Home Community The 411 on Cotton vs. Polyester: The Pros and Cons

The 411 on Cotton vs. Polyester: The Pros and Cons

written by Sarah


So, what’s the big difference between cotton and polyester fabric? There are those who swear by cotton, but cheaper polyester is pretty tempting, isn’t it? You may think that the lower cost of polyester means a lower quality product, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Polyester is great for some projects, while cotton is great for others. The real trick is to weigh the pros and cons to decide which is the right choice for you. Some people only want to work with 100% cotton because it’s so easy to sew and is predictable. You know exactly what you’re getting. Others prefer polyester because it’s long-lasting and usually less expensive.

Let’s go over each.

Cotton

Breathable:  This natural fiber lets your skin breathe. It also absorbs moisture to keep your body temperature stable.

Soft, but strong: The fibers are less abrasive than polyester, so it feels super soft on your skin.  That being said, some cotton fabric is designed to be strong and rough, like heavy duty cotton canvas. It all depends on the weave and the finish.

Great for sensitive skin: Because it is so much softer, those with sensitive skin tolerate 100% cotton better than polyester. With organic products becoming increasingly popular, you can find cotton fabric made with very little chemical processing.

Easy to dye: The fibers hold dye incredibly well. It also tends to dye evenly and produce a truer, deeper color. However, with excessive exposure to sunlight and time (decades), the dye will eventually fade. Also, cotton will shrink with the first washing and drying.

Biodegradable: Cotton will break down over time. Cotton isn’t as durable as polyester in the long run.  However, proper care can prolong the life of cotton. Try to avoid prolonged exposure to excessive sunlight and moisture.

Polyester

Long lasting: Polyester is a man-made fiber.  It’s very resilient and can withstand a good deal of wear and tear.  It’s basically plastic. In fact, plastic bottles can be recycled into polyester fabric. Polyester is not compostable, meaning it doesn’t break down well in soil. Think about this in a landfill.

Less fading: Polyester holds dye well to prevent fading, but doesn’t produce as “rich” of a  color as polyester.  High-quality polyester holds its shape well and doesn’t shrink.

Dries quickly: Unlike cotton, polyester isn’t absorbent. It’s definitely not your go-to for towels. However, it dries super fast. So if you want to reduce that electricity bill, you might want to sew polyester clothing.

Less wrinkling: It’s more resistant to wrinkles than cotton. This is great for anyone who dreads ironing.

Nonbreathing: Polyester doesn’t let your skin breathe like cotton. For instance, if you wear a polyester shirt in the summer, you might find yourself pretty sweaty. That being said, there are many performance wear polyester products specifically engineered to wick sweat away from your body, but it really only works if the fabric is skin tight. If you buy a low-quality product, you’ll notice a weird after smell.

Cotton/Poly Mix

This is the best of both worlds. Developers take the best qualities of both and weave them together to make one heck of a fabric. This stuff is great for apparel and home decor.

Quilters will still tell you to stick to 100% cotton and they have good reasons to say that. It’s easy to use, it’s predictable, and it shrinks at the same rate.

I say experiment with as much fabric as you can and see what you like best. It’s all about the individual sewist and how you like to sew.

cotton

What about the environment?

This can make or break it for some people. Many people prefer cotton because it is a plant-based product and is “sustainable”. Now, take a look at the two photos below.

Woman in Cotton Factory

 

factory-new

Pretty similar, right? The first image is a cotton factory and the second image is a polyester factory. Either way, both fabrics are created in power-sucking factories. Both go through multiple chemical processes to make the final product and both products will be shipped around the globe. Even when you consider that polyester can be made from recycled plastic bottles, check out the huge process it goes through.

Now, consider all of the chemicals pumped into the atmosphere and all of the energy used to power the plants.
Before you start hating polyester, just know cotton has a dirty side, too.  Cotton farming uses the most pesticides of any crop in the world. Every time it rains or the plant decomposes, chemicals leak into the ground water and surrounding water sources. Cotton takes a ton of land to grow and that land has to be watered a lot! Then, it all needs to be harvested using motorized farming equipment. Unless those tractors run on solar power, they aren’t great for the environment. 

Do you want to really be eco-friendly? Up-cycle and sew every scrap. Use your sewing skills to fix your clothing and home goods instead of buying new.

You could also start your own organic cotton fields. You could hand pick and process the cotton, then weave your own fabric. I guess that would be the most eco-friendly. 

Personally, I’m sticking with fabric off the bolt.

Hey, I recycle. Don’t judge.


References:
Frey, M., Li, L., & Browning, K. (n.d.). Retrieved from here
Baugh, G. (n.d.). Retrieved from here

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51 comments

neenee July 29, 2017 at 10:03 am

Being from a southern state I have seeded and hand carded plenty of cotton. I think the largest inefficiency of cotton is the 40% left in the fields after mechanical harvesting. I love to go out in these fields and pick before it is plowed under. I still buy poly-cotton when I buy, except for making underwear. I do not know how to recycle the plastic yet but hope to learn.

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Sarah July 31, 2017 at 9:48 am

Thank you for sharing your experience! I had no idea 40% of the cotton was left on the field! Good for you for making use of it!

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Margaret E Warren July 29, 2017 at 9:51 am

Hi Sarah!!! I enjoy your emails and your You Tube videos, but I have a question……..I bought several different colors of broadcloth. What I want to know is…..what is broadcloth? Is it polyester or polyester mixed with something else? I am using all cotton for my quilts, but am afraid to use the broadcloth with the cotton for fear the cotton would shrink, but the broadcloth would not. Am i right?? Thanks!! “Margaret”

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Sarah July 31, 2017 at 9:46 am

Hi, Margaret! I’m so glad you enjoy our emails and videos – thank you so much for your kind words and support!
Broadcloth is simply a dense, woven fabric. Traditionally, broadcloth was made of wool but now comes as cotton and cotton/poly blend. Do you have a link to where you bought the fabric? Or access the original bolt?

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Gareth Harrison July 20, 2017 at 6:53 am

Hi
I will be working in school ,so shirts will be worn daily.What should I buy 6/35 or 55/45.
Which will wear and wash best and look good
Thanks

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Sarah July 20, 2017 at 9:58 am

I think the 55/45 will do nicely.

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Jessica Thomas July 2, 2017 at 8:43 am

Yes, what a great article and thank you for sharing your wealth of information. I cut and stitch my own sports clothing and have found some really great polyester wicking fabric thats is extremely breathable. I buy all my fabric from Thailand through Sugini factory, they have many different fabric options for polyester wicking fabrics for all types of fitness wear. I would also like to add that i have some lightweight polyester t-shirts that are breathable, so i’m not sure if it makes a difference where one buys there fabric from, or where the fabric is produced.

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Sarah July 3, 2017 at 10:53 am

Thank you for sharing! I think where fabric is bought from and who makes it does play an important role. Thailand has a great textile industry.

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anna June 30, 2017 at 2:37 pm

is polyester filling on a new couch o.k. Does it have an oder I bought a couch and had to send it back because the oder was terrible and my skin started to itch

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Sarah June 30, 2017 at 4:07 pm

Many sofas have polyester filling in the back cushions. However, the seat cushions should be a high-density foam.

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Brandon L June 28, 2017 at 4:52 am

I’ve been very against synthetic fabrics until re-assessing, and your article is what prompted me to reconsider. It’s similar to the christmas tree debate, some will say it’s better to get a fresh, real, tree each year, and others will say why not just buy one plastic one for however many years (maybe even for life?). Each has pros and cons, and I think the same goes for cotton v synthetics. I think the one thing that can be sad for synthetics though is that because they are stronger they can last much longer and essentially offset years of equivalent chemicals and growing needed for cotton production. I will now look at things a bit more openly. Obviously an organic solution would be best, but in a world of 8+ billion people, I don’t see that as happening right away. A more realistic option right now might actually be downscaling cotton production and going the upcyclce or recycle route as you had mentioned. Thanks for the insight, it actually has a lot of importance to many of us who are seeking a less chemically-laded life.

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Sarah June 28, 2017 at 9:06 am

Hi, Brandon! Thank you so much for your insight! I agree that reducing cotton production would probably be best. All we really need is to focus research on finding out how to efficiently and intelligently turn recycled plastic into polyester fabric without using so much electricity or creating so much waste. I’m sure there is a way to do it, though the initial investment is a bit overwhelming.

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Nancy June 12, 2017 at 8:28 pm

Sounds like in buying a nice bedroom quilt you would recommend 100% cotton instead of 80% / 20% cotton/ polyester right? I’m having a tough time deciding which to get. I want it light for summer and something that will last.

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Sarah June 13, 2017 at 8:43 am

Hi, Nancy! For a light, summer quilt cotton or linen would work best. As long as you stitch with high-quality fabric, it will last a long time. Good luck!

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Toni June 6, 2017 at 9:46 pm

hi, I’m thinking of buying a dress for my formal but it is 100% polyester is that fabric a bad idea for my dress?

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Sarah June 7, 2017 at 9:02 am

Hi, Toni! Polyester fabric has really come a long way and does a great job at mimicking natural fabric at a fraction of the cost. As long as it’s a high-quality polyester, you should be good! Enjoy your formal!

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Claudia Cruz June 1, 2017 at 8:39 pm

hi, is Polyester strethable?

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Sarah June 2, 2017 at 8:59 am

Hi, Claudia! Polyester knit is stretchable.

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Kimberly May 19, 2017 at 2:16 am

I loved this. I’m starting a site, and while I have a little bit of background in synethics/chemistry, a lot of this is new to me. Sadly, it seems that both processes aren’t exactly environmentally friendly. Organic cotton seems like a start.

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Sarah May 19, 2017 at 9:07 am

It is sad that neither is particularly environmentally friendly. However, I think if the refining process can be altered so that the factories are energy efficient and use little water – then polyester made of recycled plastic bottles would be a great choice.

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Chris February 9, 2017 at 10:04 pm

Good Article Sarah. I have a couple questions regarding polyester. I didn’t see a way to contact you privately, probably easier than going back and forth on this site. Please see my email and send me a message. I’d love some insight from a professional.

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Sarah February 13, 2017 at 9:00 am

Hi, Chris! I just emailed you

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Jan Godat February 7, 2017 at 12:32 pm

I think of making drapes for an outside terrace that gets the morning sun for home in Los Cabos. We have some rain and wind 2 months out of the year. How well will 100% polyester fabric (solid cream color, sheer) hold up under these conditions?

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Sarah February 13, 2017 at 9:22 am

Hi, Jan! You would need to invest in outdoor fabric specifically. It can still be 100% polyester, but it needs to have a UV resistance and Mildew resistance coating. I hope that helps!

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B February 5, 2017 at 2:11 pm

So if a person was on stage with a polyester long sleeve tee shirt would it be best to wear a cotton long sleeve tee underneath it in case of perspiration? Between polyester and cotton which reveals underarm perspiration more? I’d hate for a musician to be on stage with my designs on with sweat all over the shirt. How can that be avoided, which fabric should I use?

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Sarah February 13, 2017 at 10:10 am

Hi! The trick would be to wear a highly absorbent undershirt. Being under hot stage lights and the energy needed to perform will likely cause a decent amount of sweat. You can have them wear a 100% cotton undershirt, or for heavy sweaters, a sweat proof undershirt like Under Armor’s Advadri shirts

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AmyScrapSpot January 24, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Great article, thank you so much for sharing!
I swear, I don’t judge! ;D

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David Goldberg December 17, 2016 at 12:31 pm

I am going to buy a sweatshirt, but don’t know which material I want. Could you tell me which is better, softer-warmer. 80% cotton, 20%poly. &0% cotton, 30% poly.
Thank yo so much

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Sarah December 19, 2016 at 9:30 am

80/20 is probably softer, but it all depends on the quality and finish. Some 100% poly is softer than cheap cotton. Generally, quality cotton will be expensive.

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Matan December 10, 2016 at 9:24 am

Hello. I am considering producing baby bibs. What is the best material to be hypo-allerganic, dries fast, absorbant, and comfy for babies?

Thank you

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Sarah December 12, 2016 at 10:49 am

Hi Matan! I recommend a bamboo fabric with either a terry cloth or Minky backing. Bamboo is breathable and absorbent. Good luck!

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Joe December 5, 2016 at 1:48 pm

Nice article. Can you tell me what is better for bedding, cotton or polyester?

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Sarah December 5, 2016 at 6:20 pm

Hi! It depends. If you want something that can withstand a ton of washing and is high loft, less expensive, go with polyester. If you need something thinner, but very breathable, go with cotton. Keep in mind, cotton tends to be more expensive, but it deals well.

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beyonce knowles November 9, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Can u tell me when it comes to leggings if they are fuzzy lined on the inside will they still run like the polyester ones?

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Sarah November 10, 2016 at 10:46 am

I’m not entirely sure. I would think a lining would increase the strength, thereby eliminating runs, but I’m not 100% sure.

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F. Villanueva August 5, 2016 at 1:15 pm

I love how straight to the point your article is. Kudos to you!

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Michele July 10, 2016 at 1:55 pm

I just started making my own clothes and sewing, and I really enjoyed your article. Right now, I LOVE cotton just because I love it. Don’t know where I’ll be heading in the future, but having a lot of fun right now.

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Oscar March 27, 2016 at 3:51 pm

I don’t buy cotton being more breathable than poly, my body gets to feel suffocated with cotton, while with poly it feels a much softer fabric and cooler. Sport athletes wear poly because of it, cotton would be unbearable since it absorbs all the sweat.

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Sal April 26, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Exactly it makes no sense to say cotton is softer since plaster is lighter and feels smoother.

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Joy Doverspike February 2, 2016 at 10:04 am

I have a mixture of both polycottons and 100% cottons. Is there a sure way to tell the difference?

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Ellen April 7, 2016 at 8:41 am

Hello Joy. Here is a link to one of Sarah’s videos on “How to Determine the Fiber Content of Fabric.” http://www.sewingpartsonline.com/blog/how-to-determine-the-fiber-content-of-fabric/

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100% Cotton vs 100% polyester | HealthlyLivingSite December 25, 2015 at 3:43 pm Reply
cotton October 24, 2015 at 10:03 am

For thousands of years cotton has been grown and used for fabric. History has all the proof . Research ! And remember the past !

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Alice Von Vanity October 6, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Hey! This is a great article. It really helps for my Textiles and Clothing class

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If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be - Quartz June 5, 2015 at 5:01 am

[…] if it’s still popularly regarded as a cheap, hot, sometimes smelly, environmentally harmful fiber, technological advancements have improved the […]

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sjp May 12, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Well done. Good to see this discussion – it’s one that craft/sewing people need to have. On top of making fabric, there’s dying and shipping, too. Do you know anything about the fair trade or labor aspects of fabric?

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Sarah May 13, 2014 at 9:22 am

Hi! It’s quite a large area of study – any aspects in particular you’re curious about?

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sarah louise April 25, 2016 at 6:11 am

to Sarah
i would like to know whats the difference between cotton and polyester
from Sarah Louise

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R. Walter April 17, 2014 at 7:23 pm

Great article.

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Sarah April 18, 2014 at 9:48 am

Thank you!

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sarah louise April 25, 2016 at 6:11 am

great article sarah

Reply

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