Among the most celebrated fabric options for fashion, design, creativity, and interiors are the popular polyester. But what is polyester, where did it emerge from, where is it most found?
There is no denial that polyester is a fabric, and that it carries certain specific qualities, which makes it an apt choice for clothing. There is a stigma when it comes to fashion, as this is not a natural choice such as silk, cotton, or wool but a man-made fabric. But even though it is not natural, there are a lot of perks of this fabric too, read on further to know how this man-made fabric turned to be the miracle fiber that can be worn for several days without ironing, how it turns out to be an industry, and how it became an essential part of the fashion industry?
Polyester is a shortened name for a synthetic, man-made polymer, which is most commonly referred to as a type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The fabric is created by mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, in short, it is a kind of plastic. Polyester fiber is derived from coal, air, water, and petroleum. It is the third most-produced plastic material with a market share of 18%, after polypropylene (20%) and polyethylene (33%).
Polyester was first invented by British Chemist John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson. The fiber got huge attention among the consumers in 1970 when it was advertised as a kind of miracle fiber which was worn for 68 days and was still presentable without ironing. Soon this durable fabric became a cheap and easily available form of fabric and was extensively used for clothing, furnishing, textiles, and more.
India has around 2 million tons of production capacity today and will soon increase to 3 million tons.
The country’s polyester industry was initiated as early as the 1980s, built under the “License Raj”. The licensed plant capacity was set at 15,000 tons per year, numerous plants were built within that time frame, some also in rural areas to earn tax benefits. In the early 1990s, the polyester industry got new heights as two major players, Reliance Industries Ltd. and Indorama added significant capacities.
Reliance became the only company in the entire world to start with oil and go all the way down the value chain to the sale of fabrics, it further acquired new smaller producers and converted those assets to specialty fibers. Several smaller producers invested in chip-fed POY machines and the major textile area in Northwest India, Surat, the chip consumption was close to 3,00,000 tons by 2006. With such a small polyester capacity, India still became a net exporter of textured yarn and spun yarn. In the country, the environment for the development of polyester industry was highly suitable due to reduced import duties, lower interest rates, and more than $100 billion worth of foreign reserves. Also, the country’s banks were prepared to lend money based on project feasibility, market demand, and not based on fashion.
Indian textile industry is one of the largest industries in the country, and the second-largest in terms of providing employment opportunities to more than 35 million people in the country. The Textile industry contributes to 7% of industrial output in terms of value, 2% of the country’s GDP, and to 15% of the country’s export earnings.
By the year 2019, the production volume of synthetic fibers across India amounted to around 3.6 million metric tons and employed around 20 million people in the country.
The polyester fabric holds a significant portion of share in Global Fiber Market, it holds for more than half of the market share accounting for 55% followed by cotton holding 27% of the total market share.
Polyester is the prominent fiber used globally and is a strong competitor of cotton. Polyester dominates cotton because it is cheaper, easily available, has good durability, easy to process, and is wrinkle-free.
In 2016, India imported polymer worth of US$ 1.19bn, followed by Turkey which imported polymer worth of US$ 1.13bn. But in 2016 the trade balance was negative and the country’s import was more than export. The demand for the fabric was due to the increasing demand for the polymer in the textile industry. The export and import of Polyester fabric were positive since 2012, but between the years 2015 and 2016, the trade balance was witnessed negative. Later the trade balance saw a significant rise again. Germany and the US are the world’s largest exporter of polyester. China is the world’s largest importer of the polymer, it alone imports twice as much as polymer than Germany which was the world’s second-largest importer.
Polyester is extensively used for manufacturing a variety of clothes mainly sportswear and home furnishings such as bed sheets, pillows, furniture, carpets, and curtains, etc.
The characteristics of high tenacity, good durability, wrinkle-resistant, easy to wash & fast dry make this polyester as a good choice of fabric. The polyester is hydrophobic in nature which makes it an ideal choice for clothing to be used in wet and damp environmental conditions.
Besides clothes, they are also utilized for manufacturing products like climbing suits, parkas, sleeping bags and even suits to be used for windsurfing and many other outdoor activities supporting material.
Like every other fabric available in the market, polyester has its good and ugly sides. Keeping the knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of this fabric is helpful when buying a garment made of it to help you decide if it’s worth investing in or not.
Dries faster- Due to the fabric’s lower absorbency properties, it dries faster than other popular fabrics like cotton. It takes less time in your dryer than other fabrics, consequently helping you save on your electricity bills.
Durability- Polyester has a high strength, which translates to the ultimate durability. It can be worn regularly along with regular washes, this is one of the most important reasons why sportswear is made of polyester as it can take daily, strong, repeated movements.
Surprisingly light-weighted- Its mostly utilized in activewear because of the lightweight nature.
Inexpensive- The polyester fabric is quite cheap and as it is synthetic/man-made fiber, it doesn’t suffer a lot of market fluctuations. This leads to more consistent costs.
Versatile- Polyester can be easily blended with other fibers to help combine its benefits with those of other fibers and achieve even better end products. Polyester is mostly blended with these fabrics- cotton and polyester (50/50 or 65/35), polyester-cotton-rayon (50/25/25), and polyester-spandex blends (85/15).
Lacks a soft touch- Unlike other natural fabrics that feel soft on the skin, the polyester fabric holds a slightly rough texture and sometimes does not feel comfortable on the skin, further it doesn’t work for people with sensitive skin.
Less breathable- There is no denial in the fact that polyester is a plastic-based fabric means it provides with limited breathability, hence it’s not suitable for making things like beddings.
Temperature-sensitive- The clothes made out of polyester are sensitive to temperatures.
Moderately flammable material- The fabric isn’t highly flammable, it tends to stick to skin and leaves you with severe burns.
Non-environmental-friendly- The fabric registers high resistance to bio-degradation, throwing old polyester garments away contributes to landfills.
Fabrics impact the environment in a way we can never think of, the fashion industry thrives on providing consumers with the latest fashion trends. But there is a dark side of the story too as approximately £140m worth of clothes goes into landfill each year. Some sustainable fashion consultants speculated that by 2050 the fashion industry will use up 25% of the world’s carbon budget, making it one of the most polluting industries second only to oil.
Polyester and other synthetic fabrics are produced from oil for 63% of the material input for textile production. The common materials in this sector are polyester(55%) followed by Nylon (5%). Although they don’t require agricultural land and water in production and processing, they do negatively impact the environment in other ways. They are non-biodegradable and rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning this fashion industry staple fabric relies on fossil fuel extraction. The utilization of fossil fuels brings with it other major impacts including oil spills, wildlife disruption, methane emissions, and biodiversity loss. Polyester’s impact on the environment doesn’t stop at the manufacturing stage either, every time a polyester garment is washed it releases microfibres into waterways causing immense damage to marine life.
Coronavirus has brought the entire fashion industry to a halt. From the past few years, sustainable fashion has been becoming a trend, and now with the outbreak of COVID-19, there are debates in the fashion industry about how to create a more ethical and less environmentally damaging model for an industry that is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year. It’s speculated that there could be as many as one crore job cuts in the textiles sector.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber, and people across the world are considering this pandemic to be nature’s warning, and it will certainly bring a change in consumer attitudes to a slowing down of the seasonal model and avoiding synthetic fabrics. The world will be moving towards sustainable fashion, and this further is going to hit the polyester industry severely.
Brands earlier pledged to commit their support and increase the use of recycled polyester (rPET) in the manufacturing of their products by at least 25% till this year, the list includes renowned brand names like Adidas, Marks & Spencer, H&M, Timberland, GAP Inc, Lindex and many others.
The debate around the synthetic fiber, polyester, and sustainable fashion will keep going, the fact that wether one loves it or hates it, polyester– is still everywhere. There is a belief that we have already produced enough polyester, so working with collection systems to reprocess it can be a major key.
What is your opinion? Will polyester last in the future?
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