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Nylon vs Polyester – What are the Differences?

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Nylon vs polyester is a common question and debate amongst those that have considered the advantages and attributes of both, or who are currently evaluating the 2 synthetic fibers for projects and in the production of finished goods. As stated, while they are indeed both synthetic fabrics, we have endeavored here to offer a critical analysis of nylon vs polyester to offer some interesting facts and details that make nylon and polyester remarkably similar, but also quite different.

One interesting fact about these two materials is that they do share many of the physical properties and attributes as the other. They are both quite durable and are known to be considerably more lightweight. The construction of both, and with their synthetic nature, provides for the end-user great wrinkle resistance and such easy care. As they are often used in outdoor gear and apparel made for the outdoors, they are both shrink-and-stretch resistant, and mold, mildew and stain resistant! Another interesting distinguishing comparison is that while both fabrics are flame retardant, polyester is significantly more heat-resistant than its nylon counterpart.

It has been noted that while Nylon may be slightly softer than polyester, it is also much stronger. Polyester, however, is much beloved due to the fact that it is much easier to dye (and, therefore, would offer significant more color options to the aforementioned outdoor gear and apparel), it is abrasion resistant (again, ideal for outdoors rugged use), and as importantly, it is faster drying. Those that have spent any time in the great outdoors knows that Mother Nature might like to drop rainwater at her leisure, and so this is a very important attribute of polyester’s, and one that should certainly be weighed and considered when choosing between nylon vs polyester.

Camping tent made of nylon
Camping tent made of nylon

One of the more intriguing points of interest when differing nylon vs polyester is that they are more similar than they are different. In stark contrast to cotton canvas or leather, they are both significantly lighter and stronger. Canvas and leather could very well provide greater weight and protection from the element of cold, but these two materials are also of a much different material (woven cotton and cattle skin), so they may be out of composition comparison due to their quality, weight, look and feel, and of course, the sustainability in producing leather and cotton.

History, Construction and Composition

In the mid-1930’s, Wallace Carothers invented the world’s very first synthetic fiber – Nylon. Used consistently by the military during World War II in parachutes, tents and in backpacks, it was not marketed to the general public until well after the war’s end in 1945. Similarly, Polyester was also manufactured in a similar era – the early 1940’s – though it took until the later 1950’s for polyester to become as popular. Both nylon and polyester are plastic compounds derived from petroleum. In fact, they are synthetically constructed fabrics created in virtually the same way!

Making synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester
Making synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester

Nylon and polyester both begin their life as small plastic pellets, about the size of a corn kernel.  Heated and then stretched out, these little pellets are then joined together to form long fibrous strands. These fiber strands are combined and bonded to make an actual thread, much like a cotton or silk yarn, these are just threads of plastic. This “thread” is then woven and knitted into much larger fabric rolls. Interestingly enough, the production protocol and processes are just slightly different from one another, but the overall and general process of producing these fibrous strands and rolls of plastic compounded threads is the same for both the polymers of nylon and polyester. Nylon and polyester both can be used to create nylon bonded thread – a favorite amongst sewing enthusiasts and upholsterers. Similarly, polyester can also be made into a very popular polyester thread for the same uses and in the same way.

Polyester being made
Polyester being made

Are both nylon and polyester water repellent or water resistant?

When the nylon becomes wet, it actually absorbs the water, and can actually expand by as much as 3.5%! This is where and when Polyester reigns supreme, as it neither absorbs water nor will it stretch or expand when it gets wet – clearly a major attribute of polyester and distinguishing property, for certain!  Also worth noting, this means that a polyester bag or garment won’t become heavier or stretch out as nylon will do.

As nylon also expands when it becomes wet and in humid environments locations, it also has the inverse reaction when it is hot and arid . . . it contracts. When it comes down to water-wicking properties of nylon vs polyester, both are naturally hydrophobic (a term that defines that they both expel water, and most notably to the outer exterior shell of the garment where it then evaporates in time). However, when determining which synthetic fabric material is right for you when choosing the “fast-drying” capability of the fabric, polyester clearly and unequivocally has the edge.  As Nylon will absorb some of the water, this will ensure that it will take much longer for a wet garment to completely dry.

In regards to color-fastness, and which is logical based on the aforementioned topic of “water-wicking, water resistance and water repellent” natures of nylon vs polyester, Polyester consistently absorbs more color faster, and again, attributable to the same characteristics and capacity that made it a better water-wicker. The dyed polyester expels the water latent in the dye, but interestingly enough, not the actual dye itself. This dye bonds with the fibers. On the contrary, Nylon absorbs the water and this results in much less of the dye being able to bond and penetrate the nylon fibers.

water beading on fabric material
Water beading on nylon fabric material

Durability Compared to Feel

As noted about their many similarities, both polyester and nylon are strong and due to their polymer (plastic) based construct, they are notably lightweight. On the strength of material and durability front, Nylon would take the edge as it is the stronger of the two fabrics, and with much greater ability to stretch. Polyester, while not as strong as nylon, does actually resist  pilling much better than its nylon counterpart (pilling is when the fabric fibers unravel and then create little fuzzy balls – an unsightly look that can occur).

With regards to the “hand and feel” of nylon vs polyester, nylon had long been considered a softer and smoother fabric that polyester, at least in their shared-and-similar beginnings. The reason for this is that nylon was actually created as a silk substitute. This is evident in its smooth, soft, and even lustrous sheen. Polyester, on the other hand, had  been a rougher material and fabric than the nylon, but its initial use suggests why this was so – originally produced as a fabric material for suits and other outerwear garments. Today, and with advancements in the technology of producing these textiles, polyester is a much softer material worn comfortably by millions, and much different from its earliest form and “hand and feel.”

Neither nylon or polyester is a better fabric, though each has uniquely superior attributes that lend themselves to certain uses. In the question of nylon vs polyester, it really boils down to the simple question – “What do you need it for?”

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