Wool vs. Cotton: When and Where

Wool and cotton are natural fibers with four-season versatility—whether they’re used in sweaters, performance wear, pants, or tops. In wool versus cotton comparisons, each emerges a champ, with winning qualities perfect for different articles of clothing, weather conditions, and activities. Our ancestors understood their benefits, as the use of both cotton and wool in clothing dates back thousands of years. Let’s explore the standout properties of each, and when to choose one material over the other.

Why Wear Wool?

Wool has been a prized textile used in woven clothing since humans first spun the fibers of sheep’s wool into yarn in ancient Mesopotamia. Over the millennia, techniques for spinning, weaving, and knitting wool were refined, and modern clothing manufacturing and blended materials have made it even more versatile. Today, the natural fiber is used in wool sweaters, socks, pants, dresses, and jackets.

Wool Is Durable.

Wool can withstand the rigors of daily use. Wool fibers (and comparable synthetics) can bend over 20,000 times before they break, whereas cotton can bend only 3,000 times—a clear benefit in performance socks, for example. But its durability doesn’t apply just to punishing use: wool’s ability to withstand wear while continuing to keep its shape and look good makes it a top choice for wool sport coats and suits. You don’t want your business attire looking saggy.

Wool Is Insulating.

Wool fibers form tiny air pockets that trap heat. Similar to the down in coats and comforters, wool retains your warmth to keep you comfortable when the temperature drops—it’s the reason wool sweaters take center stage in your wardrobe during the fall and winter.

Wool Wicks Moisture.

Wool pulls water away from your skin to keep you dry, which is vital for remaining warm in cold weather. The wicking process also keeps you cool by facilitating evaporation, which has a cooling effect on the surface of your skin. This wicking property is why fine-woven, lightweight Merino wool is used in sportswear, and in summer suits, pants, and sweaters perfect for summer evenings or air-conditioned environments. In addition to helping you maintain a comfortable body temperature, this wicking process keeps you and the fabric dry, thereby preventing the buildup of bacteria that create body odor.

Is Wool Waterproof?

Wool is water-resistant rather than fully waterproof. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water, yet still retains 80% of its insulating property when wet, making it ideal for cold, wet climates. The Irish Fishing Sweater, one of the most famous wool garments, keeps fishermen warm as they face high winds and sea spray off the coast of Ireland.

Why Wear Cotton?

Cotton fibers come from the fluffy white ball of cotton plants cultivated around the world. All cotton plant varieties produce fabric that is comfortable and versatile. Strong and soft, cotton is used in clothing, upholstery, and bed sheets, and in coffee filters, bookbinding, and for other applications beyond textiles. The Egyptian cotton and Peruvian Pima cotton plants have especially long fibers that produce fabric with a silky finish—which gives Egyptian cotton sheets and Pima cotton tops and tees their luxurious feel.

Cotton Is Soft.

There’s a reason cotton is used for tees, underwear, and everyday socks—it has a pleasant softness that doesn’t chafe or itch. Pulling on a Peruvian Pima cotton top fresh from the dryer surely counts among life’s many pleasures.

Cotton Is Versatile.

Chambray. Corduroy. Flannel. Poplin. Chenille. Gingham. Fleece. The list of favorite fabrics made from cotton is long. And cotton fabric is used in every type of clothing you can imagine, from dresses and socks to pullovers and coats. When specially treated with age-old techniques, like the wax Barbour applies to its cotton jackets, the material becomes waterproof. Cotton also dyes beautifully, resulting in bright, colorful clothes that don’t fade.

Cotton Is Breathable.

In a lightweight weave, cotton is breathable—allowing for cooling and drying airflow; this quality makes cotton clothing a summertime staple. Cotton doesn’t wick quite like wool and linen clothing, but it does absorb moisture to help keep you dry. It’s perfect for warm days and light workouts when you don’t sweat profusely. If you’ve worn jeans on a hot day, you know heavier cotton weaves don’t offer the same breathability as airy, lightweight cotton.

Now that we’ve covered the exceptional qualities of each, let’s take a closer look at how types of cotton and wool compare, and how the fabrics perform head to head in different pieces of clothing.

Pima Cotton vs. Merino Wool

Merino wool and Peruvian Pima cotton are known and loved for their supreme softness in clothing. Each also comes from specialty sources. Merino wool comes from Merino sheep, whose fleece provides super-fine wool fibers that trap tiny pockets of air for unmatched insulation. Peruvian Pima cotton comes from its namesake plant, which produces extra-long staple cotton fibers that create a satiny texture when woven.

Merino wool sweaters have a luxurious feel, and keep you warm in winter—without bulk—and cool in warm weather. The breathable and wicking properties of Merino wool keep you dry, which prevents the buildup of the odorous bacteria that thrive in moist environments—making it a popular choice for thin base layers and socks for hiking, fishing, and outdoor enthusiasts.

Peruvian Pima cotton is used in the same wide range of clothing as other types of cotton, but it lends each item a satiny softness. In tees, pullovers, and knit sweaters, Pima cotton is unmatched in laid-back luxury.

Cotton vs. Wool in Socks

Cotton socks are the go-to choice for laid-back summer days, everyday wear, and light activity for good reason. They are comfortable, breathable, soft, and durable. But when your feet get sweaty, Merino wool socks are the ones to grab. Once again, it’s wicking for the win during intense exercise, hiking, fishing, and other outdoor adventures. The wool fibers wick moisture and encourage evaporation when your feet sweat or get wet. Cotton absorbs water, which creates friction—and, in short order, painful blisters.

Cotton vs. Wool in Sweaters

Whether in thick cableknits or fine Merino sweaters, wool is the classic sweater material. Thick conventional wool is a wintertime staple, while Merino wool sweaters offer comfort and warmth year-round—keeping you cool in the heat and warm in the cold. Thick sweaters in some types of wool can be itchy and rough against your skin, so you’ll need a layer beneath the sweater. Merino wool sweaters are free from that scratchy wool feeling because of their soft, smooth fibers.

Cotton is an inviting material for sweaters. Cotton pullovers, zip-front hoodies, chunky knits, or fine-weave tunics: a cotton sweater delivers warmth and softness. Lightly woven and open-knit cotton sweaters are also great for spring and summer.

Cotton vs. Wool in Dress Pants

You probably lean towards chinos in 100% cotton or a cotton-blend fabric for your dress pants. With their elegant flat fronts and concealed pockets, chinos have a finished silhouette that is perfect for the office or evenings out. Depending on the weight of the fabric, they can take you through the year, with tighter, heavier weaves offering warmth and wind protection in the winter, and lightweight chinos offering breathability in the summer.

Wool trousers offer another layer of refinement in dress pants, elevating them above business casual. They provide warmth in winter, especially in a Donegal tweed, but also make a comfortable option in spring and fall in a tropical weight weave.

Cotton and wool offer comfort and style in abundance, each in its own way. Pima cotton tees and pullovers make great core pieces, as do stretch denim jeans, chinos, and khakis—which all start with cotton. Wool sweaters and coats warm in winter, while luxurious Merino wool makes a sophisticated sweater with year-round versatility. Rather than wool versus cotton, think wool and cotton—because these natural fabrics work together to create a perfect wardrobe.

10 thoughts on “Wool vs. Cotton: When and Where”

    1. Wool is a better insulator than cotton. I did this science experiment in school and the wool kept the water bottle colder. The cotton didn’t because it breathes better than wool.

  1. Compared to wool, cotton is no good for anything except maybe for making underwear and towels. Of course there are so many types of wool taken from various animals to yield countless uses and nearly always more suitable than cotton. Even your best under garments are made from the finest wool – and softer than cotton. Wearing cotton when compared to wool is impractical, it does not wick and dry off moisture during the summer and there is little thermal value in winter. Merino socks can be worn in summer whereas a more coarse woolen sock such as a soft premium Black Welsh Mountain Sheep’s wool should be worn in winter. Right now in the middle of May, I am wearing pure yak wool socks – warmer than most animal fur. Fine woolen shirts and pants (skirts) should replace cotton for thermal or at least ascetic reasons and worn underneath a pure wool overcoats and wool hat of some kind – yes wool instead of down parkas since wool will still keep you warm when soaking wet whereas her down parka would be forever ruined. Practically all of your garments of wool should be of pure wool for synthetic blends only increase company profits and executive compensation. Insist only only pure wool of your choice and except maybe for business suits and overcoats or other heavy garments, you and only you should hand-wash and machine spin your wool garments and hang dry or shape – out of direct sunlight. “Dry cleaning” only ruins your wool and heaven only knows what those chemicals do to cotton. As far as a summer hat – the wool hat is much better – the wool will insulate, wick and dry off sweat whereas cotton will not. If you want a beach blanket – get a military surplus blanket from Eruope (American are wool blends with high amounts of nylon) for when we were children we always used WW1 GI OD wool blankets that were still available in the 60’s, whereas the cotton blankets only absorbed sand in the damp ocean air. Shall I go on…..?

    1. Thanks for the write up on wool Matt, we completely agree with all your points. You might be interested to take a look at our brand A NEW SWEDEN.

      Sweden destroys 70% of the wool it produces, which we think is a travesty. Our mission is to turn this “waste” wool into beautiful, timeless clothing, made purposefully for Nordic environments.

      Our first garment is a jersey sweatshirt—it looks like it’s made from cotton but is 100% natural wool with no super wash / plastic treatments on it. If you’re as passionate about wool as we are, we’re sure you’ll love it.

  2. I didn’t realize that wool can bend over 20,000 times before it will break. My sister is wanting to go on a week long backpacking trip, and need some clothes that will be able to withstand that. I will have to ask her if she has looked into wool, as it can handle the rough terrain, and will be warm as well. https://www.leroymac.com.au/

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