Which Material Provides Warmth Even When Wet

Sweating is a bodily function that helps regulate your body temperature. Also called perspiration, sweating is the release of a salt-based fluid from your sweat glands especially during exercise. Changes in your body temperature, the outside temperature, or your emotional state can cause sweating which can wet your clothes depending on the quantity.

Beyond sweating, the rains can also wet your clothes unexpectedly since many have to go to work when the rains come and some family members will have to go to school. Keeping warm amidst the drench is one challenge many families grapple with every year.


Which Material Provides Warmth Even When Wet?

The simple answer is cotton! The fabric structure of cotton is such that the fiber layers are pretty close to each other leaving very little space between them. The inherent property of cotton makes it water absorbent with a high water retention ratio.

In summer, when you wear cotton, the absorption property of cotton wicks the sweat from your body, and the hot atmosphere absorbs the water from the cotton fabric, making you feel light and less warm. The same property of the cotton can act against you in winter. Even though the tight layering of cotton fibers provides an additional layer that can keep you warm, if you engage in anything that makes you sweat, it can be a problem.

The reason for this is that, in winter, cotton is usually used as a base layer followed by several other layers. That is why when you sweat, the water retention formula of the cotton retains the water, and the jackets do not let it escape. This makes the wet fabric cling to your body making you even colder. So, yes depending on the situation, cotton can make you feel cold or warm.


Why is cotton so cooling?

Cotton is cooler than many other fabrics because it is more breathable than most. Breathability means that moisture vapor (basically humid air) flows easily through cotton relatively more easily than, for example, polyester. This airflow prevents hot air from being trapped near the wearer’s body. The breathability comes from the shape of cotton fibers. As shown in the microscope photographs here, cotton fibers resemble twisted ribbons, which prevents them from sticking tightly together when woven. As a result, there are plenty of open spaces for air to pass through. In contrast, synthetic fibers are usually very smooth and straight “rods” (see photographs farther down the same page).

In addition, cotton is hydrophilic (water sticks to the fibers). This helps by wicking liquid water (e.g., sweat, moisture from the air) away from the wearer’s skin. In combination with airflow, this aids in evaporation of that water, providing an evaporative cooling effect that can be greater than that of damp bare skin. Evaporation helps to cool because the transition from liquid to vapor requires energy, which is taken in from the surroundings, thereby lowering the temperature of the surroundings. [Note though that cotton does not provide the most evaporative cooling – the structure of synthetic and shape of synthetic fibers means that some of them can transport liquid water more easily than can cotton, and therefore, these can exhibit greater evaporative cooling than cotton. However, the structure of these fabrics also reduces their breathability, so they may still feel warmer than cotton.


Some Historical Facts About Cotton

The word “cotton” has Arabic origins, derived from the Arabic word قطن (qutn or qutun). This was the usual word for cotton in medieval Arabic. Marco Polo in chapter 2 in his book, describes a province he calls Khotan in Turkestan, today’s Xinjiang, where cotton was grown in abundance. The word entered the Romance languages in the mid-12th century, and English a century later.

Cotton fabric was known to the ancient Romans as an import but cotton was rare in the Romance-speaking lands until imports from the Arabic-speaking lands in the later medieval era at transformatively lower prices.

The use of cotton for fabric is known to date to prehistoric times; fragments of cotton fabric dated to the fifth millennium BC have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization, as well as fabric remnants dated back to 6000 BC in Peru. Although cultivated since antiquity, it was the invention of the cotton gin that lowered the cost of production that led to its widespread use, and it is the most widely used natural fiber cloth in clothing today.

Current estimates for world production are about 25 million tonnes or 110 million bales annually, accounting for 2.5% of the world’s arable land. India is the world’s largest producer of cotton. The United States has been the largest exporter for many years.


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