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 April 4, 2014

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So, what’s the big difference between cotton and polyester fabric? There are those who swear by cotton, but that 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 ideal for others. The real trick is to weigh the pros and cons to decided 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 less expensive.

Let’s go over each.

Cotton

Breathable – as a natural fiber, it lets your skin breath. It also wicks away sweat, keeping your body temperature stable.

Soft, but strong: The fibers are less rough than polyester, so it feels super soft on your skin. It’s also very strong. This being said, cotton is designed to be rough, like heavy duty cotton canvas, don’t fit in with the “soft” characteristic.

Great for Sensitive Skin: Because it is so much softer, those with sensitive skin tolerate 100% cotton better than polyester. With all the organic craze going on, you can get cotton fabric with the bare minimum chemicals; even better for sensitive skin.

Easy to Dye: The fibers hold dye incredibly well. It also tends to dye evenly and produce a truer, deeper color. However, with excessive expose to sunlight and time (decades), the dye will eventually fade.

Biodegradable: breaks down over time: Cotton isn’t as durable as polyester in the long run. It’s a natural fiber, it will eventually break down. However, proper care, like keeping away from excessive sunlight, can prolong the life of cotton.

Polyester

Long Lasting: Polyester is a man-made fiber; it’s basically plastic. In fact, plastic bottles are actually recycled into polyester fabric. Amazing, right? According to study, polyester is not compostable, meaning it doesn’t break down well in soil. Think about this in a landfill.

Less Fading: Boy, does this stuff hold dye! Quality polyester also holds shape very well and doesn’t shrink.

Dries Quickly: Unlike cotton, polyester isn’t absorbent. It’s definitely not your go-to for towels or mug rugs. 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 most resistant to wrinkles than cotton. This is awesome in clothing, but a pain when you are trying to finger press quilt blocks.

Non-Breathing: Polyester doesn’t let your skin breath like cotton. For instance, if you wear a polyester shirt in summer, you might find yourself pretty sweaty.
*That being said, there are many performance-wear polyester products that DO wick sweat away from your body, but it really only works if the fabric is skin tight (not a great look on all of us). And, if you buy a cheap product, there tends to be a weird after smell.

Cotton/Poly Mix

This is literally, 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.

Now, quilters will still tell you to stick to 100% cotton, and they have good reasoning too say that. It’s easy to use and will shrink at the same rate across the board.

So, for beginners, stick with the 100%. As you gain confidence, so ahead and dip into the cotton/poly mix. You’ll be glad you did!

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 top image is a cotton factory and the bottom is a polyester factor. Yup, that’s right. Either way you cut it, both fabrics are created in  power-sucking, smoke-stack factory plants. 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:

 

Consider all those chemicals pumped into the atmosphere and all the energy use to power the plants.
So, before you go 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. But wait, there’s more. Cotton takes a ton of land to grow, and that land has to be watered…a lot! Then, it all needs to be harvested by huge farm equipment, and I bet you they don’t run on solar power.

Want to really be eco-friendly? Up-cycle and buy from thrift stores. Or start your own organic cotton fields, hand pick and process, then weave your own fabric. I guess that would be the most idea. Personally, I’m sticking with 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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39 comments

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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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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