Cotton vs. Polyester for T-Shirts & Clothing

SANVT Journal

When trying to find the perfect T-shirt, there are important factors to consider: style, fit, quality, sustainability, brand, price, value for money – but don’t forget to look at the fabric itself.

Two of the main fabrics that you’ll encounter when buying tees, online or offline, are cotton and polyester. Both are popular fabrics that you’ll find on labels or website descriptions. And both have advantages and disadvantages when used to make fashion items like tees and sweatshirts.

Here’s a quick summary of cotton vs. polyester for T-shirts & clothing:

  • Polyester is a synthetic fabric, cotton is a natural fabric
  • Polyester has some key environmental and functional disadvantages
  • Despite this, it is cheap and flexible
  • High-quality extra-long staple cotton is our recommended fabric
  • It is super soft, breathable, durable, and natural
  • This cotton can be more expensive in the short-term
  • But, over the long-term it can be better investment; it lasts longer.

About Polyester

Polyester is a man-made synthetic fiber that’s derived from a chemical process. Its production typically combines petroleum, coal, air and water. In a way, you could perceive polyester as a kind of plastic that you can walk around wearing.

Invented in 1941 by British chemists and advertised as “a miracle fibre that can be worn for 68 days straight without ironing, and still look presentable,”, polyester had some golden days to begin with. However, nowadays – as you can imagine looking at the list of materials in its production process – it’s pretty controversial.

Environmental reasons are key but there are also quality issues. While easy-to-manage shiny polyester shirts and suits were once all the rage in the 70s (think John Travolta; Saturday Night Fever), polyester is now hardly considered a premium fabric.

Here are some of the key disadvantages of polyester and synthetic fibers:

  • Carbon emissions generated in resource-heavy production
  • Water pollution: the microfibers are released when washing polyester clothing and then released into oceans
  • Low breathability: leading to sweatiness and discomfort
  • Fabric shine, of oldschool polyester garments, is an acquired taste and somewhat out of fashion
  • Synthetic fibers like polyester can irritate the skin.

That all said, polyester is popular for a reason – and to take a balanced view you should consider the reasons why it’s used and worn so often, which are primarily low cost, easy garment management, quick drying, and flexibility. Polyester (or other synthetic fibers made from polyester blends) can also be a great choice for technical, sports or outdoor pursuits – when functional characteristics such as lightweight or water resistance are important.

Because of these advantages, and also to balance the disadvantages, polyester is often found in blends – including with cotton, which brings us to…

About Cotton

Cotton, in contrast to polyester, is a naturally occurring fiber that is harvested from plants.

There is a lot of variation in the cotton plants themselves, though, and this affects the quality of the cotton fibers and, ultimately, the clothing produced at the end. Not all cottons are equal (or anywhere near it) and ‘organic’ cotton isn’t even a type of cotton itself, more a process.

It’s a complex and often misleading area but the long and short of it is the higher quality cotton the better. The highest quality cotton has the longest fiber length (also called ‘staple’), so ‘long-staple’ cottons, like ELS cotton, SUPIMA and some Egyptian Cottons are considered ‘the best’.

Here are a few of the advantages of quality cotton vs. polyester:

  • Production is generally more environmentally-friendly
  • Cotton is biodegradable, so less harmful to the environment once used
  • High breathability: leading to less sweatiness and discomfort
  • It’s a natural fabric so doesn’t tend to irritate the skin
  • Soft and comfortable, with a natural appearance.

Returning to quality, it’s worth noting that the higher-quality cotton then the more noticeable these advantages are. Extra-long-staple cotton (used by SANVT), is super soft and breathable, while also being durable enough to retain its shape over a long time.

There are some disadvantages to cotton too – but these mainly relate to low-quality cotton varieties like Highland cotton or Asian short staple, often used in ‘fast fashion’. These poor-quality cottons tend to be cheap (similarly priced to polyester) but garments made from these cottons can lose shape and break easily.

Note: If you need a bit more detail then take a look at this other blog post on the different cotton types and their advantages and disadvantages.

Conclusion: cotton vs polyester for T-Shirts and clothing

We believe that when it comes to T-Shirts and clothing high-quality cotton outperforms polyester (and other fabrics) by far – in virtually all departments, from sustainability to durability. However synthetic fibers made from polyester are usually the more practical choice when it come to sports and outdoor clothing.

It is the case that a high-quality cotton tee or sweatshirt will cost you more than one that features a synthetic like polyester but you also have to take into account the durability of the item. Over time, it can actually work out cheaper to invest in quality – you’ll have an enduring item to wear rather than binning and buying every few months. The costs stack up.

That’s why at SANVT our T-shirts and items are made from high-quality extra-long staple cotton – grown in the USA and fairly produced into tees, sweatshirts and hoodies in renowned factories in Portugal.