Natural Fibers vs. Synthetics for Cold, Wet Days

Whether to use natural or synthetic fibers for your cold-weather clothing is a hotly contested subject. Some advertisers claim that nothing will beat the power of nature’s insulating masterpiece, wool, while others tout that the science behind polyester has created the perfect solution to keeping you warm. But as new knits have been developed for both types of fibers, the truth is that the answer isn’t set in stone and often comes down to preference and specific activity. However, each material has pros and cons when it is used to make winter gear, so let’s break down the information and see which material excels at what.

It’s important to realize that there’s a difference between plant and animal fibers used in natural materials. Here, we’ll start with the plant fibers.

Cotton

When we talk about plant fibers, we are talking about cotton 99% of the time. While hemp, flax, jute, and even bamboo can all be woven into thread suitable for clothing, I couldn’t find any evidence that they’d be much different from cotton. Thus, we will lump all of these materials together as plant fibers.

To put it bluntly, skip the cotton. There’s an old saying in the hiking community: Cotton kills. That’s because cotton makes a fantastic three-season fabric but loses all of its insulating ability when it gets wet. In the winter, cotton is only acceptable when you’re commuting from home to the office. It should be avoided when you’re headed into a situation that has the potential to cause hypothermia.

Wool

There’s a reason for why wool remains one of the most popular fibers for cold, wet days. It offers fantastic insulation. Because of the structure of wool fibers, they even retain part of their insulating capability when wet. Wool is naturally anti-microbial and therefore anti-odor, and with today’s advanced techniques, it can be made into thinner knits that are much more comfortable than the stereotypical itchy wool sweater. The downside of wool is its cost. That’s why I feel wool really shines on the extremities—mittens, gloves, hats, and socks. These articles of clothing often give you a fantastic return on investment when it comes to providing heat and protecting the parts of your body most vulnerable to cold.

Down

Down is noteworthy as a clothing material because it’s frequently used in higher-end winter jackets. Down is one of nature’s best insulators and refers to the white plumage underneath the feathers of winter birds. Both goose and duck down are used in winter clothing, and while goose down is lighter, both are fantastic insulators and well-suited for clothing worn in more extreme temperatures.

Unfortunately, down is very slow to dry. Hikers and outdoorsmen who deal with subzero temperatures need to consider this, because a wet down shell that doesn’t dry overnight can lead to a dangerous situation. Still, down is excellent to use for winter clothing, and when combined with proper waterproofing, it should be a staple in any wardrobe designed for fierce winters.

Synthetics

It’s hard to go wrong with quality synthetic clothing, and you can’t lump synthetic into a single category because of just how versatile it is. To start, understand that all synthetic fibers, most often polyester, consist of various plastics woven into a thread. Because of its artificial nature, polyester is often able to achieve the same thing as their natural counterparts, though with varying degrees of success. Look for name brands such as Primaloft and Thinsulate, which use polyester as a key component and produce insulation that is comparable to down stuffing.

Compared to animal fibers, polyester is a less expensive alternative that is fully capable of making quality winter clothing both as a fabric and an insulator. It excels as a base layer in extremely cold temperatures thanks to the moisture-wicking properties that also makes it great for athletic wear.

Bonus Material: Silk

Silk is not often thought of when considering materials for winter clothing. But it is popular among skiers, who swear by its effectiveness. If you are willing and able to spare the money, silk will make an extremely comfortable base layer.

Conclusion

The bulk of your winter clothing should be made from wool and polyester. Your personal preference and the cost will largely determine which of the two you choose. The only material to avoid is cotton. Ultimately, no matter what you choose, make sure you have a complete cold-weather wardrobe for the climate you’re in—frostbite and hypothermia are very real risks. So find the materials that work for you and keep yourself protected this winter!

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Garrett Ferrara

Garrett is a writer, perpetual student, and seven-year Army veteran. Currently studying Anthropology and Writing & Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida, he's hoping to stretch the G.I. Bill all the way to a PhD. Bilbo Baggins is his favorite literary character; a character that traveled, fought battles, and finally settled into a simple life. He's looking forward to squaring away that last phase.
Garrett Ferrara

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