If you spend much time in the outdoors, or around those that do, you’ve probably heard the term death cloth. Cotton is often called this by folks who spend time in damp, cold places. There’s a reason for it. While cotton is an excellent material, it has its limitations and those rear their ugly head when it gets wet.
Cotton can absorb twenty-seven times it’s weight in water. Wool can absorb roughly thirty-six times its weight in water. This would make you think wool would have the same issues as cotton but it doesn’t. Unlike cotton, wool will still keep you warm even when it’s wet.
Both cotton and wool will wick moisture but they do it differently. Wool fiber is naturally hygroscopic, meaning it likes water. A woolen garment can absorb up to thirty percent of its weight in water and still feel dry to the touch. If cotton absorbed this much water, it would feel soaking wet. Wool moves moisture away from the skin and towards the surface where it evaporates.
So we know wool will keep us drier and warmer. It also has other advantages as an outdoor fabric. Camping and outdoor activities usually involve fire. A campfire at the end of a long day is relaxing and enjoyable. Here is yet another place wool outshines cotton. Cotton has an ignition temperature of 410 degrees. Whereas wool has an ignition temperature of 1112 degrees. This adds a level of comfort when working around the fire!
Wool isn’t just for cold weather. I personally have tossed all cotton socks and underwear into the trash in favor of wool. Even in the hot summers of Florida. Wool is naturally antimicrobial and odor resistant. Cotton absorbs moisture that breeds that funky smell we all know after a few days in the woods.
The naturally occurring lanolin in wool is what helps ward off the funk. Also, wool doesn’t necessarily have to be laundered when it does get a little odoriferous. A simple airing out will get rid of any smells that may be hanging around. Whereas cotton would have to be laundered.
Wool is also far more durable than cotton. Cotton fibers will break as the individual fibers making up a thread where bent back and forth around 5000 times. This process combined with friction is why we get holes in our socks. Wool can be worked back and forth tens of thousands of times without breaking. While cotton is a damn good plant based fiber, wool is keratin which is the same thing human hair and rhino horns are made from. The wool fibers are far more resilient to wear and tear.
By now you’re probably saying, okay, wool is better, but it makes me itch. Or, I’m allergic to it. It certainly was the case in years past that most wool garments came with the itch factor. But today’s wool is different. Merino wool is the kind most often used in clothing now and it has a low itch factor. Wool can have fiber diameters that range from larger than thirty microns to less than ten. The smaller the fiber, the less it itches. That’s why Merino wool is graded as fine and ultrafine. The smaller the fiber, the softer and more comfortable the wear.
As to the allergic response, wool isn’t an allergen. It’s been tested and proven not to be the source of reactions in people. What most people thought was a reaction to wool, was the skin’s reaction to the coarse fibers of the old school woolen coats and scarves. Wool really has come a long way.
This isn’t to say cotton doesn’t have a place. It’s a superb insulator when dry. It’s why we like flannel shirts and sheets on our beds on cold nights. It will keep the heat in. But cotton will strip heat away from your body twenty-five times faster as soon as it gets wet. This is how people succumb to hypothermia.
So the next time you’re preparing to head out into the wilder places, take a minute and think about what to put on. Are those jeans and cotton socks what you really want? Or would it be better to choose a material that won’t actively try to kill you should it get wet?