Activewear Array: Which Fabric Is Right for You?

Activewear Array: Which Fabric Is Right for You?

If you’ve ever gone shopping for activewear, you know that there’s a bewildering array of options available.

Every week, it seems, there is a new player in this billion-dollar market, making choosing the right clothing for you even more tricky. Should you opt for a well-known or no-name brand? How important is style? Which fabric is suitable for which activity? And, most importantly, which fabric is going to give you the comfort and flexibility that you need?

If you choose a fabric that is not breathable, too heavy, or overly restrictive, you are not going to be comfortable. Anyone who has dealt with chafing knows that comfort is key.

While there are really no Golden Rules for which fabric works best for each activity, there are some basic guidelines to remember. Think of them as Silver Rules.

An Overview of Natural Fibers

Cotton. In many regards, once-ubiquitous cotton has been replaced by more high-tech fabrics. However, this “old-school” fabric still offers a lot of benefits for lower-performance, less sweat-creating activities. Pick up a pair of cotton yoga pants or a T-shirt, and you’ll find that the fabric has a deodorizing effect that other fabrics lack.

Wool. Ever been snowboarding or skiing and experienced that awful cycle of “too hot, too sweaty, too hot, too sweaty again”? If so, that means your clothing isn’t right. That’s where wool comes in. If this versatile fabric isn’t a mainstay of your winter wardrobe, it should be. The main benefit of wool is that it helps regulate body temperature, ensuring that you’re comfortable no matter the temperature or the rigorousness of what you’re doing. Be especially on the lookout for Merino wool, as this tends to be less scratchy.

Bamboo. Bamboo clothing? A relative newcomer to the activewear world, bamboo is not only an eco-friendly, biodegradable fabric, but it has better moisture-wicking properties than cotton and will keep you cool. It will also help keep you odor-free, which is never a bad thing when you’re putting everything into that gym workout. 

Tencel (aka lyocell). Just like bamboo, Tencel is made from wood pulp. And if wearing wood while exercising sounds odd, you’ll get over that quickly. Tencel has incredible wicking properties, is breathable, and is biodegradable. What’s more, it looks like silk, is as soft as cotton, and is as smooth as rayon. It’s no wonder, then, that the slogan its manufacturers use is “Feels so right.”

An Overview of Synthetic Fibers

Nylon. Few fabrics are as durable as nylon. Activewear made from nylon can take a lot of abuse – and a lot of sweating – and still look and feel terrific. The material does not absorb or retain moisture like many natural fabrics. Whatever your activity of choice, you can’t go wrong with nylon, as evidenced by the number of brand-name clothes that use it.

Spandex (aka Lycra). The fabric of the 1980s (and so-called ‘hair’ rock bands!), spandex is breathable, dries quickly, and wicks moisture. Its elasticity means it won’t restrict your movement in any way. No wonder it’s a go-to fabric for form-fitting activewear. When combined with nylon, it also makes the perfect clothing for cyclists. Spandex is also known by its brand name, Lycra, and often used in a wide variety of products including compression socks and even kinesiology tape.

Polyester. Once the domain of cheap shirts, polyester is arguably the most common synthetic fabric around. It’s certainly come a long way since the 1970s. The best thing about it is that it stretches nicely, retains its shape, and pretty much resists wrinkling. When it’s used in cotton blends, it is incredibly soft to the touch. In fact, chances are you won’t even know you’re wearing polyester unless you look at the label.

Acrylic. You’ll find this fabric in a wide range of activewear, especially in the filling of winter jackets since acrylic has unique properties that make it lightweight as well as heat-retaining. So, if you’re looking for a coat for winter sports, look out for acrylic on the label. Interestingly, acrylic has become one of the go-to wool replacements for knitting. Winter hats, gloves, and scarves can all be made from acrylic rather than wool and will keep you just as toasty when you hit the slopes. 

Acetate. One of the oldest of the man-made synthetic fabrics, acetate has been used in clothing for over a century. Until recently, most clothes made of acetate were labeled ‘rayon.’ Acetate is highly breathable, wicks easily, dries quickly, and has none of that annoying static cling.

Rayon. Like acetate, rayon (or viscose) is made from cellulose fiber. And like acetate, it can be made to feel like wool, cotton, linen, or even silk. In fact, it’s often referred to as artificial silk. When it comes to activewear, rayon is prized for its strength, its softness, and its absorbency.

If you’re looking for something that’s durable, comfortable, and capable of holding up against excess moisture, you’ll want to start with nylon and rayon. If that doesn’t suit your fancy, there are plenty of suitable alternatives out there. Take your time. Do your research. And focus on comfort so you can truly enjoy your activity of choice, whether you’re surfing, cycling, or running that next marathon.

Chris Scalise

Chris Scalise is a technical writer and content strategist from Los Angeles, California. In addition to providing and editing content on behalf of leading brands, such as, he frequently writes about emerging trends in the tech sector and covers developments in health, wellness, and science.

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