Cotton vs. Polyester: Fabric Differences Explained

Cotton is the most popular fabric today, but many do not agree it is the best. The debate between cotton and polyester has a long history and seems likely to continue for a long time, and a significant contention seems to rest on their properties and use.

Some like the look and feel of cotton but complain that it seems to shrink and wrinkle too easily. Others claim that polyester is easier to take care of but don’t like how it feels in the summer. No matter the side of the debate you fall on, knowing more about each fabric will help you make the right choice.

Cotton and Polyester Fabrics: What are They?

Cotton and Polyester Fabrics
L-Cotton; R- Sheer Polyester

Cotton and polyester are the most popular fabrics, but they differ significantly. For one thing, cotton is an organic fabric made from the bolls of a mature cotton plant. Polyester is a synthetic fabric, meaning it doesn’t come from any natural source but is produced artificially from inorganic materials and chemicals. Recyclable plastics are the most common source.

Cotton is also comfortable and breathable and has a high absorbency rate. Most cotton fabrics are mostly woven rather than knitted, so they tend to have high breathability; they are also hypoallergenic and do not react adversely with the skin. In addition, cotton tends to shrink quickly, which is why most textile manufacturers wash them repeatedly to reduce its shrinking properties; they also wrinkle easily. Cotton fabrics are usually lightweight to medium weight and are soft.

On the other hand, Polyester fabrics are usually extremely strong and durable and resistant to chemicals and shrinking. They don’t wrinkle or stretch easily and aren’t as absorbent as organic fabrics; they are also not as breathable as cotton.

A Brief History of Cotton and Polyester Fabrics

Cotton has been used as far back as 5000 BCE and was a significant source of trade in the old world. Archaeologists have found evidence of use in various Ancient Mediterranean and European cities. By the middle ages, cotton was widespread; textile workers hand-woven cotton threads into the fabric until the invention of the spinning wheel in the 1350s. 

By the 1770s, technological improvements coupled with a European obsession with cleanliness and fashion caused the cotton fabric to become extremely popular. By the 1850s, the United States produced most of the world’s cotton. 

These days, Asia accounts for most of the world’s cotton production, with countries like India, Bangladesh, and China taking the lead. Latin America also contributes to the world’s cotton production.

In contrast, polyester is a reasonably young fabric that was first invented in the mid-1930s by a man named W.H. Carothers. However, despite his successful experiment, polyester did not start until 1951, when textile manufacturers advertised polyester to the American public as a brilliant technological invention. 

Polyester became an instant sensation, as many people were intrigued because the fabric wasn’t as wrinkly as the more popular cotton. Its popularity continued to grow until it hit a decline in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Calvin Klein launched a product line that helped revive the popularity of polyester and polyester blends, and polyester has remained a popular fabric.

How the Texture of Cotton Differ from that of Polyester

There are different types of cotton with different feels, but most cotton fabrics are light, soft, and breathable; they are also stretchy and robust due to the interlinking layers of tiny fibers that make up the fabric cell. The weave patterns of cotton prevent it from clinging to the skin while allowing it to breathe, and they are perfect for summer and baby clothing.

Meanwhile, polyester is a lightweight fabric but has a slightly silkier feel than cotton. Polyester is also stretchy but is less breathable and capable of causing a bit of irritation to the skin of sensitive people. Due to this fact, many polyester fabrics are blended with more breathable fabrics like cotton to create poly blends. They are also clingy to the body, especially during warm weather.

Some Uses and Applications of Cotton and Polyester Fabrics

Cotton and polyester are widely used fabrics in the textile industry. Here are some ways the industry uses both fabrics:

Uses of Cotton Fabric

Cotton Fabric
Cotton Fabric

Cotton is famous for its versatility, strength, and abundance. Here are some ways cotton is used:

  • Textile manufacturers use cotton to produce breathable summer clothes, bedding, pajamas, blouses, hats, etc.
  • Due to its breathability and durability, medical personnel uses cotton gauze in producing wound dressings and some artificial organs. 
  • The paper industry also uses cotton to produce a high-quality paper that many professionals use to hold copies of documents that can last a long time.
  • Designers use cotton to make automatic tops and crafty cloth bags for carrying daily essentials.
  • Cotton is used to make unique flame-resistant apparel firefighters use for their uniforms.

Uses of Polyester

Sheer Polyester Fabric
Sheer polyester fabric

Polyester is also a widely used fabric despite its relatively young history. The following are some of its uses:

  • Polyester is widely used in the clothing fabric industry. Some clothes made from polyester include jackets, pants, shirts, and hats.
  • Some interior decorators use polyester to produce home furnishing materials such as bed sheets, blankets, curtains, and pillowcases. They are also valuable for making upholstery covers.
  • Safety experts employ polyester when producing safety objects like the seatbelts of cars, conveyor belts in factories, and some types of car reinforcements.

How To Care For Cotton and Polyester Fabrics

Caring for fabric can get tricky if you don’t know the best way to go about it. Follow the instructions below to take the best way to take care of both fabrics:

Caring For Cotton Fabric

Here are some ways to care for cotton:

  • Refer to the fabric care label to know how to wash and iron them.
  • Wash your cotton fabric in cold water, preferably below 30°C, using a washing machine or by hand. HandWash cotton if the fabric has a shrinkage of more than 10%.
  • It is always better to air dry cotton. However, if this isn’t possible, you can tumble dry them at low to medium heat.
  • Use a steam iron when ironing cotton fabric; if your iron doesn’t have a steam setting, iron the fabric while it’s still damp.
  • Ensure the cotton fabric is dry before storing. Always store in a cool, dry place.

Caring For Polyester Fabric

Here are some ways to care for polyester:

  • Always check the fabric care label before washing. Usually, you will be able to dry clean and machine polyester but check the label to ensure. 
  • Machine-wash polyester in warm water. Use a gentle detergent and bleach if necessary. Test all laundry products in a hidden area of the fabric before use.
  • Tumble dry the fabric at a low-temperature setting. Avoid overdrying polyester to reduce shrinkage.
  • Soak overnight in a mixture of ½ cup of automatic dishwasher detergent and a gallon of warm water to make white polyester look better. Add 1⁄2 cup of vinegar to the final rinse.
  • Iron polyester fabric at a steam or moderate temperature setting.


Cotton and polyester fabrics are two widely used fabrics worldwide, but they have some fundamental differences. While cotton is an organic fabric that is soft to the feel, polyester is a synthetic fabric with a silky touch. Both fabrics are essential in the textile industry and other fields, and you can care for them effectively if you follow the fabric care label and other precautions.

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