Plenty of fabrics, both natural and synthetic, make up our wardrobes. Among natural fabrics, though, two stand alone as the major contributors to fashionable and functional clothing alike: Cotton and wool.
It’s difficult to name one as better than the other, as both have completely different makeups and react differently on a variety of levels. In order to get a full analysis of how these two stand up together, we need to weigh the pros and cons of each.
Cotton is produced from the white, soft part of the cotton plant. The earliest recorded cotton products emerged from Egypt, but the cotton gin from India was the true start of a movement. On the modern world stage, India, the United States, China, and many other countries are all significant producers of cotton.
Once the plant is grown, with specific varieties requiring specific conditions, it is harvested, and the fibrous part is separated from the husk of the plant. The white fluff (henceforth referred to specifically as “cotton” to avoid confusion) is combed clean of any impurities, then spun into a yarn. At this point, it is ready to be made into any number of cloth garments or household goods.
Different variations of cotton grow in different climates. Two types of cotton grow in the U.S: American Upland cotton and Pima. American Upland is produced in extremely high quantities and is a workhorse fabric usually included in products that proclaim themselves to be 100% cotton without specifying what type of cotton they are made of.
On the other hand, Pima cotton is a top-quality breed of cotton mainly grown in the American Southwest but is a popular export to other nations. Pima cotton originated in a bid to create an American variety of cotton equal to the highest quality Egyptian cotton, and the results speak for themselves.
The quality of a cotton product is partially determined by the length of the fibers. Pima cotton has extra-long fibers, which means that the material is softer, more durable, and highly resistant to pilling and wrinkling. In the end, Pima is the result of ambitious engineers going out and doing exactly what they intended to do. Because cotton is produced from plants, modern cotton production is highly sustainable and cruelty-free.
Wool production involves workers shearing the coats of sheep. This agricultural practice has been around for over 10,000 years. Now, there are more than 1,000 breeds of sheep. After harvesting, wool is then either turned into worsted or woolen garments based on the thickness of the fibers.
There are many types of wool, but Olivers focuses on Merino wool. Merino wool originated in Spain. Merino sheep were a common gift amongst royalty, which is one way this popular wool type spread. Today, the majority of modern production is centered in Australia, which is also where we source our Merino.
Wool served a specific purpose in pre-modern history: Unlike plant-based fiber, the means of production for wool was mobile. Transporting and crossbreeding sheep is a far easier process than attempting to grow new strains of cotton in unfamiliar soil. For this reason, the production of wool products could be considered in climates not conducive to fiber plant growth. Over the centuries, wool has been noted for its reliability.
Cotton is produced in massive quantities, meaning that even high-quality cotton garments such as those made from Pima remain relatively affordable.
Cotton does have a few drawbacks as a garment, however. Because cotton absorbs moisture, long workouts or exposure to heavy rain can cause uncomfortable dampness. This material’s absorbency includes its ability to retain scents, which may be good for your cologne but bad for many other smells.
When it comes to Olivers, we only use Japanese Supima (short for “superior Pima”) in our Classic French Terry offerings. This means that comfort is at a premium while the extra-length fibers assure durability. Just as Pima stands out among other cotton varieties, so too is there a high standard for Pima to be labeled as Supima.
Cotton is a great jumping-off point for creativity in comfort and activewear. Besides Supima, other forms of cotton, like Pique Cotton Tech, have revolutionized men’s wear. While cotton has a reputation for a long drying timing, this advanced technology has resulted in a fast dry that can handle anything you throw at it.
Our hoodies, crewnecks, and sweats also operate as midlayers. This ensures that if you want to layer up for comfort or for your workout, you won’t have to deal with the issues cotton can present as a base layer.
Wool can be costly, as this textile includes luxury materials like vicuna, cashmere, and merino. Low-quality wool can also feel scratchy when worn as a bottom layer, causing itching or discomfort.
Despite this potential drawback, wool has a high pedigree when it comes to what it can offer. Wool has moisture-wicking properties and a high saturation point, meaning that it will keep you dry and can be exposed to a greater degree of direct moisture before feeling soggy. Wool is also odor-resistant compared to other materials.
Wool also isn’t always the itchy material some make it out to be. The way wool feels on the skins is determined by many things, including the thickness of the fabric fibers, which are measured in microns. Wool under 30 microns is generally comfortable on the skin, with some ultra-luxe products well below that threshold.
Take Merino Wool. Merino wool is incredibly soft and considered ultra-fine, with some designs featuring wool with less than 20 microns. Merino wool also offers a special property unmatched by other fibers. King Charles IV of Spain prized this fabric, and it’s easy to see why.
The inner wool of Merino sheep controls thermoregulation, which always helps to keep them dry while regulating their body temperature in a range of climates. This contradicts the reputation wool has as a purely warm garment, making it perfect as a base layer under any condition. Olivers uses Australian Merino wool with an 18.5 Micron Merino in our active jersey line to create an athletic tee that has performance and longevity at heart.
Comparing Wool and Cotton Side-by-Side
Now that we’ve done a deep dive into wool and cotton individually, it’s time to compare these two powerful materials.
When it comes to usage as athletic wear, wool has regular cotton beat. Compared to cotton, wool has superior moisture-wicking properties and anti-absorption features. These factors prevent the spread of bacteria and expel odor, ensuring that your clothes stay fresh longer. Cotton, on the other hand, may wind up drenched and odorous depending on the extent of your active lifestyle.
This is not to say cotton is totally inferior to wool. Because cotton production has a higher yield than wool production, high-quality cotton tends to be cheaper than its wool counterparts. Wool with a high micron count can contribute to an unpleasant feeling when rubbed against bare skin. Wool might also feel less comfortable than cotton garments, especially those made from Supima.
As far as ethics in production go, both wool and cotton are exemplary materials. The chemicals used in synthetic production make for a high-yield product but can also create damaging pollutants unless special precautions are taken.
Cotton, on the other hand, is perfectly sustainable and highly efficient. Wool is also sustainable, but wool imports from some countries do not treat their livestock as well as they should. Look for manufacturers that source their materials from countries that ensure ethical wool production, such as New Zealand or Australia.
Cotton and wool both have some special features that can’t be simply examined in a binary. Supima cotton is remarkably breathable, durable, and has a feature unique to cotton in that the material becomes stronger the more it is exposed to water. On the other hand, the thermoregulating nature of wool provides multi-season benefits that neither natural nor synthetic fabrics are capable of matching.
Once you lay out the differences between cotton and wool, choosing between the two becomes a whole lot easier. Despite this, identifying which one is better is an entirely different story.
Weighing Your Options
Choosing between wool and cotton is partly a matter of practicality and partly a matter of purpose. If you are hunting down gear for athletic performance, wool is the way to go. If you’re looking for a regulating mid-layer to add to your workout gear, high-quality cotton gives you maximum comfort at the cost of more frequent washes. Whichever material you go with, by focusing on quality products, you’ll find quality results in whatever you do.