“Which is better: nylon or polyester?”
We get this question from time to time, often from customers who’ve read a blog post celebrating one as superior to the other. Our customers are understandably curious — you want the best bag you can get, but you’re not a fabrics expert.
So which is it?
The short (but unsatisfying) answer: both fabrics can be perfectly suited for travel backpacks.
Both are far lighter, stronger, and more durable than their traditional counterparts; like cotton or leather. In fact, nylon and polyester are more similar than different. While one might prove to be better than another in the most extreme circumstances, both are perfectly suited for everyday use. In fact, other attributes beyond composition like fabric weight, quality, sustainability, or look and feel, will ultimately determine which fabric is right for you.
Composition + Construction
Polyester and nylon are both plastic compounds derived from petroleum and discovered by researchers for Dupont in the 1930’s. They are both stronger, lighter, and more durable than the natural materials they typically replace.
Polyester and nylon plastics are made into fabric in virtually the same way. Both start life as small pellets about the size and color of uncooked white rice. These pellets are then stretched out and joined together to form long strands of fiber. These fibers are combined to make thread and that thread is then woven or knit into large rolls of fabric. While the production details are slightly different, the general process is the same for both polymers.
Performance Trade Offs
Nylon and polyester fabrics are both easy to care for. Both are resistant to wrinkles, stretch, and shrink. Both are mold, mildew, and stain resistant.
Nylon is typically softer than polyester. Despite it’s softness, nylon typically has a shinier appearance than polyester. Nylon is also much stretchier than polyester.
Polyester is more receptive to color dyes, more abrasion resistant, and more dimensionally stable than nylon. Nylon does not hold color well and fades much more quickly than polyester when exposed to the Sun’s UV rays. Nylon typically pills more than polyester. That means most polyester bags will look new longer than bags made out of similar quality nylons. Pilling can cause nylon to fray at its edges which can reduce the integrity of the seams that join pieces of fabric together. While nylon typically has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than polyester, polyester has a finer thread so it can be woven with a higher thread count without increasing the thickness of the fabric which can partially make up for the lower strength-to-weight ratio.
Reaction to Water
When nylon gets wet, it absorbs water and expands up to 3.5%. Polyester, on the other hand, does not absorb water and it doesn’t stretch when it gets wet. This doesn’t just effect performance when it’s raining, nylon also expands in highly humid climates like those found in SE Asia and it contracts in dry, desert climates.
Polyester is different. Polyester is hydrophobic, so it absorbs very little water This means that polyester dries faster than nylon. It also means that your polyester bag won’t get heavier or stretch when it absorbs moisture like a nylon bag will.
DWR coatings, lamination, and other water proofing measures can overcome these issues in nylon. For example, our VX21 fabrics have an internal support structure to ensure dimensional stability, and a waterproof membrane to prevent water from soaking through the bag and DWR coatings on the front and back laminates to prevent the fibers on either side from soaking up water.
Traditional nylons have fewer protective qualities. They typically only feature a DWR coating on the back side of the fabric. While this prevents most water from soaking through the bag, some of the exterior fibers will still soak up water. This will add weight to your bag and cause it to stretch a little bit.
For reasons that I’m not qualified to explain, nylon is harder to recycle than polyester. Recycling nylon is expensive and resource intensive. As a result, until recently recycled nylon fabrics were extremely rare and in most cases are made from pre-consumer recycled materials. This means recycled nylons are made from factory waste, not used materials.
Polyester, on the other hand, is very easy and efficient to recycle. It can be made from post consumer recycled materials like used soda bottles. As a result, a robust infrastructure exists to turn trash into premium, high performance fabrics for bags, shoes, and clothing. While these fabrics are not yet ubiquitous, they are becoming the norm for clothing and bag companies seeking to reduce their environmental footprints.
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Using recycled polyesters helps us limit our dependence on raw petroleum, reduce trash in landfills, and reduce toxic emissions created by the trash disposal process.
While Tortuga did not start as a “green” brand, as individuals, we value sustainability. Wherever possible, we strive marry our personal desire to create sustainable products with Tortuga’s promise to deliver high quality, comfortable, durable products to our customers. Our personal values are important in pushing Tortuga to be a better company. Our promise to you is uncompromising.
In our new Setout bags that use recycled fabrics inside and out, we’ve improved in both our desire to build more sustainable products and our promise to you, our customers, to deliver gear that helps you travel on your terms.
Traditionally, nylon was used as a substitute for silk due to it’s soft, lustrous feel. Meanwhile, polyester found a natural home in outerwear due to it’s rough, tough nature. Recently, the differences between nylon and polyester have become less pronounced as new nylon and polyester fibers and fabrics have been developed by researchers and scientists.
Nylon isn’t better than polyester. Polyester isn’t better than nylon. They have slight, but meaningful, differences that can make one better than the other in very, very high performance situations like sails for America’s Cup Boats (polyester) or incredibly thin stockings (nylon).
Generally, though, the choice between nylon and polyester is not a matter of performance. It’s a matter of aesthetic taste and personal values.