Do you wonder what the differences between wool vs. cotton are?
When you’re packing your bags for your next great adventure, it’s important to know the properties of both fabrics.
Wool and cotton are both durable and comfortable, but there are certain instances where one is better than the other.
Wool vs. Cotton: What’s the Difference?
The biggest difference between wool vs. cotton is their performance in different weather conditions.
Wool is a powerful insulator. In fact, it’s the second-best natural insulator next to goose down. It also repels water and wicks moisture.
Cotton, on the other hand, is a warm-weather fabric. Like wool, cotton has moisture-wicking properties.
But the difference between wool vs. cotton is that cotton is a light, breathable fabric that helps you stay cool in the summer. It also provides excellent protection against the ultraviolet rays of the sun.
When you are horseback riding in a hot, dry desert, for example, it’s best to pack cotton clothes.
Why Choose Wool?
Wool is arguably the oldest fiber in the world. It’s usually from sheep but other animals also provide wool.
Cashmere goats, for example, have soft, luxurious woolen coats. And there is angora wool from angora rabbits.
Shepherds from ancient Mesopotamia began domesticating sheep around 10,000 years ago. But it was only in 6,000 B.C. that they began breeding sheep that grew wool as we know it today.
When it comes to history, there’s not much difference between wool vs. cotton. Textile historians believe Indians and Pakistanis began domesticating cotton at around the same time.
Wool is a fine yet durable fabric that feels soft and gentle on the skin. The finest of its kind is merino wool. Merino wool has longer fibers that are finer and stronger than silk.
What gives wool an advantage in our wool vs. cotton comparison is its excellent ability to repel water. That’s because wool is protected by a thin layer of lipid called lanolin that can’t be removed simply through washing.
Woolen clothes, blankets, and hats are perfect if you love adventuring in cold-weather climates. Wool keeps you warm and dry even when it’s pouring outside.
Despite its water-repellent properties, the inner core of woolen fibers can absorb almost twice its weight in water. When you’re out in humid rainforests, for instance, a woolen blanket will absorb the vapor in the air yet still keep you warm all night long.
Why Choose Cotton?
If you’re choosing between wool vs. cotton, ask yourself what you plan to use it for.
In the warm weather of t-shirt season, most people prefer to wear lightweight and breathable cotton. In fact, most days, most people like to wear cotton.
Cotton is so common that it’s dubbed the fabric of our lives. Every year, approximately 25 million tons of cotton are produced for human consumption. That’s because cotton isn’t only comfortable, it’s also a versatile fabric with a variety of uses.
Cotton is excellent for shirts, socks, and underwear. But it can also be weaved into stronger fabrics such as terry cloth for bathrobes, denim for jeans, and canvas for camping tents.
Like wool, cotton also absorbs moisture to help you feel dry during long, sweaty hikes. It can retain around one-fifth of its weight in water, making it excellent to wear in dry, arid environments.
Canvas tents are prized for their ability to absorb moisture. Camping with canvas tents means you don’t have to worry about condensation building up inside your tent, as you normally would with nylon or polyester tents.
Cotton also provides decent insulation. Wearing cotton can help you feel cool on hot days and warm on chilly nights. However, it’s not as good an insulator as wool.
That is why cotton is used as gauzes and bandages to dress wounds. Baby clothing is also typically made of cotton.
Wool, on the other hand, has lanolin, which can irritate the skin.
That is one of the biggest differences between wool vs. cotton.
Wool vs. Cotton Showdown
Still can’t make up your mind between wool vs. cotton? Let’s break it down into the following.
Soft and strong
One of the big differences between wool vs. cotton is the strength of the individual fibers.
Although both wool and cotton are durable enough for everyday use, wool wins hands down in this department.
Woolen fibers are strong and resilient. They can bend 20,000 times before they start to break. Merino wool, which has longer fibers, is even more durable.
In contrast, cotton starts to break after 3,000 bends.
With proper care, you can expect your woolen clothes and blankets to last several years. And because of its moisture-wicking properties, it absorbs less sweat and retains less odor over the years. Wool also resists stains because of its protective layer of lanolin.
It is a natural flame retardant. It can absorb moisture, which helps prevent it from catching fire. On the other hand, cotton starts to turn yellow at about 248 degrees Fahrenheit. It gets damaged when exposed to temperatures above 464 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wool is also wrinkle-free, unlike cotton, which wrinkles easily. That's due to the resilient wool fibers that quickly go back into shape, even when they have absorbed moisture.
Lastly, wool protects itself from mold and mildew because of the antibacterial and antimicrobial properties of lanolin. Cotton is a plant fiber and doesn’t have the same protective covering as wool.
If you want something that will last for a long time, you need to invest in wool.
When choosing between wool vs. cotton, consider your climate.
Wool is a hydrophobic fiber, which means it is very water-resistant. The lanolin that coats the individual fibers prevents water from quickly seeping in.
At the same time, wool can also absorb a lot of water. That rare combination of traits allows you to feel warm and cozy, even when in cold, wet conditions where the wool is damp from moisture.
In contrast, cotton absorbs water very quickly. When hiking on cold or humid terrains, cotton can get soaked within minutes of being exposed to water vapor.
Not only does wet cotton feel heavy on the skin, but it also keeps your body temperatures low. And that’s a problem that can lead to hypothermia or, in extreme cases, even death.
The best time to wear cotton
In arid climates, cotton can be a godsend. Cotton soaks up sweat from the body, which helps hikers cool down when tromping through the desert. The sweat quickly evaporates in the dry heat of the desert, further providing more cooling.
Still, some hikers don’t like the cold, clammy feeling of wet cotton sticking to their backs while hiking.
A better alternative is merino wool. Merino wool is the highest-quality wool you can find on the market, and for a lot of good reasons.
When comparing wool vs. cotton, this certain type of wool always gets the upper hand.
In terms of weather resistance, merino wool can protect the body against sudden temperature changes. It can keep you warm when it’s a nippy night outside and cool on those days when the world around you feels like an oven.
When you’re sweating buckets, merino wool pulls the moisture from your skin to help you stay dry. And in hot, humid climates where it absorbs moisture from the air, merino wool can help you feel cool.
That is why high-end sports brands use merino wool for their premium sportswear. It draws sweat from the body, helping you feel cool and comfortable as you exercise.
Warm as toast
If you’re planning to hike in cold-weather terrains and you can’t decide between wool vs. cotton, choose the latter.
Wool provides excellent insulation to help you stay warm, whether you’re out on the trail or camping for the night. Wool fibers are bulkier than cotton, allowing them to trap air and heat and provide warmth in cold conditions.
You’ll find a lot of wool winter jackets precisely because it’s a powerful insulator.
Cotton also helps insulate your body from weather extremes, but it’s simply not as good as wool. Often, manufacturers will add cotton as an extra layer in multi-fabric clothes to provide extra warmth.
But if you really want to wear cotton in colder climates, choose denim or canvas jackets that are wax-treated to provide extra durability against extreme conditions.
Hand-wash vs. machine wash
Wool and cotton are both easy to care for.
Wool hardly retains odors and stains, so you don’t have to worry about washing it often. But when you need to wash it, you need to be gentle with it. It’s best to hand-wash wool using cool water and a mild detergent.
On the other hand, cotton can withstand higher water temperatures and harsher detergents. You can throw it in the washing machine as well. You do need to wash cotton after each use, though.
Wool vs. Cotton Showdown
Now that you know the difference between wool vs. cotton, it’s time for you to decide which one to choose.
Wool clearly has a lot of advantages over cotton. It’s more durable, weather-resistant, and a better insulator.
However, cotton is hypoallergenic, easy to care for, and affordable. When it comes to camping tents, cotton also makes a great material.
Which one do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below.
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