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Advancements in Cotton Activewear Could Give the Synthetic Kind a Run for Its Money

The rise in athleisure, which took yoga pants from the studio to the streets as everyday wear, has given rise to greater use of synthetics, though that’s come with its pros and cons.

Though cotton hasn’t been top of mind when it comes to performance apparel, brands are tapping the natural fiber for their in-demand activewear, and the gap between what cotton can do and what synthetics can do may be shrinking.

“Performance activewear, traditionally, has been dominated by synthetic fibers, sought after for their lightweight performance by brands and retailers,” said Mark Messura, senior vice president in the global supply chain marketing division at Cotton Incorporated. “Consumers have always welcomed cotton, but just have not seen enough of it offered. But that’s changing.”

Innovative cotton activewear products are making more and more appearances on store shelves, and according to Messura, brands like Orvis, Outdoor Research and Mammut have brought more of these goods to market to fill what’s becoming a growing consumer demand.

“These tops and outerwear products are part of the activewear assortment that consumers are looking for—and they feature innovations in moisture management and water repellency that consumers have come to expect in high performance apparel,” Messura said.

Cotton activewear, according to experts who wear it and brands who use it in their products, can be more comfortable next to the skin, more breathable, lighter in weight with a drape that also adds to comfort, and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t retain odor.

“Cotton washes clean—polyester and nylon do not,” Messura said. “That’s a big performance advantage for cotton in a category where consumers are, by definition, active.”

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Agreeing with that sentiment, Jason Duncan, senior director for tactical, innovation and CSR at Seattle, Washington-based Outdoor Research said cotton’s ability to wash clean without retaining odor has been key to the fiber’s increased uptake in activewear.

“If athletes are recreating in a hot/humid climate, the hydrophilic nature can be a benefit in certain situations where evaporative cooling is desired,” Duncan said. “Blending with functional synthetics or pre-treatment of the yarns broadens the assortment in our industry.”

Advancements in cotton activewear

Answering the 58 percent of consumers who want activewear that washes clean and the 46 percent who want gear that monitors hydration, according to Cotton Incorporated research, the organization, which is dedicated to advancing cotton production and manufacturing, has developed several technologies to improve the fiber’s performance capabilities.

TransDRY, for one, offers moisture management performance. The yarn treatment gives product developers and designers flexibility to incorporate this performance in specific areas of the garment. Under Armour is already using it in its Charged Cotton collection, Eddie Bauer uses it for its FreeDry range and The North Face has used it in garments with its FlashDRY technology.

Storm Cotton is another technology that makes cotton activewear water repellant and gives it a breathable finish that can be applied to outerwear, shoes or other textiles.

For Outdoor Research, Storm Cotton is one such technology that has helped the brand elevate its offering.

“At Outdoor Research, we have always required functional textiles for our end user, whether natural or synthetic,” Duncan said. “We have generally approached technical cotton in terms of two products: Storm Cotton (durable water repellent properties) for the drizzle and mist of the Pacific North West, and Tough Cotton (high tenacity Cordura for abrasion resistance) for our climbing assortment.”

As Duncan added, “Cotton has a place in the outdoor industry beyond T-shirts. The comfort of cotton has always been appealing and with added functionality it can expand into climate-appropriate sports.”

At Mammut, technical cotton has made its way into hiking pants. The brand’s Trovat Advanced Pants claim to be “just at home in the mountains as they are in the city,” according to the company’s website. Made from a stretchy, breathable cotton, with a pre-shaped knee to allow for range of movement, the Trovat pants also use Storm Cotton technology, which makes them water-repellent and able to dry 40 percent faster than untreated cotton.

“Cotton can achieve superior performance as well,” Messura said. “And it has the added benefit of being a natural fiber in the activewear category where consumers want to be active in the environment.”

Whether it’s climbing or running or hiking, Cotton Incorporated’s recent Activewear Study says tech features have come second to comfort for 70 percent of consumers, second to fit for 65 percent, quality for 62 percent, and 58 percent of consumers value a garment that washes clean over one with fancy performance features.

What’s next for cotton activewear?

As the technology advances, more brands are figuring out how to deliver on comfort, fit, odorlessness and performance all at once.

For Outdoor Research, blends with cotton may be the most successful way forward for the category.

“Blends are the future for cotton at a brand like Outdoor Research,” Duncan said. “For our climbing community cotton has always had appeal in the warmer climates. The blending of Cordura with cotton in both knits and wovens has expanded the versatility for our athletes. I look forward to even more blends to increase the functionality of these fabrics.”

Advancements in technical cotton aren’t expected to abate anytime soon, as demand for activewear won’t be letting up either.

“The activewear category as a whole is expected to grow significantly in years to come,” Messura said. “It’s driven by comfort more than any other technical performance feature. As consumers continue to look for crossover apparel products that allow them to go from sports to leisure or outdoor, cotton works well in all those uses.”