Nylon and polyester are both lightweight and durable synthetic fabrics that share many of the same properties, such as easy care, wrinkle resistance, stretch resistance and shrink resistance. Nylon is softer than polyester but also stronger, while polyester is faster drying, easier to dye and abrasion resistant. Neither is a better fabric, though each has uniquely superior attributes that lend themselves to certain uses.
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Nylon, the world's first synthetic fiber, was invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935. It was not available to the public until after Word War II but was used extensively by the military for parachutes and tents. Polyester did not make its debut until the early 1940s and only became popular in the 1950s.
During the early years, nylon was always considered a smoother and softer fabric than polyester. Nylon was created as a substitute for silk and it shows in its soft, lustrous feel. From its inception, polyester has always been a rougher fabric than nylon, hence its original use in outerwear garment and suits. The refined manufacturing capabilities of today have resulted in softer polyester that in many ways matches nylon and certainly the softness of cotton.
Both nylon and polyester are strong and lightweight due to their polymer-based construction. Nylon is the stronger of the two fabrics with greater stretchability. Though not as strong, polyester resists pilling better than nylon, which is when fibers unravel and ball up at the end. While this does not weaken the garment physically, it is not attractive aesthetically.
When it comes to fast-drying fabrics, polyester has the edge. Both are naturally hydrophobic, which mean they expel water, ideally to the surface of the garment where it will evaporate. Nylon actually absorbs some water, which means it takes longer for a wet garment to dry.
Polyester absorbs more color faster than nylon due to the same properties that made it better at wicking water. Dyed polyester expels the water in the dye but not the dye itself, which bonds with the fibers. Nylon absorbs water, resulting in less dye bonding to the fibers.
Bold polyester and nylon are easy-care fabrics that can be machine washed and dried, though low heat is recommended. Polyester, while not as soft as nylon, sometimes needs the addition of a fabric softener, while nylon whites should be washed separately and with bleach to avoid yellowing. As for ironing, both should be ironed on low heat because they can melt at high temperatures.