Polyester or Cotton Hoodies: which one is for you?
Hi, I'm Olia, the founder of Kiss The Rain and a bonafide Natural Fiber Snob. I love them all - wool, silk, cotton, linen; I love how they feel alive, breath, move, all the unique variations that come from being Nature-made, not man-made. If you are like me, when you shop for clothes you take a keen interest in the fiber content tag on the styles you like. You know, the tag that is usually hidden somewhere on the inside of the garment, that you hope would say something like '60% Cotton, 40% Linen', but more often than not says '100% Rayon” or “80% Polyester, 20% Cotton'.
Usually, I can tell what the clothes are made from just by looking or touching, but it’s always good to check -- there are many tricks and treatments that can make synthetics look like natural fibers in brand-new clothes, but that stuff wears out quickly with use.
No matter how much I might like the style, if it's not made from natural fiber I won't buy it. It's a tough road to follow since more and more clothing is being made from synthetics, and 100% natural fibers are getting harder and harder to find, but it's a choice worth making. I've learned the hard way what happens when I get seduced by an awesome style or a sale price and get something that is made of synthetic blends -- the clothes' look and fit deteriorates very quickly, it doesn't feel good to touch and to wear them, and they languish in my closet until I donate them to Goodwill.
Or maybe you are not like me at all, and you don’t really mind what your clothing is made of. Maybe you are used to wearing synthetics and don’t give it a second thought. After all, most of the clothing today is made from some type of a synthetic blend, so what’s the big deal?
A friend once asked me why it was so important to me that Kiss The Rain hoodies be made from 100% Cotton rather than a Polyester blend, and I didn’t even know what to say. To me, it was as obvious as the choice between a McDonalds apple pie and an apple pie that my aunt makes from scratch, using apples from her garden. Both have their place and a reason for existence, but I sure know which one I prefer. Mmmm, apple pie… warm, with ice cream… But I digress. Back to fabric and fiber.
These days most sweatshirts are made out of Polyester, or at best a Cotton/Polyester blend. It is easy to understand why -- polyester is so much cheaper than cotton, both in the price of the material itself, and the production process for the clothes.
But 'cheaper' doesn't often equate to 'better', and this is certainly the case with cotton vs. polyester when it comes to hoodies.
So now I’d like to talk about what I think is so special about cotton, and why I am so adamant that it’s a better fiber for hoodies. If you're like me and you recognize fiber composition of your clothing as super important, you can skip reading this article and instead head on over to our 100% Cotton hoodie selection, and start shopping! If you still think that polyester and other synthetics are just as good for clothing as natural fibers, please read on and allow me to make my case.
First, let’s talk about the fiber origin. What exactly is Polyester?Here is the technical definition:
'Polyester is a synthetic polymer made of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) or its dimethyl ester dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and monoethylene glycol (MEG). Polyester is made using a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum, air, and water. A petroleum by-product, alcohol, and carboxyl acid are mixed to form a compound known as monomer or “ester.” This reaction is known as polymerization. The polymer material created during polymerization is extruded while hot into long fibers that are stretched until they are about five times their original length. The extruded fibers are made into fabric.'To translate this into plain English, Polyester is a petroleum-based plastic that has been squeezed into very very thin long threads, and then the threads are made into fabric. Not to put too fine a point on it, Polyester is just plastic, same as a soda bottle.
Now don’t get me wrong, I'm not knocking polyester, it is a very useful material that has many great applications. It is strong, can be made to be wind and water resistant, it doesn’t stain or wrinkle easily and it is inexpensive. Polyester is great for use in tents, outdoor clothing such as windbreakers and parkas. It basically allows us to harness the strength and flexibility of plastics in a fabric form. But it's not a good choice to be next to your skin, as everyday wear, because it lacks breathability, softness, and comfort that can only come from natural fibers.
Where does Cotton come from?Cotton fibers come from cotton plants. Specifically, they grow from the seed coat -- cotton is a soft, fluffy fiber that grows in a boll, or protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plants.
These cotton fluff balls are picked from the plant and packed into huge bales, which are then shipped to the fabric mills. There the cotton is carded and combed, which removes the impurities and aligns the fibers in one direction, to produce roving. Next comes the spinning: the roving is drawn and twisted into yarn and wound onto bobbins. The yarn is then made into fabric. That’s really all there is to say about cotton production -- no complex chemical formulas or reactions, just fluffy plant seeds spun and woven into fabric.
Fabric Properties: The Feel
Cotton is soft and breathable, it’s the softest fabric out there. That’s why baby clothes are made with 100% cotton, it’s the softest thing you can have next to your skin. It’s breathable because the cotton fibers themselves are fluffy and breathable, you got air coming and going through the fibers themselves, not just in the space between the threads. This is also why cotton has excellent temperature regulating and moisture wicking properties, it will keep you comfortable and dry.
Polyester and other synthetics, on the other hand, are not breathable because the threads are basically plastic. Polyester that is made into a fine thin fabric can feel soft and malleable, but it’s the softness of a plastic bag. This non-permeable quality makes Polyester an excellent choice for umbrellas, raincoats, and windbreakers, but it’s not something you want to have next to your skin.
To make matters worse, Polyester does not only make you sweat, but it also traps odors and can get very smelly indeed.
High-quality cotton has a rich, matte look, with a depth of color. It ages well, gets softer with use and repeated washing, the matte patina, and the slight color variations get even better the longer you own your clothing. Cotton ages like fine wine or hand-carved wood, becomes vintage.
Polyester fabric can look when nice it’s brand-new, even though it has the tell-tale slight shine to it, the slight oily sheen. But it doesn’t age well -- because it’s basically plastic, it ages like plastic, becomes drab and frayed, pills, and loses its structure without gaining any character.
Take a look at the photo below. On the left is a polyester blend hoodie, 60% Cotton 40% Polyester. It was one of those rare occasions when I got seduced by a cute style and premium brand and broke my 'no synthetics' rule. I wore that hoodie occasionally over one summer, and it went downhill very quickly. Note how the fabric has pilled and lost its structure. A $170 hoodie very quickly turned into a shapeless rag.
On the right is a 100% cotton hoodie that I wore constantly for a few years, until it finally fell apart. Note how smooth and soft the fabric looks -- that hoodie just kept getting softer and softer, looked cooler and cooler, became truly vintage.
Up until recently I thought choosing cotton over polyester was a matter of personal preference, a matter of taste. But recently I've been seeing more and more research about the impact of polyester production and usage on the environment.
Here is an excerpt from the excellent article on Tortoise and Lady Grey blog about environmental impacts of Polyester:
'Polyester is a synthetic petroleum-based fibre, and is therefore made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. Petroleum products are used as feedstock (raw material to make the fibre) and also used to generate the energy needed to manufacture. More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year. It is not biodegradable and will persist in the ecosystem even as it eventually breaks apart. In fact, synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans because up to 1900 fibres can be washed off one garment every time it is washed.'
The part about polluting our water supply with microplastics is particularly scary. Every time a polyester garment is washed, thousands of microplastic fibers get flushed into our water supply and marine ecosystems. There is no way to clean it up, and no way to turn back the clock. Think about that every time you wash something made of polyester! And unfortunately you have to wash it, because polyester clothing does get smelly...
After reading that article I gave up my polyester duster and went back to my old cotton t-shirts for cleaning.
So what shall we choose, cotton hoodies or polyester?
Pure cotton hoodies are hard to find these days, and when I started working on creating my own hoodies I understood why.
Cotton fabric is 2-3 times more expensive than comparable polyester. And it’s not just the cost of fabric, but the way it is handled and processed. We all know that cotton shrinks, so extra care needs to be taken, which adds multiple steps to the process, time, expense and complexity. I can fully understand the reasons most manufacturers choose to avoid these extra costs and complexity and make their hoodies out of polyester or polyester blends.
But Kiss The Rain is all about making the best hoodie possible. And as we have seen, Cotton feels better, looks better and is safer for the environment than Polyester. And that means that our hoodies are 100% cotton, soft, comfy, breathable and lovely. Better for you, better for the environment.