Cotton vs. Polyester for Hiking Clothing

Introduction

Since the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney more than two centuries ago, cotton has been a leading fiber for numerous products from denim and shirts to bed sheets and towels. In the 1940s, one synthetic fiber meant to displace cotton from its leading role in the textile industry was introduced. Its name was polyester.

Polyester is lighter, more durable, easier to twist and bend (easier to work with) than cotton. Moreover, polyester can be cut to any staple length and can be made at very different levels of fineness. Yet, cotton has been the dominant fiber in many products for the last two hundred years.

Your clothing needs to be made of the right fiber type in order to possess certain characteristics suitable for good hiking clothing. So the question is:

Cotton or polyester? What’s better for hiking clothing?

Cotton and its properties

Certainly, cotton has its pros and cons, just like any other natural or man-made material. That’s why it is very important that we present true facts and figures about cotton whose name has become a byword for fabric that’s not suitable for hiking clothing. The phrase “cotton kills” has become extremely popular but do you know why people say that? We’ll try to answer the question so that next time you hear that phrase, you will know if it’s true or not.

Well, cotton has many advantages over other fibers. For example, it’s soft, highly breathable, and ensures long-lasting comfort. Moreover, cotton fiber is hydrophilic and absorbs moisture readily without making you feel uncomfortable. We can easily continue adding to the list of positive characteristics and properties of cotton, however, we should highlight the fact that cotton as a typical representative of natural fibers isn’t homogenous. It means that making generalizations about cotton isn’t correct and at the very least it isn’t very smart.

Cotton is the most popular natural fiber as its production accounts for around 90% of the overall production of natural fibers. Nowadays, it accounts for 25% of the world fiber production and is the second most popular fiber behind polyester. Unless you’re very young, you probably remember the time when cotton was the most popular fiber because it wasn’t until 2002 before polyester surpassed cotton in the market share for the first time. Since then, between 2002 and 2015, the demand for polyester has increased by 250% to about 50 million tons, while the demand for cotton has increased by 60% to about 30 million tons. The main producers are China (33 million bales), India (27 million bales), USA (18 million bales), Pakistan (10.3 million bales), Brazil (9.3 million bales), and Uzbekistan (4.6 million bales). These six countries account for 80% of a market worth USD $77 billion in 2015.

Cotton fiber is used to produce apparel, home furnishings, and industrial products. There are many varieties of cotton, though the staple length can be a more important indicator of the various properties and characteristics of cotton.

Cotton is best for desert hiking

Photo by Jessica Devnani

Types of cotton

Cotton fibers can be classified into three groups based on staple length.

  • Long-staple cotton

The staple length is between 30 and 40mm. The cultivation and production are difficult and limited. This type of cotton is high-quality, used mainly for fine fabrics, yarns, and hosiery. Its color is light, almost white (the color of cotton fiber varies from almost pure white to a dirty grey). The longer the fiber, the easier it is to process and the final product is of better quality. Generally, high-quality cotton lint produces high-quality yarn and end products. Sea Island, Egyptian, and Pima cotton typically have long staples. The strength of a long-staple cotton fiber is 4-6g (the force to break or rupture the fiber or yarn. The strength affects the tenacity, durability and overall quality of the product).

  • Medium-staple cotton

The staple length is between 25 and 33mm. This fiber is widely used for many products in a variety of industries. Medium-staple cotton accounts for 90% of the world production of cotton fiber. American Upland is a typical representative of this type of cotton fiber. The strength of a single medium-staple cotton fiber is in the range of 3.5–4.5g.

  • Short-staple cotton

The staple length is between 10 and 25mm. The processing is very difficult, the fabric produced is coarse, and the quality is low so it’s used for low-grade products.

Pros

  • Cotton is relatively strong. Moreover, its strength or tenacity increases with moisture content. The wet cotton fabric is stronger than dry cotton fabric (which enables a smoother manufacturing process). This means that hiking clothes made of cotton can withstand repeated and regular washings. Furthermore, cotton shirts and pants can be ironed without damage because the material isn’t affected by moderate heat.
  • Cotton is a soft and breathable natural fiber. The final products made of this fiber possess the same characteristics and properties. Hence, cotton is used for underwear, socks, and garments worn close to the skin.
  • Cotton is a good conductor of heat that keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter. Actually, cotton is perfect for desert and hot weather hiking, though wearing cotton can be dangerous for night hiking when temperatures drop.
  • Cotton can absorb a lot of moisture (water, sweat etc.) and transfer it to the air without making you feel uncomfortable - a cotton cloth or garment can absorb up to 27 times its own weight in water. This is an important property that makes cotton clothes cool and comfortable. Moreover, this, added to the natural whiteness of the fiber, makes cotton easy to dye.
  • The versatility of cotton makes it a desirable fiber for a variety of products from more standard ones such as jeans, pants, shirts, towels, bed sheets, and socks, to tents, window shades, wall coverings, and tarpaulins.
  • It’s non-allergenic.

Cons

  • Cotton strength or tenacity decreases with temperature.
  • It’s relatively inelastic due to its crystalline nature.
  • Low resilience. In addition, products made from cotton crease easily and don’t recover well after that.
  • Absorbs a lot of moisture and is slow to dry. Yes, this property can be both positive and negative depending on the circumstances. While it can have a very positive effect in the summer, it’s the opposite in cold and windy conditions when this can be very dangerous. Then, if the water vapor cannot escape to the surrounding atmosphere, it builds up inside your clothing and compromises its insulation abilities. While hiking or backpacking, you sweat and your cotton clothes absorb the moisture. Since cotton is slow to dry, you stay wet and cold because your cotton clothing ceases to provide any insulation. This can lead to hypothermia and rarely to death - that’s why “cotton kills”. Additionally, wet cotton does not wick moisture away from your skin, which exacerbates the situation further. That’s why cotton is not recommended for base layers or other clothing used for hiking in cool-to-cold weather. Remember that hypothermia occurs when your body’s core temperature drops from 36.5-37.5°C to below 35°C thus hypothermia can occur even when environmental temperatures are warm. Furthermore, wind and rain can have a dramatic effect on the risk of hypothermia because they accelerate the rate of cooling through convection.

Sometimes cotton fiber is blended with polyester to make the fabric more durable with increased resilience. We elaborate on this in the section about blended fibers below.

Polyester and its properties

Polyester is the most used fiber in the world today and has had the fastest-growing demand among other fibers since 1980 with roughly 73% of total fiber demand growth. It can be found in sportswear, technical textiles, belts, tarps, curtains, draperies, upholsteries, carpets, tire cords, ropes, nets etc. A synthetic fiber made mainly from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyester is used for pants, base layers, mid-layers, and other garments.

The first polyester fiber called Terylene was created in 1941. Polyester has been used in activewear since the 1970s because of its properties, including its resilience, strength, durability, abrasion resistance, crease resistance, wicking abilities, dimensional stability, easy-care properties etc. All these make polyester fiber suitable for a variety of sports and demanding outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering. Moreover, polyester is used in extreme weather clothing, especially for high-performance jackets, trousers, shirts and sweatshirts, fleece and fleece jackets. The range of functional products made with polyester has made it the main fiber used in the textile and apparel sectors worldwide. The production of ultra-fine polyester fiber has revolutionized the sportswear sector and the hiking clothing sector in particular. For example, micro-denier polyester fleece fabric is soft and smooth, breathable, easy to care for, but also durable.

In 1980, the polyester demand was 5.2 million tons. This number nearly quadrupled by 2000 when it reached 19.2 million tons. In 2015, the demand was around 50 million tons, nearly twice the cotton demand. The main global producer is China (accounts for more than 70% of all polyester fiber production).

Total fiber demand

Source: textileworld.com

Pros

  • Polyester fibers have a low moisture regain value of 0.4%. This makes the fiber and the clothes made of polyester naturally water-repellent. Polyester is essentially hydrophobic, but its surface can be treated by changing its chemistry or adding a finish that affects moisture movement. The result is a water-repellent and quick-drying fabric.
  • Polyester fiber is strong and durable and has excellent wear and abrasion resistance.
  • Good resistance to heat and chemical degradation. These make it perfect when your skin needs UV
  • Can be easily textured and readily modified, including its elasticity and pilling ability. COOLMAX is an example of a modified polyester fiber. It’s made of lightweight hydrophilic polyester, which is channeled. Each COOLMAX fiber has four wicking channels, allowing moisture to disperse and evaporate very quickly while being highly air permeable to improve drying time and to keep the wearer cool and dry. Moreover, polyester is recyclable and can be made of plastic bottles. Nowadays, many popular sportswear brands use recycled polyester as a sustainable alternative.
  • Polyester is able to retain crease for a longer duration and does not wrinkle easily. These properties make it ideal for everyday wear.
  • Easy to wash and doesn’t shrink when washed.
  • Relatively inexpensive and easy to blend with other fibers.
  • Doesn’t change its properties in wet or dry conditions and stays relatively stable. Hollow polyester fibers are used to improve insulation and moisture absorption properties.
  • Good resistance to microorganisms and insects.

Cons

  • Non-breathable and uncomfortable to wear next to the skin, especially in hot conditions. The main reasons for this are the low moisture absorption, poor vapor transmission, and low thermal conductivity. These issues can be overcome by blending polyester with hygroscopic fibers such as cotton or viscose.
  • Feels clammy and chilly when wet because moisture remains on the fiber surfaces next to the skin. Thus, this synthetic fiber isn’t ideal for underwear, though modified, hydrophilic polyester can be moisture-wicking and quick-drying as both of these properties are ideal for underwear and base layers. The main drawback of using finishes is that after repeated washings, chemical treatments wear off.
  • Due to its resistance to chemicals and low absorbency, polyester clothing can be hard to clean because water and chemicals cannot penetrate into the fabric and clean it.
  • Thanks to its hydrophobicity, polyester clothing generates static electricity. These issues can be solved by blending polyester with hygroscopic fibers.
  • Polyester is considered a rather heavy fiber. Thus, to overcome this, it is manufactured as lightweight or thin fabrics. For example, clothing made of thick polyester would be too heavy, which is a serious disadvantage for hiking apparel.
  • Polyester retains odors and for this reason, it isn’t a good solution for multi-day trips. Actually, it reeks after any 30-minute high-intensive activity.

Keep in mind that often there isn’t any appreciable difference between different polyester base layers, hiking pants, shirts or other clothes as most of them work pretty much the same way (well enough) and bring the same results.

Two men walking under the rain in polyester hiking clothing

Blended fibers

Blending is a process of combining two or more fibers to form a yarn that obtains the best qualities of each fiber minimizing the weaknesses of each fiber. Natural fibers are often blended with man-made fibers to achieve an optimized performance. The constituent fibers need to be compatible in order to create a successful blend that’s functional and effective. You can’t blend any two fibers in any ratios, so fiber types and ratios are also very important components of the process of blending as the types of fibers used to determine the final properties of the yarn or fabric to a significant degree. Ratios such as 80/20, 60/40, 50/50 of cotton/polyester, wool/polyester, and polyester/viscose are among the most popular ones in the apparel industry.

Polyester is often blended with other fibers to bring out the best of the fibers’ properties. In such blends, polyester is used mainly because of its durability and moisture management properties. For example, polyester/cotton, polyester/viscose, and polyester/wool blends are widespread. They have many apparel applications such as trousers, shirts, and other outdoor clothes.

There’s an interesting blend of polyester and viscose rayon. Blending polyester and viscose has an important role in moisture management and comfort of clothing. Higher content of viscose means better absorption but also reduced spreading, moisture accumulation and sticky feeling. Hence, a higher proportion of polyester and smaller percentage of viscose will absorb enough sweat from the skin spreading the moisture to the outer surface at the same time.

Cotton is used in clothing made of blended fibers because it absorbs perspiration, though wet cotton shirt clings to the body and doesn’t feel very comfortable. Blending cotton and polyester overcomes this problem to gain comfort without cling.

Main advantages of blending fibers:

  • For improved functionality, including strength, wear, crease, and shrinkage resistance, elasticity etc.
  • For improved aesthetic qualities and comfort.

Well…, cotton or polyester for hiking clothing?

During the selection of apparel for your next hiking adventure, it’s essential that you select the right fiber types first followed by the most appropriate garment design. Fibers need to provide a balance between heat loss and body perspiration to ensure a suitable microclimate next to the skin. Hence, it’s important to factor some parameters like thermal regulation and sweat patterns in order to have a comfortable experience on the trail. The main role of the sportswear design is to facilitate the wicking, transportation, and evaporation of perspiration because, during intense activity like hiking, your body generates heat and sweat to cool.

Hiking outfit requirements differ from those of fashion apparel so do the fabric properties for high-performance products for outdoor pursuits where functionality is king. Fibers contribute many characteristics to the fabrics for functional clothing and sportswear. Depending on the weather, you may need a hiking outfit that is durable, lightweight, water-repellent, absorbent, moisture-wicking and quick-drying, soft and elastic, washable… And what’s the most important - clothing should be breathable and comfortable against the skin.

Both cotton and polyester have valuable characteristics and properties necessary for hiking clothing and while cotton is a natural fiber, polyester is engineered to meet specific requirements of the wearer. Sometimes these two fibers are even blended to enable utilization of the advantages of each fiber while counteracting the disadvantages that they have. This can enhance the appearance, durability, comfort and overall performance.

Fibers form the basic constituent of a garment so choosing the right type of fiber is essential for your performance and comfort on the trail. Choose smartly.


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