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Cotton or Moisture Wicking Polyester?

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Do you remember the days before the term “moisture wicking” was part of the modern lexicon? Those were the days of scratchy wool, an uncomfortable situation for many. Fortunately, fabrics have progressed.

A quick recap for those who are just noticing the moisture wicking movement: moisture wicking fabrics move moisture, from sweat, away from the skin. Sweating is a natural thermoregulation mechanism of your body, but when sweat remains next to your skin in cooler temperatures, it can lead to hypothermia. It doesn’t have to be very cold, since most hypothermia cases happen around 50 degrees F.

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In your day to day life, you probably don’t wear moisture wicking fabrics. Chances are you have some cotton on. Cotton has a propensity to absorb moisture and keep it next to the skin. If you work up a sweat on a cold day in cotton clothing, that moisture can chill to the bone once you cool down. On the other hand, cotton is great for hot climates where you want to keep that moisture around to cool you off.

The difference between cotton, among other absorbent materials, and moisture wicking fabrics comes down to fibers. Cotton fibers absorb moisture, holding on to it and aiding in convection, for better or worse.


The fibers of wicking materials are hydrophobic, meaning they resist water absorption. They also have a capillary action that moves moisture from areas of high concentration to low concentration, the so-called wicking property. Once the moisture reaches the outside of the fabric, it evaporates, or moves on to the next layer to start the process anew.

Many of the wicking materials on the market today are made from synthetic fibers, like polyester, which begins its life as a petroleum product. If you’ve ever seen motor oil float on water, it’s easy to understand the hydrophobic nature of polyester fabrics. Some materials are coated with an additional hydrophobic chemical coating. Scotchguard is a consumer version of these chemicals.

Natural Moisture Wicking Fibers

For those who like their fibers au natural, there are other options. The most well known is wool, which has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, thanks to the popularity of merino wool. Unlike other some wool types, merino wool doesn’t itch. The comfort of merino has converted many people to wearing wool. Merino wool is fairly expensive, compared to cotton.

Bamboo, from the tree of the same name, is an excellent wicking fiber that has enjoyed more mainstream support in the last ten years. Bamboo is softer than cotton, antibacterial, wicking, and extremely versatile. Like merino wool, it is more expensive than cotton or merino wool.

Custom Moisture Wicking at DFC

Moisture wicking options at DFC are confined to polyester knits at this point. And 50/50 (cotton/polyester), but some might call that cheating. The price of natural moisture wicking materials is prohibitive for most customers looking for a custom print job.

The same range of treatments that apply to cotton also apply to polyester, even though there are minute differences in the process. Polyester has the unfortunate tendency towards dye migration so additional steps are sometimes necessary. We can do screen printing on small or large orders of polyester shirts.

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