowing it to be put to better use for food production. Moreover, the use of other resources for polyester production isn’t as bad we’re led to believe. Less than 1% of petroleum is used for the global production of all man-made synthetic fibres, and polyester itself requires only a few cubic tonnes of water for production verses 20,000 cubic tonnes required for the same amount of cotton.
It's time for a new perspective
So the real question is: how do you know when polyester is good or bad? Well it’s probably best you don't expect to find high-quality polyester in the mass-produced high street for a start. But as you move up into the contemporary labels and the luxury scene, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised. Give it a go. Touch and feel the fabric. Try it on. Consider and understand the garment’s appearance, purpose and structure. Ask yourself: would it be nearly as effective if it was made from natural fibres?
So stop saying “I refuse to wear anything that’s polyester!” Don’t be stuck in the past. Give that once lame and unpopular fabric a chance. It’s put so much effort into developing and improving, and you could quite possibly lose out on discovering something pretty cool if you don't.
With thanks to: Fashion for Fabric, The Complete Guide by Clive Hallet and Amanda Johnston, and "Gasp! Polyester Is The New Name In Paris Fashion" by Rachel Dodes and Christina Passariello, The Wall Street Journal