Polyester is a material that we easily take for granted. We often don’t realize how much of it we have in our wardrobes, or how much of it is a polyester blend. This also leads to some confusion over whether or not polyester is stretchy. Is 100% polyester stretchy, or just a polyester blend? Also, what exactly do we mean by stretchy and can we stretch polyester fabric out?
Is polyester stretchy?
The short answer here is no. This may come as a surprise to a lot of people that have polyester clothes in their wardrobe and would argue that there is some give and movement in those clothes. This is where we have to differentiate between polyester as a fiber and polyester as a blend. There are a lot of polyester clothes out there that aren’t 100% polyester. It is the properties of the other percentage that create the stretchy feel. The higher the percentage of polyester, the less stretch you are going to get. You may be surprised to re-read some of your clothing labels and learn that there is some Lycra or spandex in there as well.
In this guide, you can learn more about the properties of polyester and how we end up with some polyester blends and materials that are stretchier than others. I also want to talk about the potential of stretching out polyester clothing at home.
What does it mean for material to be stretchy?
First of all, it all depends on what you mean by the term stretchy. There are different connotations here that you need to keep in mind when choosing the best fabric for your sewing project. There are:
a) fabrics that have an elastic feel and are stretchy when you manipulate them
b) fabrics that have the ability to stretch during the manufacturing process.
It is important to differentiate between the two as there are different ways that we can use polyester for various results. On one end of the scale, we have waterproof, structural items that are rigid and have a high percentage of pure polyester fibers in them. This is not elastic, but there is still the potential to stretch the fabrics a little with the right treatments. After treatment, you still don’t get a stretchy material, just one that has been stretched. But, when you have stretchy fibers within a material, it gives it that elastic property where it can continually adapt for the wearer.
The properties of 100% polyester.
Polyester is a synthetic material created from petroleum. This means that that it is much more like plastic than any natural fiber. There are pros and cons to this depending on what you plan to do with the material. Polyester can be a great hydrophobic material for use in durable items. You can also add polyester to other natural fibers for some interesting blends.
Polyester fibers on their own are not stretchy because there are no elastic properties to them. You will see this if you have a 100% polyester raincoat. Run your hand over the material and you will feel that smooth glossy finish that is so perfect for repelling rain. The tight weave and hydrophobic properties are ideal for keeping you nice and dry in a storm. This tight weave also meant that there is no stretch in the fabric. If you were to pull the material on the sleeve, you would find that there is no movement at all.
It is the lack of movement and stretch in polyester that makes it so popular.
- ~ durable and strong
- ~ really lightweight
- ~ wrinkle resistant
- ~ stain resistant
That is why polyester is still such a popular choice when there are other natural fibers around. You might expect a bit of a backlash against polyester because it is a plastic material and not great for the environment. But, it is also really cheap to produce and works for so many different products.
How do manufacturers make polyester stretchy?
There are three options for creating a garment that has more of a stretch to it. You can:
a) create a knitted weave that has some natural movement to it.
b) crimp the polyester to give it a little more elasticity
c) create a blended fabric with other fibers that have the elasticity
A knitted polyester material behaves differently from a standard weave because of the way that it stretches out along the width. Any kitted garment has the ability to stretch out and move with the wearer because of the way the fibers are put together and the gaps between, rather than the properties of the fibers themselves.
The problem with knitted weaves from polyester is that the material doesn’t have the elasticity within the fibers to retain its shape. The structure doesn’t bounce back to exactly where it was. That is why you find a lot of polyester blends to create a greater freedom of movement and recovery.
There are some that use heat and crimping to manipulate those plastic fibers to get a bit more elasticity out of them. This could work if there is a definitive need for something that is 100% polyester but still requires a little bit of movement. However, this process is time-consuming and expensive. It is much easier to opt for this next approach to add elasticity.
Creating a polyester blend with Lycra or spandex.
The best way for manufacturers to create a polyester material that has some real stretch and give to it is to blend it with other fibers. Spandex and Lycra are common choices. You may be more familiar with spandex as the super-stretchy material used for comfortable, tight-fitting sportswear. You may also know from experience that this material is very difficult to sew because of the stretchiness and movement as you work on a machine.
A little bit of Lycra fiber blended with the polyester can go a long way to creating a material that has more of a stretch in different directions. This can, therefore, create a garment that is just as protective but a little more practical and comfortable to wear long term. You are also going to get that recovery in the shape of the fabric.
Stretching out polyester clothing at home.
So what if you have a piece of fabric in your collection at home that you want to use for sewing, but it is a little stiff and hard to work with. Or, what if you have a polyester shirt that doesn’t fit quite as nicely as it did when it was new. What can you do to stretch and reshape the fabric to your benefit?
Soaking the fabric and leaving it to dry.
One option is to soak your garment in warm water, physically stretch it out and leave it to dry. This is great for adding a bit of width to a shirt if you have put on a couple of pounds, or if it has become a bit old and stiff. Soak the shift in warm water for about 30 minutes to really let the water soak into all the fibers. You can then wring it out to get rid of as much water as possible and leave it to dry naturally in the sun. A lot of people like to lay the garment out on a towel to absorb more moisture and to keep the fabric stretched out with heavy blocks. This can be time-consuming, but you can also get some good results.
Another tip here is to add a little conditioner to the water. This is a great way to soften up the fibers a little more and make it a little easier to get the fit that you want. You can also get a nice smell to the fabric for a little while. It doesn’t have to be a lot of conditioner. But, if you don’t feel like wasting your hair care products on your clothes, you could use fabric softener instead.
This is a great little YouTube video on how to stretch small clothes that acts as a great tutorial. You can see the creator working through the process. He says not to wring it out too hard and is taking a much more casual approach. You can also see the before and after.
Shaping wet polyester by wearing it.
Another popular option is to take a polyester shirt, soak it in water for the same amount of time, and then wear it as it dries. The benefits of this approach are that you can let the material stretch out in a way that is ideal for your body shape. You aren’t going to run the risk of the material stretching out too far and looking misshapen if it is a snug fit to the body.
Of course, the downside here is the discomfort that comes from wearing the wet clothes long enough for them to dry out in the sun. I have also seen reports of people doing similar things to new jeans by sitting in a bathtub of warm water with the jeans on and then letting them air dry. It seems unpleasant, but apparently, it works.
Beware of drying the clothes in the future.
An important thing to be aware of here is that if you do decide to stretch out your polyester clothing this way, you can quickly undo your work with heat. So, the next time you go to wash your shirt, reshape it on a hanger and let it dry in an airing cupboard or in the sun, rather than in the dryer. A dryer is too intense and it will shrink the fabric. Frequent cycles of stretching and shrinking the material will just cause further strain and weaken the garment.
Using polyester in sewing and other crafts at home.
Some of these new stretched-out pieces of polyester blend fabric could be the ideal starting point for some new sewing projects. There is no reason to let good scraps go to waste if you can recondition them and get a little bit more life in them. Polyester is a versatile material for different applications, and you can enjoy making lots of different projects from jackets for winter to bags and maybe even some water-resistant swimwear. You will also find that there are lots of polyester products like stuffing and yarn that you can use for a range of applications.
Dying polyester at home.
Finally, I want to mention the issue of dying polyester when working on different crafts at home. You may have a polyester blend at home that you think is perfect for your next sewing project, but it is a little faded or not the best color. You can try dying the polyester at home if you have the right dye and work at the right temperature. But, those hydrophobic plastic fibers don’t make things easy. You can learn more about this in my guide on how to dye polyester fabric.
Is polyester stretchy?
In short, polyester fibers are not stretchy and it is very difficult to get much movement out of them. You may find that this is a blessing when it comes to your specific sewing needs, or that you would rather it had a bit more give. There are alternative polyester blends out there with a percentage of Lycra or spandex that could offer the movement and rebounding properties that you need. With that said, you can try and stretch a polyester garment if you need to. This is a great trick that can be very helpful when dealing with old clothes and using old items in new projects.
Ultimately, you have to decide if it is worth your time working with polyester if there is an alternative material available. Consider your options when it comes to manipulating and working with the fabric to get what you want. Also, check the label to see just how much polyester is in your material. The lower the percentage, the stretchier it will be.
I’m a stay at home mom with our two kids. I really enjoy doing crafts with my toddler however, that is typically a challenge with her limited attention span, messiness, and desire to always have clean hands. So, I’m always looking for ways to make crafting an enjoyable experience and fond memory for the both of us.