There are two main types of construction for luggage, softsided and hardsided. This page will explain a bit about the two different types of materials, and if you want to compare the two, visit this page: Hardsided vs. Softsided.
Softsided Luggage Materials
The most common materials used to make softsided luggage are ballistic nylon, Cordura and polyester. Ballistic nylon and Cordura are used by higher-quality manufacturers; polyester is typically used by less expensive brands.
In addition to the type of material, you'll sometimes see a description of Denier. For durability purposes, luggage should be made with a minimum of 400 Denier fabric, with higher Denier (up to 2000) indicating thicker material. Denier is an indication of weight, not strength. Therefore, a 500 Denier nylon is stronger than a 500 Denier polyester.
Ballistic nylon – This material is extremely tough and cleans well. It does a great job of avoiding scrapes and tears. You’ll notice that this material is mostly made in black or another dark color; it doesn’t take well to dying a rainbow of colors.
Cordura – As a trademarked fabric, it comes in many varieties and weights. It is used by the military to make uniforms and even boots, and makers of horse saddles use it as a lightweight but strong material. It’s valued because of its ability to resist scrapes and tears, although ballistic nylon does somewhat better at resisting tears. Cordura can be made in many different colors.
Polyester – This is the least expensive softsided luggage material. Polyester can be made in a variety of weights and thicknesses, but it will never be as strong as either ballistic nylon or Cordura.
Hardsided Luggage Materials
Hardsided luggage is described by several names. In addition to hardsided, you’ll see it referred to as hard sided luggage, hard luggage, hard shell luggage and hard case luggage.
Aluminum – Luggage has been made out of aluminum for a long time. Aluminum is the strongest material used for luggage, but it is also often the heaviest and most expensive. While aluminium will take a lot of abuse, it can get dented.
Polycarbonate – Polycarbonite is molded for use in luggage. It’s lighter than aluminum and can be made in different colors and patterns. For impact resistance, polycarbonate has an advantage. It will flex when hit and return to its original shape, assuming the hit isn’t enough to crush it.
Polypropylene – This is an impact resistant material, coming in second to polycarbonate. Its advantage is that it is very lightweight.
Some manufacturers will add a material called ABS to polycarbonate to create a blended material. It may be stronger than polycarbonate on its own, but the blend does tend to be more brittle and crack more easily.