Looking through my own wardrobe, I was surprised at how many of my clothes, including items from supposedly ‘eco-conscious’ brands, are made from the incredibly hardy material known as polyester.
I was even more surprised, however, when I began researching this ubiquitous and somewhat mysterious material and I discovered that I’ve been wearing the remains of marine organisms that died millions of years ago.
Clothing made from polyester is not really clothing at all, but more like a protective plastic shell that shields you from the elements. It’s more closer to wearing a tent or being inside a plastic bottle—especially when it comes to its performance.
The reality is that polyester is the world’s most popular ‘fabric’ for good reason. It’s made from a material that’s relatively cheap and abundant (at the moment), it’s resistant to heat and harsh weather, and it lasts a long, long, long time.
These properties make it the number one choice for hiking and sportswear and things like winter jackets. However, the same properties cause problems when it comes to its use as a comfortable, everyday clothing fabric.
For instance, say you have a great t-shirt that’s just a little bit too big or doesn’t fit right after you lost 50 pounds, then you might be wondering if you can shrink polyester.
But asking if you can shrink polyester is like asking if you can shrink a tent, or reduce the size of a plastic bottle. It’s technically possible, but pretty darn difficult.
The good news is that polyester is a woven fabric, and so there is some room for it to become slightly more compact and smaller. You just have to follow a few simple steps (skip to the end of this article for step-by-step shrinking instructions).
The best option is always to try to avoid outdated fabrics and clothing made from oil and instead opt for more modern marvels like bamboo. However, if that’s not an option for you at this moment, keep reading to find out how to shrink (and avoid shrinking) your ancient marine life, I mean, polyester, clothing.
Table of Contents
What is Polyester?
Polyester is an umbrella term for all textiles made from polyester yarn, a synthetic fabric made primarily from fossil fuels.
Often made from polyethylene terephthalate, polycarbonate, or PET (yes, the same material used in plastic bottles), polyester yarn is found in fleece, neoprene, soft-shell jackets, and all kinds of activewear.
In 2002, polyester overtook cotton to become the world’s most used textile—making up a whopping 52% of global fiber production. The synthetic textile is prized for its cheapness, lightness, heat resistance, and, of course, its durability (it won’t degrade for hundreds of years). This makes polyester very popular in the outdoor sector, being used to make waterproof hiking clothing, travel equipment, mats, tents, and much more.
Polyester is incredibly strong and wears well over time. However, it takes a lot of energy to turn crude oil into fibers for clothing.
The result of this process are essentially microplastics that can be fluffed up and turned into wearable threads. Many recent studies, such as this 2019 microplastic study in Nature, are now uncovering the harm that such microplastics are having on our environment, health, and ecosystems.
The Advantages of Polyester
In exactly the same as plastic has many properties that make it a very popular choice for every day items, polyester has many qualities that make it an attractive option as a clothing fabric:
Here are some of the main advantages of polyester as a clothing fabric:
• If you buy a high-quality garment made from polyester, it will last a long time.
• Affordable polyester clothes can be found in every category Polyester clothes can be comfortable and soft
• Polyester clothes don’t require ironing
• Dye can be applied to polyester with ease.
• Polyester is resistant to abrasions and stretching.
• Polyester dries quickly
• Polyester fibers are light in weight yet strong
• Polyester doesn’t retain moisture
The Disdvantages of Polyester
Despite clear evidence being gathered and increasing awareness about the environmental impact of plastics, polyester clothing is still the most popular textile on the planet.
Some brands are trying to change this trend by switching from virgin polyester to recycled polyester, polyester derived from renewable resources (biosynthetics), and more eco-friendly fabrics like bamboo. However, as the plastics and polyester industries are well established, it’s also up to us consumers to become more informed and make better choices for ourselves and the environment.
We would be here all day if we listed them all, so let’s take a look at a few of the main disadvantages of polyester:
• Tracing polyester back to its source is all but impossible. Entire systems have been built to ensure the chains of labor, natural resource extraction, and chemical production involved in the making of polyester are almost completely invisible in the final product. Without transparency in the supply chain, we cannot fully know the degree of human rights and child labor issues, pollution, and environmental damage that is behind our polyester clothing. It’s also convenient for hiding the role of polyester as a ‘conflict material’ as oil plays a major factor in many wars.
• Polyester is woven microplastics. Polyester is made from petroleum, a natural non-renewable resource. Plastic-based fibers for textiles use an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year. Many recent studies show these microplastics are released into the water every time you wash polyester clothing, accounting for 500,000 tonnes of plastic being washed into the water waste (that’s 50 billion plastic bottles each year just in clothing microplastics).
• Polyester involves a lot of energy and pollution. In 2015, polyester for clothing emitted 282 billion kg of CO2—nearly three times more than cotton. For more detailed figures, according to the European Commission, the production of polyester requires 125 MJ of energy per kg of polyester fiber, which results in the emission of 27.2 kg CO2 eq/kg polyester woven fabric.
• More than 85% of clothing ends up in the dump. Returned clothes, unsold goods, over-produced lines. Even if you donate polyester clothing, chances are it will someday end up in the dump. Polyester takes 100s of years to fully degrade, piling up in landfills, polluting our oceans and endangering wildlife and marine life, and releasing harmful toxins into the environment. Polyester can be recycled into other products, however, this is currently a rare exception in the industry.
Polyester Fabric Care Guide & FAQs
Can Polyester Go in The Dryer?
Polyester can technically go in the dryer, but it’s generally recommended to leave it to air dry. Air-drying polyester is especially recommended for jackets, fleece, and other outerwear.
If you have no other option, machine drying polyester on medium or low heat for a short amount of time will not lead to any visible damage.
However, as polyester is made from plastic, you want to avoid exposing it to high temperatures as much as possible as it can lead to the shedding of microplastics and melting of the fabric.
Does Polyester Shrink in The Dryer?
Polyester fabrics are very durable and so they can resist shrinking to a great extent. However, at very high temperatures, polyester is known to experience some shrinkage.
If you want to avoid shrinking your polyester clothing, use a low to medium dryer setting or, even better, place the items out to air dry.
How Much Does Polyester Shrink
How much your polyester clothing will shrink depends on the type of garment, such as a shirt, t-shirt, trousers, leggings, etc., the heat of the dryer, and the heat of the water used in washing.
Polyester clothing can be shrunk by a small amount by following a certain method and the fabric tends to shrink after it’s washed and dried several times at a high temperature.
Does Polyester Shrink Permanently?
Polyester is difficult, but possible, to shrink. However, once a garment has shrunk, it should retain its shape and form permanently.
Does Recycled Polyester Shrink?
Recycled polyester performs very similarly to 100% virgin polyester. It’s very robust and can be washed on a warm setting up to 40°C without damage. Like virgin polyester, drying recycled polyester at a high temperature may lead to the garment shrinking slightly.
Does Polyester Fabric Shrink in The Washer?
Polyester fabrics will not shrink in the washer unless under extreme conditions. If you use a cool or lukewarm temperature setting, then your clothes will come out the same size as when they went in.
If you need to wash your polyester clothes at a high temperature to help remove dirt and stains, they may experience a small amount of shrinkage. To avoid shrinkage, wash polyester fabrics on a setting below 230F.
How to Take Care of 100% Polyester Fabric
Some polyester clothing is made using low-quality materials and therefore become weaker over time and may lose their color if not cared for properly.
If you want to prolong the life of your polyester fabrics and get the best out of them, there are several general guidelines you can follow.
The best practice for looking after polyester clothing is to:
• Read the care instructions well to use and wash, provided on the polyester clothing label
• Avoid soaking polyester for too long as this will reduce their its lifespan and affect its appearance
• Wash in lukewarm or cold water and using a gentle detergent
• Hand-washing polyester will increase its lifespan
• Avoid using bleach
• Always wash polyester separately from other fabrics
Immediately hang polyester clothing after washing to straighten out wrinkles
• Dry polyester in open air instead of in the dryer
If wrinkled, use a steam press at its mildest setting with the polyester kept below a pressing cloth
• Use Ironing only if you do not have time to, your iron might feature a polyester setting that helps avoid the possibility of hardening, melting, and shrinking the fabric
• Avoid leaving polyester fabrics in the dryer for a long period of time
Can You Shrink Polyester Fabric?
Yes, although polyester is incredibly durable and shrinkage can be avoided, it is is possible to shrink the fabric to a small degree.
Clothing and fabrics made from a blend of polyester with other materials tend to shrink more easily than 100% polyester.
How Long Does it Take to Shrink Polyester?
Many polyester clothes are made to be weather and sun resistant, and so the time it takes to shrink the fabric depends a lot on the type of garment and the mix of fabrics.
100% polyester tends to shrink slightly over multiple hot water washes and high-temperature drys. Cotton and polyester blends can also shrink slightly. If you follow the recommended instructions for polyester garments, cold water wash and cool temperature or air dry, they will not shrink.
How to Shrink Polyester Fabric
Warning: hot temperatures can destroy polyester fabric and leak microplastics into wastewater. These guidelines are recommended for those who would otherwise throw their garments away due to them being too big or ill-fitting. In all cases, washing and drying polyester should be avoided.
1. Soak In hot Water
Soak the polyester clothing in hot water for up to an hour. Avoid keeping it in the water for too long to avoid damaging the fabric. Simple contact with the hot water may shrink the fabric to some degree.
2. wash on a hot setting
Set the washer to the hottest water setting and the longest wash cycle (at least 140 °F or 60 °C). Turning the garment inside out will help reduce fading. It’s recommended not to wash it with other clothes as the colors may bleed. You don’t need to add detergent, but you can if you are washing the garment as well as shrinking it.
3. dry on a hot setting
Place the polyester garment in the dryer immediately after the washing cycle finishes. Set dryer to the hottest heat setting and longest drying cycle.
4. Repeat or use hot ironing
Let the garment cool to room temperature and check it for shrinkage. If necessary, you can repeat the washing and drying steps to further reduce its size. As a last option, you can consider dry ironing on a low to medium setting immediately after the wash cycle (do not use steam setting and always use a pressing cloth as this will prevent the iron from damaging your clothing).
The Final Verdict on Polyester
Polyester is one of the most resistant and affordable clothing fabrics on the planet. However, with a long list of environmental issues, a lack of transparency in its supply chain, and many problems when it comes to everyday use, it is far from the best option for most types of clothing.
Thankfully, there are an increasing number of alternative fabrics available, including recycled polyester, organic cotton, and, most excitingly, bamboo fabrics.
Bamboo has many benefits as a clothing fabric in comparison to polyester. For starters, bamboo is a fast-growing renewable resource that can be grown without pesticides and fertilizers, and the resulting fabric is incredibly soft, flexible, and comfortable.
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