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Viewpoint | July 2017

Polyester: The new King of Fibres

When did you last see an athlete, a tennis player, a football or a cricket player changing the jersey in the midfield? You may not even remember now though it was a very common scene until the 90s. They keep on playing for hours comfortably now. And the secret lies in their specially engineered functional wear made of modified polyester that never clings to the body, keeps them dry and comfortable throughout the day – unlike cotton jersey that has a definite limit in sweat absorbing. The wonder filament—Microfil Polyester Yarn—had thus revolutionised the functional wear segment first, paving way for its ascendance to the top slot among all fibres.

World fibre production is expected to reach a new high in the Year 2017 – a phenomenal output of 100 million metric tonne with an estimated per capita consumption of 12-13 kg. More than 50 per cent of this will be in polyester – both filament and staple fibre put together. Polyester has already surpassed cotton consumption and rightfully earned the title of King of Fibres – in just 50 years after its invention and patenting.

The success story of polyester as an apparel fibre started way back in Japan in the 80s. Until then it was considered to be a cheap fibre with undesirable sheen, plastic touch providing little or poor comfort rather irritable to the wearer.

A garment is supposed to provide three basic comforts namely, tactile or touch comfort, pressure comfort and thermal-wet comfort. Among these, thermal-wet comfort, good absorption with easy or quick-drying is the primary requirement. In functional wear this is considered to be more important than just its aesthetic properties.

Functional comfort is determined by factors such as proper moderation in stretch, smooth conformation to body movement and sufficient hygroscopic and heat retaining properties. A typical sportswear garment would take care of the functions of a given end-use. For example, the garment meant for cycle-racing, should not create drag or be too bulky; or the garment meant for athletics or for aerobics should not unduly restrict the body movement. At the same time it should be easy to launder. These aspects were engineered into polyester by modifying the cross section and making the fibre very fine as well – drawing ultra fine denier to the level of 0.3 DPF (Denier Per Filament). Once this was done, major sportswear brands started launching polyester jerseys with moisture management tag. This pioneering research was adopted and successfully applied by sportswear brands like Nike, Puma, Reebok, Adidas and others. Athletic and sports specific apparels were developed and launched soon that became a rage later.

For the hottest Olympics ever, in Athens, Greece, in 2004, Adidas created its Climacool Olympic Apparel Technology engineered to keep an athlete’s body at the optimal body temperature at all times, regardless of the heat. Assisted technically by Dr George Havenith of Loughborough Sports University in UK, they studied human thermal physiology or how the people react to heat stress. Body maps for both male and female athletes were created to precisely identify where the human body produces sweat at different exercise levels in different climatic conditions as well as considering different athlete types, body types, genders and age. Based on this research, they applied moisture wicking fabrics, conductive fibres consisting of silver coated yarns and three dimensionally structured fabrics to key heat and sweat zones.

Despite the recognition of such superior properties from a functional point of view, polyester fibre still lacked the most delicate of senses – Intimacy.

Why can’t synthetic fibre achieve an intimate feeling when compared to natural fibre! This question bugged the researchers for a long time since the launch of polyester in a big way in performance wear. The challenge remained in providing a natural touch to the polyester fibre to cater widely across various apparel segments, to meet the ever growing demand. The Japanese textile industry had collectively taken this task and they found out that the uneven surface bestows any natural fibre with a high degree of irregularity which in turn contributes to wearing comfort and a feeling of consistent attractiveness.

For example, the thin threads of silk that are reeled off of cocoons are not all alike in thickness. Moreover due to the curvature in their lengthwise direction, the physical properties of these thin threads differ from one length to another. This complicated yet irregular difference in thickness provides silk its universal appeal.

On the contrary, the extreme uniformity had accorded polyester no help at all initially on the aspect of intimate feel. Working on this specifically, the research teams in Japanese polyester industry turned their efforts towards bringing in those natural fibre properties that would truly prove compatible with the specific fields of apparel.

Shin-Gosen is the ultimate microfilament range of polyester yarns thus developed to replace the natural fibre segment starting from silk were launched by the Japanese companies – Teijin, Toray, Toyobo, Kanebo, Asahi, Kuraray and Unitika, to name a few. Eventually, it overtook natural fibres by certain distinctive qualities that could be called all its own.

With the launch of Shin-Gosen range of modified polyester filament yarns, the natural fibre segments started getting phased out one by one. With the launch of differential or bi-shrinkage yarns first, the silk apparels switched over to polyester; with textured woolly yarns, the wool industry took the beating; linen look ThicknThin yarns provided the best alternative and with the launch of cool touch cottony polyester yarns that are completely delustered, it started getting into the traditional cotton segment also. From then on, polyester became a truly universal fibre not only for functional wear but also in other sartorial applications and home furnishings. Just a few interesting cases for example, the traditional Middle Eastern ethnic-wear products—Thoube, Abhaya, Veils and Chaddor, etc.—are fully taken over by polyester fabrics now mainly catered by Southeast Asian countries. The Indian ethnic-wear products like saree and churidar market is dominated by Surat polyester suppliers.

In home furnishings too polyester has started replacing other fibres first owing to its superior abrasion resistance in the upholstery segment, inherent flame retardant property added with easy launderable quality providing the best option for curtains and table cloths and lightweight, stain-free, anti-bacterial finished polar fleece as an ideal blanket fabric for hotels, airlines and travel industry. No wonder the most dominant fibre of all is polyester now. Let us see some interesting facts and statistics.

The man-made fibre industry started the first commercial production of artificial silk using cellulosics by De Chardonnet in France in 1892. Regrettably the business declared bankruptcy in 1894! However, not to be discouraged, the industry continued to develop other cellulosics and acetates until the arrival of nylon, which was discovered by Wallace Carothers at DuPont in the 1930s. His discovery brought the first truly MMF to the market. Initial applications of this yarn were mostly in military uses during World War II and in replacing silk in women’s hosiery to some extent. Nylon was followed by the ICI development of polyester, discovered in the early 1940s by two British scientists working for Calico Printers.

Polyester was invented and patented by these British Scientists – JR Whinfield, JT Dickson, WK Birtwhistle, and CG Ritchie in 1941. They created the first polyester fibre called terylene. In 1946, DuPont bought all legal rights from the Brits and came up with their own polyester fibre, which they named dacron. Polyester was first introduced to the Americans in 1951. It was advertised as a miracle fibre that could be worn for two months straight without ironing and still look presentable. Yet, it had never appealed to the general public for another 40 years. And it became popular as a major apparel fibre only after the introduction of modified micro fibre that could simulate the effect of natural fibres.

From these humble beginnings, in 1980, polyester demand rose to 5.2 million tonne (mt) globally and by 2000, it had reached 19.2 mt. In 2014, demand was put at 46.1 mt. The message is clear that polyester has gained significant share from all other fibres, both man-made and natural, and that anyone in the fibre business has to be aware that polyester producers are constantly looking at other fibres and their markets to determine if polyester can take further market share.

Graphs show the history of fibre demand in millions of tonnes, and demonstrates the dominant role that polyester has had in fibre demand growth. The graph also shows the continuing dominance of polyester going forward, as calculated by England-based PCI fibres in its forecast. Polyester demand passed that of cotton in 2002, and has continued to grow at a significantly faster rate than all other fibre types. A very large part of the growth in polyester has come from China with India and Southeast Asia also contributing. In the case of China, both polyester production and apparent domestic demand for the fibre have been very strong. China accounts for 69 per cent of all polyester fibre production globally, and if India and Southeast Asia are added, these three regions represent 86 per cent of global production. As we know, in India, it is cotton that still dominates the fibre basket with a share of over 50 per cent, and polyester enjoying a share of over 40 per cent. However, according to polyester pundits, this trend is expected to change over the next five years. By 2020, the share of polyester fibre in total mill consumption is expected to be around 46 per cent, while that of cotton at 43 per cent. This is expected to increase to 53 per cent by 2030, and cotton share could be down to 32 per cent.

With cultivable land shrinking across the world on one side and exploding global population on another side, the growing demand of raw material for the clothing and furnishing industry could be met only with polyester now. It is time for Indian manufactures and brands to take note of this phenomenal potential available for polyester products not only in the functional wear but also in other segments indicated in this article. And it is also time for us to launch our own Indian brands like Li-Ning did in China.

When I was still an athlete I has plenty of opportunities to wear some first class international brands in different competitions. Since then, I wished that I could wear a Chinese brand in the future. After leaving the professional competition, I established Li-Ning company. People began to recognise Li-Ning brand since the 1992 Olympic Games, when Chinese athletes appeared in the awarding ceremonies wearing clothes of a Chinese sports brand for the first time.

The author, PN Kumar is General Manager of Zenith Textiles, a unit of Zenith Exports Ltd, located at Nanjangud Industrial Area, Nanjangud, Karnataka. The author dedicates this article to his mentor Bpk.Marimuthu Sinivasan of Indonesia, the Founder President of PT Texmaco Jaya and Polysindo Group of Companies.

This article is published from the author’s web page with his approval.

The author, though being a polyester proponent himself, would like to share a note of concern: Polyester is certainly not an eco-friendly fibre and in the long run, excessive consumption of PET products could lead to ecological disaster. Yet, polyester recycling is also coming up in a big way and in India too there are already a few companies that have successfully started PET bottle-based recycling plants. Whatever the remnant that is not fit for recycling should be used for laying roads and also for building material in future.

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