The Pros (and Cons) of Each Type of Activewear Fabric

There are few — if any — types of clothing in which fashion and function being optimized is as essential as when it comes to activewear. Wearing clothes that perform as great as they look can be the difference between a so-so workout and an amazing one. And just because a separate feels great when you try it on doesn’t mean it will actually perform well when you’re sweating buckets or maintain its shape after multiple hot water washes. To find out the pros and cons of popular activewear fabrics, we turned to three sportswear experts: Alala founder Denise Lee, Michi founder Michelle Watson, and New Balance senior product manager Jeff Garabedian.

1. Cotton

exercise outside, bars, park

Man working out in a cotton tank | iStock.com

We all know and love cotton because it feels great against our skin, which is why it’s such a common fabric for lifestyle apparel products, but unless it’s blended with other more technical fabrics it doesn’t tend to make for great performance garments. “Cotton can hold moisture (i.e. sweat), so you wouldn’t typically create a performance piece made predominantly of cotton unless some sort of wicking application was added,” says Garabedian.

Watson echoed his sentiment by adding that she loves it for loungewear because it’s comfortable, soft, and breathable, but that cotton is not ideal for activewear if you plan to sweat in it. “Natural fibers like cotton absorb and hold sweat so the fabric gets wet and heavy and takes a longer time to dry so while the idea might sound good for the gym, it really isn’t,” says Watson.

2. Spandex

jumping rope, exercise, workout

Spandex shirt | iStock.com

The quintessential workout fabric spandex is known for its ability to recover and stretch. It’s part of almost every tight fitting activewear separate since it’s critical for allowing the body to move comfortably. However, according to Lee, it can easily loose elasticity if repeatedly tossed in the drier, dry cleaned, or ironed.

3. Polyester

Rocky knew what he was doing | iStock.com

Polyester is great for colors | iStock.com

“Polyester is inexpensive, it can be recycled, it’s quite durable (though not as durable as nylon), and it also has low moisture absorbency so with the right treatment it can have wicking and quick dry properties,” explains Watson. “Polyester fabric is much easier to use for digital printing because it takes the color much more easily than nylon and can have very saturated prints.”

One of the reasons it’s so durable is that it’s manufactured by mixing different chemicals together, creating a strong and durable fiber. “Polyester is not likely to shrink when washed and it holds its shape better than most other common fibers in apparel,” notes Garabedian.

4. Nylon

iStock.com

Nylon often wicks away moisture | iStock.com

“Nylon is the most strong and abrasion resistant fiber compared to polyester. It has low moisture absorbency and with the right treatment it can have wicking and quick dry properties,” says Watson. “The fibers are smooth and long lasting which make it much more durable than polyester. Nylon is not the best at absorbing dye so it’s more difficult to achieve saturated color for digital printing.”

5. Bamboo

woman exercising crunches

Yes, bamboo is used to make workout gear | iStock.com

Lee likes bamboo because it “feels very soft, cool, and comfortable to the touch and it’s a very sustainable plant. However even if the plant is sustainable, the process of turning it into fabric can be quite polluting.” Watson adds that it’s also resilient, durable, and has natural moisture-wicking properties. “It keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Bamboo is a renewable resource using one-third the amount of water to grow than cotton and rarely uses pesticides to grow. Bamboo is more expensive than cotton but has a more luxurious feel. Note however that if white bamboo fabric is used it can yellow over time.”

6. Wool

Wool isn't just for sweaters | iStock.com

Wool isn’t just for sweaters | iStock.com

Wool is a natural fiber that’s not only durable but, according to Garabedian, has inherent properties ideal for performance such as exceptional breathability, moisture management, and thermoregulation.