Cotton and permanent press fabrics may not look that different at first glance, but there are several differences that have an impact on wear, care and overall durability. The most basic difference is that cotton is a natural fiber and permanent press fabrics are man-made synthetics. Permanent press fabrics were invented to compensate for the maintenance required of cotton fabrics.
Cotton is a natural fiber made from the cotton plant. Permanent press fabrics are made with a combination of synthetic materials blended with cotton or rayon. The term “permanent press” refers to a curing process applied to the fabric to strengthen the material and reduce wrinkling. The curing process involves treating the fibers or material with chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and then baking the chemicals into the fabric. Pure cotton fabric cannot handle the heat and chemicals required to achieve the wrinkle-free results.
The biggest difference between cotton and permanent press is the issue of wrinkling. The term “permanent press” literally means that the fabric is permanently pressed and therefore will never require ironing. Cotton on the other hand, is very prone to wrinkling. Moving at all in a 100 percent cotton garment will result in wrinkles appearing where the fabric has bent at the knees, elbows, waist, etc.
Formaldehyde resins added to cotton blends to produce the wrinkle-free permanent press fabrics also serve to preserve color against fading. The dyes in cotton fabric will fade from exposure to high temperatures in washing machines and dryers and under direct sunlight. Permanent press fabric, however, is much less likely to fade.
High heat also causes cotton to shrink. The fibers in cotton tighten up under the heat and are not resilient enough to stretch back out again. Permanent press fabrics will not shrink because the resins added to the fabrics keep the fibers resistant to shrinkage.
The resins applied in the curing process to create permanent press fabrics actually strengthen the fibers. Therefore, permanent press fabrics are significantly stronger than cotton and will endure much more wear and tear before showing signs of aging. Cotton edges can fray. Cotton garments will eventually wear thin and can rip easily once they become weak.
Care and Maintenance
Permanent press fabrics can be washed in any temperature and can be tossed in the dryer even under high heat. You never have to iron permanent press fabrics so the care and maintenance is minimal and very easy. The biggest problem with permanent press fabric is the removal of stains. Due to the resins and other chemicals, the fibers grab onto stains and do not easily release them. Many permanent press fabrics are also stain retardant, but not stain resistant. Cotton on the other hand, requires that you wash it in cold water and, for best results, line dry. Then you need to iron it. Stains can fairly easily be removed from cotton, but should not be scrubbed at vigorously.