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A Guide to Fabrics: What You Need to Know About Polyester, Nylon, & Polypropylene Fabric

Kyrsten Ledger

Updated: July 23rd, 2020

Whether you know it or not, fabrics are everywhere! Everyday items like clothing, blankets, toothbrushes, and even socks contain synthetic materials. Even though you might not know much about the materials, something around you at this very moment is probably made from at least one of them!

You might not be a fabric expert, but that's okay! Check out this handy insider guide, and you'll be a pro before you know it.

What Are Synthetic Fabrics?

Synthetic fabrics are made from chemicals and other inorganic materials. Typically, this type of fabric is strong, durable, and absorbent compared to more sensitive natural fibers like cotton, silk, or wool.

The three most popular synthetic fabrics include:

  • Polypropylene fabric
  • Polyester fabric
  • Nylon fabric

If you take one look around you, chances are you'll notice something made with one of these materials! Your clothes, furniture, and even your water bottle is made with synthetic materials.

Polypropylene Fabric

What is Polypropylene Fabric?

black fabric Source: moodfabrics.com

Polypropylene is a lightweight type of plastic. It was originally used to mass-produce plastic items in factories, but nowadays it's most commonly a textile or fabric.

plus

The advantages of polypropylene include:


  • Absorbs moisture
  • Resistant to chemicals
  • Thermal properties ideal for cold weather
  • Resistant to tearing


con

The disadvantages of polypropylene include:


  • Susceptible to UV damage
  • Difficult to dye or paint after manufacturing
  • Highly flammable
  • May oxidize or rust over time

Polypropylene fabric has plenty of benefits that make it a popular material. Before deciding to use polypropylene fabrics, make sure that you weigh the pros and cons!

black fabric Source: moodfabrics.com
Did you know?

One ton of polypropylene costs $526 in the United States.

Who Invented Polypropylene Plastic?

James Dickson Source: wikimedia.com

An American corporation called Phillips Petroleum first invented polypropylene plastic in 1951. Two chemists named J. Paul Hogan and Robert L. Banks created the material on accident while trying to conduct an experiment using gasoline. The result was a brand new compound that would later be useful for a variety of applications.

In 1954, an Italian chemist named Giulio Natta formed the compound into fibers that could be used to make fabrics! Soon after, the material began production for both consumer and commercial use.

James Dickson Source: wikimedia.com

What is Polypropylene Used For?

green bag

Surprisingly, polypropylene is used to make a wide range of products, including packaging materials and tote bags. Its affordability and versatility make it the perfect material for manufacturing and textiles.

The following products can be made from polypropylene:


  • Moisture-wicking clothing
  • Car batteries
  • Furniture
  • Shampoo
  • Deodorant containers
  • Diapers
  • Cold weather gear
  • Sportswear
  • Tote bags
  • Luggage
  • Stationary
  • Drinking straws
  • Rope
  • Loud speakers
  • Food labels
  • Food packaging
  • Food containers
  • Sunglasses
  • Carpets
  • Mats
  • Rugs

green bag

Since polypropylene is widely produced and cost-effective when purchased in bulk, many manufacturers use the material to make items we use every single day! You can't get through the day without polypropylene as it's found in your car, the shampoo you use to wash your hair, and the couch you sit on at the end of a long day.

Can Polypropylene Fabric Be Washed?

Washing machine

Polypropylene can be washed in the washing machine or by hand with mild dish detergent. Heat can damage the fibers, so air dry your items and avoid placing them in direct sunlight. Always check the care tag or with the manufacturer before washing polypropylene items to avoid accidental damage.

Washing machine

How is Polypropylene Recycled?

recycle bin

After collection, sorting, and cleaning, polypropylene is recycled by melting it down into small pellets. These pellets can then be made to use a variety of other items.

Recycled polypropylene can be used to make the following items:

  • Battery cases
  • Paint cans
  • Storage containers
  • Flowerpots
  • Composite lumber
  • Pallets
  • Crates

The next time you plan to get rid of a household item made with polypropylene, consider recycling it! The item can be reused to make a variety of other items instead of sitting in landfills.

recycle bin

Polyester Fabric

What is Polyester?

Polyester material Source: Amazon.com

Polyester is a synthetic fabric that is derived from petroleum. It is one of the most common fabrics in the world because of its versatility. Polyester is typically a soft fabric, but it's made from plastic and is scientifically known as polyethylene terephthalate.


plus

The advantages of polyester include:


  • Can be blended with natural fibers to reduce shrinkage
  • Lower production costs
  • Stain resistant
  • UV resistant
  • Pet-friendly


con

The disadvantages of polyester include:


  • Fabric will melt in extreme heat
  • Dries slowly
  • Not breathable
  • Difficult to remove stains
  • Not environmentally friendly

Polyester is commonly used as a synthetic alternative to natural fibers like cotton or wool. Typically, anything that is made from cotton can also be made from polyester!

Polyester material
Did you know?

Once polyester is made into fabric, it costs approximately $10 per yard.

Who Invented Polyester Fabric?

WH Carothers bbvaopenmind.com

Polyester fabric was invented by W.H. Carothers in the U.K. in 1926. The scientists discovered polyester after performing experiments combining acid and alcohol. The fibers that formed from these experiments were eventually created into polyester fabric!

The DuPont Corporation was the first company to create polyester fibers suitable for mass production. Eventually, American investors became interested in the fabric for soldier's uniforms, parachutes, and other items used in World War I.

WH Carothers bbvaopenmind.com

After the war, DuPont Corporation and other American companies started producing polyester items for consumers such as clothing and upholstery, which helped build back the economy after it took a hit from the war.

What is Polyester Used For?

Black bottles

While polyester is used in clothing, like raincoats and t-shirts, it also makes other household items, including hoses, curtains, towels, and pillowcases. The material is also found in athletic wear since it absorbs water and dries slowly, keeping you cool for your evening jog or gym workout.

Polyester is used to make the following items:


  • Food containers
  • Water bottles
  • T-shirts
  • Formal wear
  • Socks
  • Upholstery
  • Pillows
  • Boats
  • Tarps
  • Towels
  • Blankets
  • Hoses
  • Curtains
  • Pillowcases
  • Athletic wear
  • Rugs
Black bottles

Polyester is all around you! If you look at the care tag on any item of clothing, chances are it contains some amount of polyester. It is a cost-effective material that can be combined with or even replace natural materials like cotton or wool.

Can Polyester Be Washed?

Washing machine

It is generally recommended to machine wash polyester in warm water with all-purpose detergent. Always dry polyester on a low temperature setting because high temperatures can cause shrinking. Typically, polyester is wrinkle-resistant and resistant to color fading, so it is a resilient material that is safe to wash.

Washing machine

How is Polyester Recycled?

Water bottle and coat https://fashionunited.uk/

Polyester is recycled by first being collected, then melted down into chips that are then either turned into other items or processed into yarn-like thread. The thread is used to create fabric for clothing or other common items. Recycling polyester is an easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Even though polyester isn't the best for the environment, it's used by a ton of brands to make their products. In 2018, the Textile Exchange, a non-profit dedicated to a sustainable future, challenged a bunch of these companies to increase their use of rPET (recycled polyester) by 25% by 2020. It worked like a charm, and to date over 59 major brands have taken the pledge including Target, H&M, IKEA, Adidas, and Gap.

Water bottle and coat https://fashionunited.uk/

What's the Difference Between Polyester vs. Polypropylene?

Polyester and polypropylene are both synthetic materials made of plastic. Both materials are durable and widely popular, but there are differences between the two that you should know about.

The differences between polyester and polypropylene include:

  • Polypropylene is more water repellant than polyester.
  • Polyester can wick away moisture, but it is more absorbent than polypropylene.
  • Polypropylene will dry faster than polyester.
  • Polyester materials are much easier to care for compared to polypropylene.
  • Polyester has more UV resistance than polypropylene.
  • Polypropylene materials will hold in heat better than polyester, making it better for cold weather.

grey fabric Source: fabricgateway.com
blue fabric Source: eysan.com

When deciding which fabric is better, you should consider what you plan to use it for! For example, if you plan to go on a ski trip, you might want to pack a polypropylene shirt for extra warmth. On the other hand, if you just want a casual shirt that is easy to clean, a polyester material would be more beneficial.

Nylon Fabric

What is Nylon?

Polyester material etsy.com

Nylon is an entirely synthetic material that is most often used as an alternative to silk. Nylon can also be made into a plastic or even a resin. It is a flexible material that is known for its ability to stretch but maintain its shape.

plus

The advantages of nylon include:


  • Stretchy
  • Easily combined with other materials
  • Lightweight
  • Dries quickly
  • Resistant to dirt
  • Easy to clean
  • Retains its color


con

The disadvantages of nylon include:


  • Lacks durability
  • Subject to tears or runs
  • Melts in high temperatures
  • Does not wick moisture

Nylon is a great material for clothing during hot summer days because it is lightweight and breathable. You'll commonly find nylon in athletic wear because it is stretchy and comfortable to wear. This material can be easily combined with others to make it stronger and more durable for daily wear or use.

Polyester material etsy.com
Did you know?

DuPont sold 4 million pairs of nylon stockings in just two days after they went on sale to the public in 1940.

Who Invented Nylon?

Wallace Carothers https://airwolf3d.com

Nylon was invented by a British chemist named Wallace Carothers in 1935. Carothers was creating several synthetic fabrics when he discovered nylon. The long elastic fibers were made into a textile fabric soon after.

At first, nylon was used to create toothbrushes, fishing line, surgical thread, and women's hosiery. During World War II, it was also used to make parachutes which were then repurposed for clothing after the war. This sparked the original idea to use nylon in clothing!

Today, nylon is still an extremely popular material and is used to make a variety of products.

Wallace Carothers https://airwolf3d.com

What is Nylon Used For?

Umbrella

Nylon was used in the military during World War II to make parachutes and mosquito nets. Although this textile is still used in these items today, it can also be found in gloves, luggage, wedding gowns, ponchos, and combat uniforms. Nylon is a great material if you're looking for something lightweight and difficult to break.

The following products are made from nylon:


  • Women's stockings
  • Leggings
  • Form-fitting pants
  • Tights
  • Hair combs
  • Toothbrushes
  • Food packaging
  • Machine screws
  • Umbrellas
  • Sportswear
  • Gloves
  • Luggage
  • Wedding gowns
  • Ponchos
  • Backpacks
  • Tents
  • Sleeping bags
  • Sails
  • Tennis racket strings
  • Fishing poles
  • Combat uniforms

Most thin, lightweight, or flexible material likely has nylon in it! While nylon is commonly mixed with fibers of another material, it is great at enhancing fabrics like cotton or silk.

Umbrella

Can Nylon Be Washed?

Washing machine

Nylon clothing can be washed in the washing machine! Use cold water, a mild detergent, and the cycle suggested by the care tag. If it doesn't specify the cycle, go with a gentle cycle as it's the less likely to cause damage. Be sure to wash the nylon items separately than other fabrics and only use your iron or the dryer if absolutely necessary. Nylon and heat don't play well together!

Washing machine

How is Nylon Recycled?

Recycle bin

You can recycle nylon, but you have to look for takeback programs either online or in your community. Companies like Materials for the Arts, The Scrap Exchange, and No Nonsense all take nylon and repurpose it into new items and materials.

Visit any of their sites to learn more information:

  • Materials for the Arts
  • The Scrap Exchange
  • No Nonsense
  • You can also check out Earth 911's helpful recycling directory. Simply type in “nylon” along with your location and you'll be taken to a screen that lists a ton of places where you can take your nylon items for recycling.

    Recycle bin

    What Is the Difference Between Nylon vs. Polypropylene?

    Nylon and polypropylene are two very different synthetic materials. The main differences are most noticeable when it comes to durability and flexibility.

    The differences between nylon and polypropylene include:


    • Polypropylene is more durable than nylon.
    • Nylon is typically combined with another material during production.
    • Nylon is flexible and stretchy whereas polypropylene has less give.
    • Polypropylene is a duller material and nylon is more silky.
    • Nylon is a replacement for silk, while polypropylene is a replacement for wool or cotton.

    grey fabric Source: walmart.com
    blue fabric Source: globalsources.com

    If you are looking for stretchy breathable material to work out in, consider pants with nylon in them! On the other hand, polypropylene would be a great material for colder weather or as an insulating layer of clothing. Both materials, though vastly different, have their unique benefits depending on the situation.

    What Are the Differences Between Polypropylene, Polyester, and Nylon?

    No two synthetic fabrics are made the same. Certain materials are better for some uses than others. When it comes to polypropylene, polyester, and nylon, each material has their own benefits that make then better suited for different situations.

    Check out this chart to learn about the differences between polypropylene, polyester, and nylon!

    Chart showing the differences between polypropylene, polyester and nylon Chart showing the differences between polypropylene, polyester and nylon

    What Else Should You Know About Synthetic Fabrics?

    What's the Difference Between a Woven and Non-Woven Fabric?

    Woven fabric is created by weaving fibers together to form a t-shirt, blanket, or pair of socks. A non-woven fabric, on the other hand, is pressed together using heat, chemicals, or a mechanical treatment.


    Woven Fabrics

    Woven fabrics are made with natural materials such as cotton, silk, or wool. The strength of woven materials depends on the type of thread used. Woven fabric can be versatile because multiple materials can be used at once.

     fabric Source: threadmagazine.com
    fabric Source: creativemarket.com

    Non-Woven Fabrics

    Non-woven fabrics are made from synthetic fibers derived from plastics like polypropylene, polyester, or nylon. These fabrics tend to be water-repellent, excellent insulators, and can even provide a bacterial barrier. Normally, non-woven fabric is more affordable and more durable than woven materials.

    What Does the D, T, and GSM Stand for in Fabric Content?

    The abbreviations D, T, and GSM are used to describe the density, weight, and thickness of a fabric material. You can find these abbreviations on the tags of bed sheets, tote bags, or t-shirts!

    Green bag

    What Does Denier Mean in Fabric?

    D stands for denier, which is a unit of measurement that refers to a fiber's thickness and weight. Each denier represents one gram of mass; therefore, if you have a 210D polyester tote bag, that means the polyester fibers weigh 210 grams. The higher the number, the thicker the fabric.

    Red T-shirt

    What Does T Stand for in Fabric Content?

    T stands for thread count, which measures the number of threads interlaced in woven fabrics per square inch. The higher the thread count, the more tightly woven the fabric, meaning there are less gaps between the threads. Higher thread counts mean softer and more durable material. For example, 190t polyester wouldn't be as strong or soft compared to 210t polyester.

    bag

    What Does GSM Mean?

    GSM stands for grams per square meter, which measures the weight of fabric in sheets. Non-woven fabrics are made from plastic and laid out into sheets during the manufacturing process. In this case, there are no fibers being woven together, so denier and thread count can't be used. That's why GSM measures sheets of fabric instead.

    The next time you notice these abbreviations on your fabric, you'll know exactly what they mean! Whether the material is natural or synthetic, these abbreviations can help you decide which is better for your specific needs.

    What You Should Know Before You Buy Synthetic Materials

    Before buying products made with certain synthetic materials, you should know exactly what to expect. You should keep these factors in mind before making a final decision:


    • Financial investment
    • Strengths and weaknesses of the item
    • Perceived value
    • Intended use
    Money

    Financial Investment

    You can save money in the long run by knowing which material is best for how you plan to use it. For example, buying polypropylene reusable grocery tote bags are more cost-effective compared to cotton because polypropylene bags are resistant to water, chemicals, and mold.

    Lunch Bag

    Weigh the Pros and Cons

    If you're in the market for a new car, you wouldn't go out and buy the first one you see. You'd take into consideration things like price, fuel mileage, space, year, make, and model. The same concept can be applied to buying a raincoat, tent, or folding chair made from polypropylene, polyester, or nylon.

    Diamond

    Perceived Value

    It's always good when you get high-quality materials like nylon, polypropylene, or polyester at a great value. You might have only spent $30 for a polyester winter coat, but it will last you for years to come while still looking brand new.

    Gears

    Intended Use

    If you need athletic clothes that absorb moisture, polyester is the perfect synthetic fiber. However, if you want athletic wear just because it's comfortable, try finding a pair of nylon leggings. How you're going to use a product should ultimately determine which material you should get!

    The Bottom Line

    Polypropylene, polyester, and nylon are all fabrics that are essential to our daily lives. From clothing and coolers to car parts and umbrellas, we rely heavily on these synthetic materials. If you're ever in the market for a tent or bridal veil, be sure to see what it's made from. You might be surprised!

    Kyrsten Ledger

    Kyrsten Ledger

    Kyrsten's vast knowledge of promotional giveaways and marketing has led to several hit articles. She has also published work for PPB Magazine, a publication from the Promotional Products Association International.

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    Fieldtex Products, Inc. (2017, July 10). What Is Fabric Denier? Retrieved from https://blog.fieldtexcases.com/denier/

    Mental Floss. (2015, March 08). A Brief History of Nylon. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/61845/brief-history-nylon

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    PBS. (n.d.). Nylon is invented. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dt35ny.html

    Statista. (n.d.). Price of polypropylene in the United States from 2005 to 2020. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/796033/us-price-of-polypropylene/

    Plush Rugs. (2019, March 28). How To Clean A Polypropylene Rug. Retrieved from https://plushrugs.com/blog/how-to-clean-a-polypropylene-rug/

    Smith, Doug. (2017, December 27). Polypropylene recycling process: an introduction. Retrieved from https://www.cadybag.com/polypropylene-recycling-process-introduction/

    Consumer Guide. (n.d.) How to Clean Synthetic Fabrics. Retrieved from https://home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/household-hints-tips/cleaning-organizing/how-to-clean-synthetic-fabrics6.htm

    Elven, M. (2018, November 15). How Sustainable is Recycled Polyester? Retrieved from, https://fashionunited.uk/news/fashion/how-sustainable-is-recycled-polyester/2018111540000

    How to Clean Stuff. How to Clean Nylon. Retrieved from, https://www.howtocleanstuff.net/how-to-clean-nylon/

    Bennett, S. (2014, November 25). How to Recycle Nylon. Retrieved from, https://recyclenation.com/2014/11/recycle-nylon/