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Nylon and Polyester Shells

Waterproof, breathable fabric laid out on a cutting table.

This article is about the difference between the two most popular shell materials used on waterproof/breathable garments – polyester and nylon.

Waterproof breathable fabrics are always made up of at least 2 components – the outer shell fabric, and a waterproof breathable membrane or coating on the inside. In the case of “two layer” fabrics, thats all there is, and in the case of “3 layer” fabrics there is also a fine inner tricot mesh laminated onto the inside of the jacket as a protective barrier for the membrane or coating. What we’re discussing here is the outer shell material – the fabric that you see on the outside.

There are two very common choices for this shell material: polyester and nylon. While there are lots of variables that include the thickness of the shell, the weave of the shell and the thickness of the yarn used in the shell, there are a couple of fundamental differences between those two fabrics. Nylon, while generally more abrasion resistant, is naturally “hydrophilic” – meaning that it can absorb water. Polyester, on the other hand is “hydrophobic” – meaning that it inherently resists absorbing water. Polyester is also more resistant to UV damage. The downside of polyester is that it’s not as abrasion resistant as nylon.

You can see these principals in other garments. Quick drying fleece layering is primarily made with polyester, and tough abrasion resistant fabrics like ballistic nylon Cordura® are often found in shoes and packs.

When choosing a shell material, you should consider whether you want to put a focus on its strength, or its ability to naturally repel water. If you’re using your garment in expedition-like conditions, or are typically hard on gear, nylon might be a better choice. However, polyester is much less likely to “wet out” after the DWR has worn off, and therefore will stay lighter, dry faster, feel “drier” and breath better over time, but may be a little more susceptible to tears.

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