The Best Fibers to Sweat In

What are the best fabrics for workout clothes?

Natural (cotton, bamboo, linen, hemp, wool, rayon) or man-made (polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex)?

I’ve been pondering fiber preferences since I read Sweaty Knitter’s post about rayon yarn and her thoughts on whether it is a natural fiber or not. If it takes a massive chemical process to produce fabric, that’s bad, or unnatural, right? What kind of workout clothes do you prefer to wear, the ones from fibers that grew right out of the Lord’s good ground, or the ones spun from chemicals that pollute and desecrate the ecology that we sprang from?

One of my ex’s, who called Amrit Desai gurudev, was adamant that he would wear only 100% cotton or another “natural” fiber. (I should note that he also thought that one should eat only the parts of a plant that were above the ground, too, so even root vegetables, which seem very natural, were a no-no.)

I wonder if, when I show up to yoga class in an obviously-polyester shirt, am I thought of as ecologically ignorant? Do my synthetic vibes cause an unhoped-for electromagnetic buzz-kill to someone’s more highly-tuned resonating of spirit? I recently unfurled my new pink Gator yoga mat in class and wanted to crawl under it when the PVC smell bloomed all over me like a mushroom cloud over Dugway Proving Ground. I later read an article about more sustainable mats you can get—but pricey!

I wonder if my long-held belief was true, that cotton is better than polyester. I found no shortage of opinions about this on the Internet, including an article citing studies of pregnant dogs made to wear polyester garments, and men who wore polyester [ahem!] slings, both with very negative (but reversible, the author says) results.

I have workout clothes that I’ve bought from retailers, which are made of very unnatural fibers like polyester and spandex. Most of the shorts and pants I wear for working out are cotton or polyester/spandex blends. I have some all-cotton tee-shirts and some polyester and spandex workout shirts. I’ve noticed that I seem to sweat more when I’m wearing a polyester shirt than when I’m wearing a cotton shirt. And my sweat smells different; more of a farm animal smell in cotton and more of a landfill in poly. Of course, there are all sorts of undocumented factors to the workout: the weather, the time of day, how bloated I happen to be at any given time, whether my hair is really dirty, and what undesirable foodstuffs I’ve consumed recently, that I’m not controlling for. Here’s a study of the sweat and recovery of subjects who exercised while wearing cotton vs poly tee-shirts, and those wearing polyester came back to normal temperature sooner. I like cotton, but if polyester makes me sweat more during a workout, isn’t that a plus for me, as long as I drink water afterwards?

Though I prefer cotton, I found many opinions that polyester is better, especially for workout clothes. How about those moisture-wicking polyester fabrics? Here’s a site, Quest Outfitters, that lists wicking fabrics you can order, with links for remnants, when available.

Coolplus remnant

Here’s a pic of a small remnant of Cool Plus I was able to order-but was too small to make a shirt out of for personal testing purposes. It is billed as a “new generation transport fiber.” If you buy wicking fabrics, you may need to change the way you do laundry, because bleach and fabric softeners apparently negate the moisture-wicking properties of the fiber. At Fjallraven, they have G-1000, “quite possibly the world’s best outdoor fabric,” (the G supposedly representing the moisture vapor transmission rate, as explained here by Wikipedia).

Which is better, cotton or polyester? Here’s yet another opinion by Gail Baugh, who found in her research that recycled polyester is actually better for the environment than cotton.

What is your personal preference?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Naomi Baltuck
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 17:01:14

    Cotton always feels better on the skin, but perhaps it doesn’t absorb sweat as well.


  2. ethgran
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 17:23:22

    Sweat would pour off the dancers in my ballet classes back in Smallsbury and most of them were wearing spandex leos and something else manmade tights. Being a sewer I made my leos out of cotton spandex which absorbed the sweat better but I wouldn’t say I sweat less in them – they were just more comfortable. As far as the tights went – whatever. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to get those tights off once they were loaded with sweat! I have come to realize that I Can’t avoid wearing some unnatural fibers so I have stopped fretting and “Keep Calm and Knit On”. ;+]


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