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Polyester vs Cotton Shirts: Which is better?

Last Updated: 10-18-2022

Polyester vs cotton shirts: Which one is right for your design?

When it comes to fabric choices for custom t-shirts, you have a lot of options. However, much of the time, that choice comes down to just a few fabrics. Of those, the two most prominent choices are cotton and polyester.

Cotton tees heading down a conveyor belt

"Do fabrics REALLY matter?"

How much a fabric "matters" largely comes down to what you plan on using it for. Fabrics have different benefits -- some are softer, warmer, cooler, lighter, more durable, more breathable, and so on.

In short, there are a LOT of differences between types of fabric -- and even the same fabric may have multiple options. And that's before you get into blends.

However, if you're indifferent about fabric choices, just go with cotton. Besides being the most cost-effective option, cotton works well under most conditions. It's the go-to-fabric for the vast majority of uses.

 

What's cotton?

The cotton plant, the source of the natural fiber

Sometimes described as "the fabric of our lives," cotton is a versatile, durable fabric. It's easily among the world's most popular fabrics. Because it's so prevalent, many of us take it for granted -- or don't realize how common it is.

For instance, denim is a cotton product. That means most jeans you see are cotton -- so if somebody is wearing a baseball cap, a t-shirt, and a pair of blue jeans, odds are they're dressed entirely in cotton garments. Is it any wonder cotton is so vital to the apparel industry?

Given its versatility, cotton is arguably the best fabric for everyday wear.

How's cotton made?

Cotton plants grow in tropical and sub-tropical regions. India is the world's leading producer of cotton, with China coming in second -- between the two of them, they produce 45-50% of the world's cotton. (America comes in third, followed by Brazil. These top four cotton-producing countries account for 70-75% of the world's supply.)

Short staple cotton, more commonly known as upland cotton, is the most popular kind of cotton

Once harvested, cotton fibers are cleaned and separated from their seeds at a cotton gin. The processed cotton is then sent to textile mills where the short, natural fibers are formed into a long, untwisted rope.

More than one type of cotton plant

Although cotton is often described as being a singular entity, there are actually several species of cotton.

The most common by far is the upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), which accounts for 90% of the world's production. It tends to have short fibers.

Pima cotton (Gossypium barbadense) has longer fibers and is resistant to fading, tearing, and shrinking.

While not a species, organic cotton has become popular in recent years. The perceived benefit from organic cotton (vs conventional cotton) is based more around support for sustainable growing practices and a preference for "natural" growing methods (ie, non-GMO and organic pesticides).

A cotton field -- natural fiber in its natural environment!

The different kinds of cotton used for custom t-shirts

Depending on how the cotton is processed, you'll see a certain amount of variation in garment quality.

 

100% cotton t shirts

100% cotton shirts are exactly as they sound -- shirts made entirely from cotton (more on the alternatives later).

Unless these t shirts are noted as being "ring-spun," they're knitted with fabric using an "open end" or "carded" yarn. Although not as soft as ring-spun cotton, they're less expensive. In fact, this type of fabric is the most common choice for custom tees given the lower cost.

Ringspun cotton shirts

Ringspun cotton means the fabric was knitted with ringspun yarn, which involves a spinning technique that stretches the yarn between spindles. T-shirts made with ringspun cotton fabric are softer and provide an ideal platform for screen printing -- but they're also more expensive than normal cotton tees.

If you're looking to start a t shirt business, ringspun cotton is the way to go. If you want a more upscale garment, ringspun cotton shirts will be more fitted -- in particular, the sleeves are a bit narrower and the shoulders are slightly less boxy. (For this reason, it's important to keep an eye on the size chart since the style might not be as true to size.)

Polyester, cotton, and other fabrics are all great for custom tees

Combed ringspun cotton tees

While ringspun cotton fabric is a step up from normal cotton clothing, combed ringspun cotton is a step up from that.

During this process, cotton fibers are first spun and then combed through to remove additional impurities (while ensuring the fabric stays soft to the touch). Because there are fewer impurities, the shirt provides a great surface for screen printing. It also makes the shirts softer, lighter, and on the more expensive end. (Although it's a great choice for people with sensitive skin.)

Like other ringspun garments, combed ringspun fabric is also usually reserved for retail-style shirts.

 

"Does preshrunk mean my shirts won't shrink?"

One of the most common misconceptions is that preshrunk means a garment won't ever shrink. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Preshrunk just means the fabric was compacted to reduce shrinkage, twisting, and torquing when laundered. As such, the fabric is less likely to shrink than if it didn't receive this treatment -- and won't shrink as much if it does -- but it can still shrink. In other words, it resists shrinkage, it doesn't remove it.

(Note: All major mills make their garments to accommodate the shrinkage expected to happen during recommended care.)

Synthetic fiber and synthetic material generally have moisture wicking qualities

The benefits of cotton

 

Cotton fabric is naturally soft, making it comfortable. It's durable, so cotton clothing tends to last. Because of the space between fibers, cotton can absorb moisture (and that absorbancy makes it easy to dye cotton and ensures the dye holds).

And -- importantly -- cotton fabric is also inexpensive. Because so much manufacturing is done in cotton, you see very aggressive pricing.

Cotton is always a good option

Cotton is an incredible, multi-purpose natural material. Besides being a popular fabric for t-shirts and other garments, cotton is commonly used for furniture upholstery, rugs, curtains, and so on. There's even cotton canvas used for tents.

In short, you can't go wrong with cotton!

Gorgeous design on a cotton tee -- cotton holds dyes well, ensuring they last for years to come

What's polyester?

Polyester (short for polyethylene terephthalate) is a synthetic fabric. It's a kind of plastic and is usually derived from petroleum.

How's polyester made? And its history?

Invented by British chemists in 1941, polyester was brought to the US by the chemical company DuPont. It rose to prominence in the 1970s as an inexpensive material for clothing.

Polyester is created through a polymerization process (basically a chemical reaction used to bond substances) involving petroleum-derived ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid. The molten material is pushed through a spinneret to form semi-crystalline fibers which are woven together to create polyester fabric.

This group of scientists is probably debating the merits of cotton vs polyester fabric

"Whoa! That's a whole lot of science! Are there any environmental concerns?"

Natural fibers (like cotton) are completely biodegradable. Synthetic fibers (like polyester) are not. If you're concerned with clothing sitting around in landfills, you might see this as a problem.

Polyester clothing has a negative environmental impact during production, use, and disposal. While polyester can be longer-lasting (which is a plus from a sustainability perspective), polyester sheds small pieces of plastic called microplastics with every wash.

That's not to say polyester fibers are all bad. For starters, synthetic fibers use less water than natural fibers (although pollution can be a concern), which is a plus given the global water crisis. The dye process is also shorter and requires less chemical use, so the overall impact is lower. And polyester fabric can both be recycled and made from recyclable materials (meaning you could wind up wearing a fabric made from plastic bottles).

Given the environmental issues, some people avoid synthetic fabrics like polyester. Others limit their usage to what they feel are responsible levels. And not everybody views it as a concern (partially because it's difficult to avoid synthetic materials these days).

The benefits of polyester

Polyester is a wrinkle-resistant, very breathable fabric which in some cases has moisture wicking properties.

Because of those qualities, polyester is ideal for performance fabrics, so it's frequently used for athletic apparel and outdoor clothing. And, since polyester t-shirts wick moisture, you'll stay dry longer than if you were wearing a cotton tee.

Polyester garments are your go-to choice for athletic wear. (And, between the durability and the fact 100% polyester clothing doesn't shrink, your polyester shirts will be around for years to come.)

Polyester is a great moisture wicking synthetic material

Polyester vs cotton shirts -- how do they stack up?

Considering everything discussed so far, a few of the differences are going to seem obvious.

Cotton is an affordable, easy-to-find fabric and works in a wide variety of settings.

Meanwhile, polyester clothing is better for extreme activities, intense heat, and anything outdoors.

 

Blended fabrics -- the best of both worlds?

While it's easy to get bogged down by the question of polyester vs cotton -- or cotton vs polyester -- there is another option: cotton AND polyester!

Cotton blends and polyester blends... and polyester cotton blends?

Blended fabrics combine at least two fabrics (sometimes more), giving you a garment with some characteristics from each component.

For example, 50/50 blends are knitted from a yarn that's half-100% cotton and half-polyester. The result is a fabric that feels lighter, more breathable, a bit softer, and is more durable. It's a great choice for outdoor activities and as a uniform (community sports teams, landscaping companies, trade service companies, construction companies, and restaurants).

It's also worth mentioning that a 50/50 has a higher perceived value in a basic tee when compared to either a 100% polyester or cotton. However, a garment with at least 30% polyester will feel a little finer -- meaning it moves better -- so the difference should be noticeable.

 

"So... cotton vs polyester... which do I want?"

If you're still stumped, let me run you through a list of preferred garments for certain usages.

Athletic wear? Polyester.

Charity walk or other event? 100% cotton.

Giveaway? 100% cotton fabric, because it's the cheapest.

Non-profit event? Probably a 100% cotton t shirt.

Sports team? Either polyester or a 50/50 blend. (Note: Generic team tees are great for custom printing, but individualized elements (like names or numbers) get expensive fast.)

T-shirt business? Cotton, preferably ringspun or combed ringspun.

Work uniform? 50/50 blend. (Although a cotton t shirt works in a temperature-controlled environment if you're looking to save money.)

Cotton makes a great platform upon which a design can be printed

Which will you pick?

Both cotton and polyester clothing are great options for custom apparel. Your choice will likely come down to how you plan to use your custom tees. After all, when it comes to designing the perfect t shirt, function plays a huge role.

Start designing today!

Polyester vs cotton cloth, we have you covered

If you've been thinking about making custom shirts for a while -- whether you own a business, manage a non-profit, or have a special event coming up -- now is a great time to get started.

Bolt Printing's online design studio makes designing custom apparel easy. And best of all? If you decide you're not ready to move ahead with an order today, you can always save your design for later.

Don't stress when it comes to custom apparel design!

Working with Bolt Printing means you don't have to worry about a design turning out terribly

Some people worry about getting their t-shirt design right -- or wasting money on a design that looks awful.

While a LOT of custom apparel companies will just print whatever design you send in, Bolt Printing is different -- our design experts evaluate your art files (or studio design) for potential issues so you wind up with shirts you love.

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