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The New Polyester: Eco-Friendly and Beyond Basic

This isn’t your parent’s polyester.

The old anti-fashion scratchy fabric of yesteryear with a low-level environmental standing has evolved into a higher-functioning, desirable fiber often derived from recycled material.

Jay Hertwig, vice president of global brand sales, marketing and product development at Unifi, discussing it flagship Repreve brand made from recycled plastic water bottles, said, “Polyester has changed significantly over the last 20 or 30 years.”

“Polyester material from the 70s and 80s was very harsh, very scratchy, it was durable and tough, but it was not the most comfortable apparel to wear and it didn’t have any of the performance characteristics that you see today,” Hertwig said. “So the technology has evolved to make polyester, in some cases, very difficult to differentiate from natural fibers.”

The initial transformation came from the advent of microfiber, where the technology improved so it could be extruded in fine multifilament yarns that advanced the performance and aesthetics of the fiber and fabric.

Then came the evolution of the recycling process in the last 10 years that gave companies like Unifi the ability to take different forms of PET and polyester materials and recycle and process it into fine multifilament yarns.

“I was a child of the Eighties and I remember my mother’s polyester pantsuits, so it’s been interesting watching the evolution of polyester,” Tracy Rickert, a senior consultant for global consulting firm Alvanon, said.

Rickert noted that polyester became taboo as a man-made product with petroleum derivatives and manufacturing environmental challenges, “and there definitely was a stigma around it.”

“That’s now really changed dramatically and there’s still a little way to go with it, but the evolutionary aspect and explosion of athleisure and athletic wear in general has done a lot for the image of polyester. There’s just so much you can do with it,” Rickert said.

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The environmental factor

Unifi operates the largest texturized yarn manufacturing facility in the country, with 72 texturizing machines at the Repreve Recycling Center in Yadkinville, North Carolina, and a Bottle Processing Center in Reidsville, North Carolina, that produces 75,000 pounds of clean PET flake a year from post-consumer plastic bottles, recycling more than 2 billion bottles annually.

“Bringing environmentally conscious synthetics to the forefront has certainly changed the image of polyester,” Hertwig said. “It is hard to find a fabric in fashion today that doesn’t have some synthetic content.”

Repreve has developed methods that add to the performance attributes of the yarn and the fabric and apparel it’s made into. This offers customers flexibility and customization not previously available.

“Some of the most common technologies we come across in the market, particularly in performance apparel, is in moisture management and wicking, and these attributes can be applied to recycled polyester,” Hertwig said. Non-spandex stretch properties and color can be applied, or solution dying, which Hertwig said eliminates roughly 60 percent of the dyeing and finishing process as you wouldn’t be applying the same dyes and chemicals that would be used for colors, thus cutting back on water and energy use too.

There are also a range of texturing techniques used in Repreve to give more natural, less synthetic-looking fabrics, plus capabilities like anti-odor, anti-microbial, Cool Touch, and fire-retardant additives that can be applied to add dimension to the fiber and yarn.

Consumer appeal

Repreve has helped revive the branding of polyester since its days of being treated generically. A number of brands, like The North Face, Haggar, Levi’s, Under Armour, Quiksilver and Ford Motor Co. have used Repreve in their products and touted it in their marketing promotions.

The latest brand hook-up is with New Era Cap Co. Inc., which is producing the first official National Basketball Association cap made with Repreve, for the Portland Trail Blazers. Each hat is made using four recycled plastic bottles.

Alvanon’s Rickert agreed that with the advent of additives and performance attributes like anti-microbrial, anti-static, wicking and flame retardant in apparel and home goods, when it comes to polyester, “It’s not basic any longer. It can be drapey, it can be light and almost sheer. The more people get used to it and accustomed to the performance properties, the more its place in the market will grow, and the industry is working really hard in finding better ways to recycle it and add additional properties.”