Polyester and cotton are the two most widely used fabrics today. But do you know why they are so popular? This article is aimed at giving an answer to this and many other questions regarding these two fabrics. One of them is: What’s the difference between cotton and polyester and which is better for the outdoors? Here we compare polyester vs cotton by discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each as well as their inherent characteristics to give you insight into the appropriateness of their use in the backcountry.
Cotton has been the dominant fiber in the textile and clothing industries for the last two hundred years. Since the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, cotton has been a leading fiber for numerous products from denim and shirts to bedsheets and towels. However, 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, cheaper, more durable, and 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. All these characteristics make it very suitable for a variety of sports and demanding outdoor activities.
Good hiking clothing needs to be made of the right fiber type in order to possess certain characteristics suitable for functional and comfortable outdoor apparel. So the question is:
Cotton and its properties
Cotton is a staple fiber that is produced from the cotton plant. The fibers have a flat, twisted, ribbon-like appearance. The cotton plant grows best in subtropical countries in warm, humid climates because the plant requires 6-7 months of warm weather. Cotton is the purest form of cellulose available in nature as cotton fiber typically contains around 94% cellulose. The color of cotton fiber is usually creamy white or yellowish but it can also vary from almost pure white to dirty grey, green, and dark brown. Generally, naturally colored cotton that doesn’t need dyeing is highly valued because it requires little maintenance or water following sowing (it needs no fertilizers) and is far more resistant to insects and diseases (it needs no pesticides).
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 backpacking. 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.
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 increased by 250% to about 50 million tons, while the demand for cotton 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: a short history
There is evidence that cotton was used in India and the Middle East as early as 5000 BC (cotton bolls and cotton textiles dated around 5500 BC have been discovered in Mexico, while the oldest cotton fabric ever found is more than 8000 old and comes from Peru). Three to four thousand years later, it became widespread across India. Cotton was introduced to Europe many centuries after that – probably after the invasion of India by Alexander the Great.
Though historically cotton is one of the oldest fibers used by mankind, it has become really popular in Europe since late 18th century when the cotton manufacture began in England. It rapidly spread to the United States, resulting in a huge increase in production and international trade. The European-dominated cotton industry helped entrepreneurs and statesmen build an empire of cotton of tremendous scope and energy. Millions of people spent their lives working in cotton plantations and cotton mills across the world – from the US and Europe to China. For more than a century – up to 1900 AD, the cotton industry was the world’s most important manufacturing industry. It was one of the driving forces of the Industrial revolution. As Sven Beckert argues in his book Empire of Cotton: A Global History:
Today, cotton is still among the most widespread fibers as there are huge cotton plantations in Asia, Africa, and America. Asia is the main producer of cotton as China and India combined produce more cotton than the rest of the world does (cotton is produced in over 100 countries around the world).
There is a bunch of natural fibers but cotton is the most commercially important of them. It is a raw material used worldwide for the production of soft, breathable, and relatively inexpensive textiles as well as various industrial products. There are so many cotton products ranging from apparel, home furnishings, and banknotes to cottonseed oil used for cooking and in cosmetics. There are many varieties of cotton, though the staple length can be a more important indicator of the various properties and characteristics of cotton.
Types of cotton
Cotton fibers can be classified into three groups based on staple length.
The fibers are simultaneously thin and very resistant to tearing. The staple length is between 30 and 65mm. Cultivation and production are difficult and limited. This type of cotton is high-quality, used mainly for fine fabrics, high-quality yarn, and end products such as bed linen, hosiery, and garments. Its color is light, almost white. 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. Interestingly, though luxury cotton types may be obtained from many different countries, the origin of most long-staple cotton varieties can be traced back to America. The strength of the 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).
The staple length is between 25 and 30mm. This fiber is widely used for many products in a variety of industries. Medium-Staple cotton is very suitable for the production of clothing for everyday use like denim jeans, flannels, and underwear. Medium-staple cotton accounts for 85-90% of the world production of cotton fiber. American Upland is a typical representative of this type of cotton fiber. The strength of the single medium-staple cotton fiber is in the range of 3.5-4.5g.
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 mainly for the production of low-grade products. Short-staple cotton is used for the production of carpets, blankets, jeans, flannel for work clothes as well as blends with other fibers.
- Cotton is relatively strong. Moreover, its strength or tenacity increases with moisture content. Generally, wet cotton is 25% stronger than dry cotton. The wet cotton fabric is stronger than dry cotton fabric (which enables a smoother manufacturing process). This means that 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, bedsheets, and socks, to tents, window shades, wall coverings, and tarpaulins.
- Withstands high temperatures well, however, prolonged exposure to light will cause yellowing. The good news is that cotton clothes are highly resistant to all bleaches.
- It’s hypoallergenic and doesn’t irritate the skin, which makes it the ideal fabric for all those who suffer from allergies.
- 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.
- Cotton is highly susceptible to attack by mildew and silverfish. Mildew causes rotting and degradation, while silverfish eats cotton and other natural fibers.
- Poor stain resistance.
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.
Care and maintenance
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.
Many man-made fibers were developed in the first half of the 20th century. The first man-made textile fiber produced was viscose rayon (the so-called artificial silk is known as viscose in Europe and rayon in the USA). 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.
Fleece is a popular man-made material manufactured primarily from polyester. It was intended to be a synthetic alternative to wool so it shouldn’t be surprising that it has many properties that are typical of wool. Fleece fabric offers good thermal insulation thanks to its inherent ability to trap still air (between its fibers) next to the skin. When made from polyester, fleece fabric has many properties typical of polyester like durability, hydrophobicity, water repellency, and good resistance to microorganisms, insects, and chemicals. In addition, fleece is light, warm (even when wet), soft and comfortable, highly breathable, easy to work with, relatively cheap, and comes in a variety of weights and finishes. A fleece top is an ideal mid-layer (simple designs work best) used to increase warmth and reduce moisture in less than ideal conditions. Keep in mind that close-fitting fleece tops are better at trapping air close to the body. A fleece jacket is usually wind-resistant and water-repellent and can be used as an outer layer in cool conditions. However, it’s bulkier, less breathable, and needs more time to dry in comparison to a standard fleece top. Moreover, fleece jackets aren’t suitable for hiking in heavy rain or prolonged wet conditions.
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).
- Polyester fibers have low moisture regain value of 0.4%. This makes the fiber and the clothes made of polyester resistant to staining and 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 protection.
- Can be easily textured and readily modified, including its elasticity and pilling ability. COOLMAX is an example of 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. Polyester is perceived by many as the ultimate low-maintenance fabric.
- 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.
- Non-breathable and uncomfortable to wear next to the skin, especially in hot conditions. The main reasons for this are 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.
There is a variety of fabrics (some of them trademarked) made from polyester. Among them, some of the most popular ones are: Capilene, Dacron, Lavsan, Polartec, Primaloft, Terylene, Thermolite, Trevira, etc.
Keep in mind that usually 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.
Care and maintenance
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 optimized performance. The constituent fibers need to be compatible in order to create a successful blend that’s functional and effective. In many cases, there are necessary compromises and trade-offs to be made when engineering fabrics and garments with improved functionality. This functionality usually comes at the expense of another property or increased cost of production.
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.
Main reasons for blending fibers:
- For improved functionality, including strength, durability, wear, crease, and shrinkage resistance, elasticity, etc.
- It improves aesthetic qualities and comfort.
- Reduces cost of production.
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-viscose, polyester-wool, and polyester-cotton 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 and soft and smooth touch but also reduced spreading, moisture accumulation and sticky feeling. Hence, a higher proportion of polyester and a 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. The most common ratios of cotton/polyester are 65/35, 50/50, and 35/65. In general, cotton-polyester blends (or just poly cotton) combine the strengths of the two fibers. For example, they are more durable than 100% cotton fabrics. They are also relatively tear and crease-resistant, easy to wash and take care of. Such blends are also more breathable than pure polyester (but less breathable than pure cotton) and shrink less than cotton. Poly cotton blends are used for pants, shirts, skirts, jackets, uniforms, bedsheets, tablecloths, etc.
FAQs about cotton and polyester
Is cotton breathable?
The short answer is “Yes”. Cotton textile is breathable and non-allergenic, which makes cotton clothes and undergarments comfortable to be worn close to the skin.
Is cotton fabric stretchy?
Compared to other fibers, the elasticity of cotton is relatively low so no, the cotton fabric is not stretchy. Actually, untreated cotton fabrics crease badly because they are not extensible.
Is cotton warm enough for winter?
Cotton can be warm enough for winter, however, cotton clothes are no good for hiking in cold conditions. Why? Winter hiking clothes need to be wind-resistant and capable of providing thermal insulation without being too bulky. Moreover, they should allow moisture transfer from the body to the environment. Cotton clothes are slow to dry, which leads to an accumulation of moisture inside your clothing system. As a result, your clothing ceases to provide proper thermal insulation often resulting in the development of dangerous conditions such as hypothermia.
Is cotton good for hot weather? (Does cotton keep you cool?)
Yes, cotton is good for hot weather. It is a good conductor of heat, making cotton clothes cool to wear. Moreover, cotton absorbs water and dries slowly making it highly suitable for walking in high temperatures.
Is cotton fabric waterproof or water-repellent?
The short answer is “No”. However, the densely woven breathable fabric, Ventile, is made of extra-long staple cotton. Though the fabric is advertised as weatherproof, it’s technically slightly waterproof. The swelling of the fibers when wet prevents the further passage of water. This way Ventile provides excellent protection against the wind, rain, snow, and cold. It’s used in outdoor sportswear and performance garments.
Is cotton good for hiking?
The answer to this question is both “Yes” and “No”. Cotton clothes dry slowly so they aren’t ideal for activewear worn in cold, wet, windy, and winter conditions. However, loose-fitting cotton garments are ideal for hot weather trekking.
Is polyester breathable?
Polyester isn’t very breathable material. Actually, its breathability varies as it depends on the yarn size and knit or weave.
Is polyester fabric stretchy?
No, polyester textiles aren’t stretchy. The good news is that polyester can be easily blended with spandex and other elastomers resulting in more elastic fabric.
Is polyester warm enough for winter?
Polyester clothes are preferred by many for winter hiking, especially when such clothes are designed for cold weather. They are moisture-wicking and transport moisture away from the skin surface to the outer surface of the fabric keeping the skin dry.
Is polyester good for hot weather? (Does polyester keep you cool?)
No, polyester is no good for hiking in hot conditions. It isn’t very comfortable to wear polyester close to the skin when the temperature is high. Additionally, this fiber isn’t breathable enough to keep you cool in hot conditions.
Is polyester fabric waterproof or water-repellent?
Polyester is naturally water-repellent but it isn’t waterproof. However, thanks to its strength and capability not to absorb water, the polyester fiber is perfect for the application of chemical treatments and finishes such as waterproofing.
Is polyester good for hiking?
Yes, polyester clothes (pants, shirts, and jackets) are good for hiking in most environments and weather conditions. Polyester is an ultraefficient fabric suitable not only for manufacturing hiking apparel but for all kinds of sportswear and performance clothing. Polyester fleece is ideal for mid-layers, while polyester is also a popular choice for the production of base layers and functional jackets.
The choice between cotton and polyester can be really tough
Well…, cotton or polyester – what’s better for backpacking?
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 an intense activity like backpacking, 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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