Wool vs. Cotton: When and Where

Written By: Jeremiah Greco

“I’ve never had a sweater as good as this one. It is extremely warm and needed since we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The look can be used if dressing up or down; and the color goes with any outfit. It doesn’t overheat and the light weight makes me forget that I’m even wearing a sweater.” – Locksley from North Carolina

The days and nights are cooling off and it’s time to trade in those cotton garments for wool sweaters, socks, pants and jackets. But why? What makes wool so warm and comfortable in cold weather and what makes wool the clothing of choice for athletes and businessmen alike?

The wool vs. cotton debate, while having historical roots, is somewhat more modern as we have more choices in clothing and have come to accept just about cotton everything. And let’s be clear, this is not a cotton-bashing rant. We all love cotton! It’s just that wool is better suited as an insulator and for the moisture control needed when winter comes around. Heck, some garments like merino wool socks can easily be worn every season of the year, especially lighter weight merino wool blend socks. But we’re here to talk about November thru April in the north and high country, where wool rules the roost… or pasture.

As I talked about in my post on the history of wool sweaters, the use of wool dates way back. All those biblical stories involving sheep? Yeh, wool sheep were domesticated between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago! However, people at that time didn’t have the luxury of choosing what textile was most comfortable or versatile. Fortunately, our ancestors were smart and chose wool. And here are some of the properties of wool we’ve been enjoying ever since.

Wool is durable:  Wool can withstand the rigors of daily use. (I have wool socks from college that are still going strong.) Wool fibers can bend over 20,000 times, where as cotton can only take 3,000. But its durability doesn’t only apply 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 blazers and suits. You don’t want your business attire looking saggy.

Wool creates loft: Wool fibers allow for tiny air pockets in the fabric. Contrary to your first guess, those air pockets are what allow for better insulation. (They’re small enough to trap heat, not let it escape.) Similar to the way that down traps heat in its air pockets, wool retains your warmth to keep you comfortable when the temperature drops. Cotton, however, lets heat escape.

Wool wicks: Unlike cotton, wool pulls water away from your skin to keep you dry. That means that it not only can keep you warm, but it can also keep you cool by helping to evaporate sweat, making it versatile. Its wicking properties also help in wet weather. 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 cool, wet climate. Just think of one of the most famous wool garments, the Irish Fishing Sweater. It was designed for functioning in the cold, wet climates on the waters of the Irish coast. If it can keep those fishermen warm, it will certainly keep you warm.

Other benefits: Amazing you say? Well, wool gets even better! It’s also considered neutrally flame retardant. Additionally, wool doesn’t soil easily. Small spills run right off, and wool’s fibers do not easily trap oils or dirt. Finally, wool is a renewable resource that, while not perfect, is pretty green when the sheep are properly cared for. For instance, it takes 2,500 liters of water to grow enough cotton for one T-shirt, while it takes 500,000 liters to produce a whole metric ton of wool.

So stock up on those wool sweaters, socks, blazers and more this season. It could be the closest thing we have to a perfect fiber. And while cotton has its own merits (which I’ll get into later) you can be confident that wool wins the wool vs. cotton debate this round.

2 thoughts on “Wool vs. Cotton: When and Where

  1. matthew burden

    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…..?

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