30 May 2012

Reader Questions : The Devil's Own Cloth

polyester : the Devil's own cloth

Reader Wes writes:

Hi - lately, I've been looking for a suit in various thrift stores. I saw a few today that had no labels. They looked decent but I could not figure out if they were wool or polyester. One felt pretty good, but I was suspicious. Can you recommend a tip or two for identifying fabrics? I'd prefer not to invest in polyester, though I suppose if I can't tell the difference I probably shouldn't be so picky.....

Any help you can offer is greatly appreciated


Let me begin by saying that the short answer is that polyester in any form or percentage is generally to be regarded as an a abominable thing to be avoided at all costs. Then there is the longer answer which involves the overall life lessons of knowing what's best, choosing one's battles, and above all knowing when to compromise. The latter is what follows.

1) Knowing what's best:
The best clothes are made entirely of natural fibers. There's really no arguing that point. In the case of suits, this frequently means some manner of wool, even in Summer. Cotton, linen, and even silk are acceptable as well, but good luck finding such things in our homogenized and all-too-casual world.

It's always best to look for natural fibers. Fortunately, better clothing is usually marked with a tag listing fabric content. On many suits, this can be found inside the coat at the collar. In some cases, a fabric label may be sewn into the lining near one of the interior pockets. In others still, a label will be inside one of the interior pockets. If you know where to look, it's almost always there, but not always.

Natural fibers also tend to have a nicer "feel" to them, whereas synthetics and synthetic blends will have a rougher, faker feel. Experience will teach you the difference.

2) Choose your battles:
While you may want to and very well should do your best to fill your closet with only natural fiber clothes, but sometimes you'll have to bend. Unless you can afford to shop new in the places you like whenever you want, this will be the case. Indeed, if you were that kind of guy anyway you wouldn't likely be reading this blog.

The nerdy world of online menswear discussion is full to the brim with hard core purists and archaic enthusiasts who will kick and scream at the very mention of the word "polyester". But let's not forget that it was the high holy Brooks Brothers themselves who first unleashed Dupont Dacron on the world in the 1960s, or that it was indeed for them and many other big names in traditional menswear not a curse but a selling point for quite some time. The main difference is that those clothes were just as well constructed and styled as there natural fiber counterparts, and as such looked better than the sunsequent double-knit badly formed disasters of the 1970s with which polyester is irrevocably joined in most people's minds. Older vintage garments with some polyester content are generally well made enough to compensate for their shortcomings. I have a pair of charcoal grey vintage trousers in dacron/wool blend that I love. They fit well, are well made, and stay creased even when rain soaked. I also have a vintage 1960s Brooks Brothers tan poplin wash and wear suit in poly/cotton blend that can't be beat for comfort and style on a really hot day in July.

Yeah, polyester stinks, but if it's not a double knit leisure suit, well......

3) Know when to compromise:
For the younger man in need of a good basic navy or grey suit on a tight budget, the options can be slim. Should you be wise enough to turn to thrift shopping, you've already got a one-up. If you should happen to find a good looking suit that fits well enough that doesn't feel like it's made of plastic that only cost less than $20 someplace that will get you the job and make you feel confident on a big fancy date with your girl who cares what its made from?  Style, carriage, composure, and cofidence are worth more than fabric content, brand name and country of origin any day of the week.

And yeah, if can't really tell the difference, you shouldn't be so picky. Besides...

Polyester can actually look good, no matter how strenuous the action...
Hope that helps.


Anonymous said...

One caveat: cellulose-based fibers--rayon, viscose, acetate--sound synthetic but are technically semisynthetic and wear like natural fiber. In other words, acetate jacket linings are fine.

WSTKS-FM Worldwide said...

Polyester pants and jackets have a harsh, unpleasant feel to them. They are almost hard to the touch, particularly the used items you'll find in thrift shops.

Best Regards,

Ulrich von B.

Giuseppe said...


Frequently thats the case, but not always. For the young man of meager means, I see no problem in bending the rules if the garments look well and don't have a gross feel to them. As Wes states in his initial question, you can't always tell, especially if you're not as experienced at this as some of us.

Roger v.d. Velde said...

As you rightly say some blending of fibres, especially if it's the usual 30% Dacron or whatever, is tolerable for a good garment at a fair price. The purists can rant as much as they want, perhaps they have more money to spend.

And to echo Kurt, Rayon in particular is soft, natural-looking and above breathable fabric (better than cotton) which is probably why it has been used for Hawaiian shirts.

For the original poster, identification of polyester by eye is possible. At it's worst it simply looks horrible and plasticky. The only other test is the burn test. Snip a few fibres from a hidden place and put them to a match. If it burns and crumbles it's natural, and if it and smells like hair it's wool. If it melts it's plastic.

The thrift assistants are always looking at me funny when I sneakily snip off fibres.

Pigtown*Design said...

There's always the match test. Light a match, then hold the flame near the fabric. If it melts, then it's not a natural fibre. You can also do the same sort of thing to test bone/ivory and plastic.

Anonymous said...

Let us also remember that polyester has its place in the sporting world. For those who run, especially, or participate in other high-sweat sports, the wicking and cooling abilities of new weaves of polyester, such as those by UnderArmour, certainly have their place. That said, I certainly agree that it has no place in clothing made to be worn outside a gym or ballfield.

CL said...

I secretly wear Polyester trousers to work in the summertime... altered so the fit is spot on. The indestrucability appeals given that I like a trim fit (big thighs and lightweight wool don't always get along). And with proper shoes, shirts, and jackets (and all the trimmings) I don't even consider it a compromise... mum's the word.

randall said...

I'm wearing a 70/30 poly/cotton shirt right now. I got in late last night and didn't want to iron a shirt to go to work this morning so I grabbed this because it doesn't hold wrinkles and still looks good.

bafe said...

I tend to avoid polyester but I have found a 70/30 Acrylic/Wool cardigan which is so well-made (I guess from the 70s-60s) that I had to buy it.