Choosing a garment involves more than just how it looks, the shape, or the fit. The fabric used in your garment (like wool and cotton) can impact things like its warmth, price, and even its eco-friendliness.
If you were to walk down the street in summer, chances are most people are wearing cotton (it’s the most popular naturally-sourced fabric used in clothing). In the winter, you are more likely to see people wearing wool clothing because it keeps you warmer.
Today we’re going to share the characteristics of wool vs cotton so you can understand why some people prefer one or the other, and so you can make an informed decision the next time you go to buy a new pair of socks, pants, or a jacket.
Are cotton and wool the same?
No. When comparing wool vs cotton, two of the most popular natural fibers used in clothing today, you immediately see two key differences:
- Cotton is light - wool is thicker
- Cotton feels cool - wool feels warm and soft
Aside from that, perhaps the biggest difference is where these materials come from: Cotton comes from cotton plants, whereas wool comes from an animal, the sheep.
When processed into textiles and clothing, cotton is a more economical choice for manufacturers. It also lends itself to clothing manufacturing because it is:
- resistant to abrasion
- washable and ironable at high temperatures
- comfortable to wear
Wool is a more luxury-priced item, due to its scarcity (compared to cotton) but many manufacturers use it for garment manufacturing because it is:
- extremely durable and resistant to tearing
- naturally wrinkle resistant
How are cotton and wool harvested?
Cotton plants are one of the most plentiful crops globally, likely because it’s very economically produced. It comes from the fluffy part around the seeds of the cotton plant. In nature, the fluff is designed to help the seeds travel longer distances in the wind.
To harvest cotton, these puffs and their attached seeds are harvested, usually by machine. Farmers have several harvesting methods, but they typically involve specially designed farm equipment. Once the cotton is harvested, the seeds and debris are removed. Then, it’s spun into bales and sent to the textile mill for processing.
Wool is harvested from the soft fleece on a sheep and is typically done in the spring when the animals no longer need their natural winter coat. The process of harvesting and processing wool includes 6 main steps:
- Shearing the sheep. The average sheep is sheared once per year and produces 2.7 - 8.1 kilograms of wool. Some farmers can shear as many as 200 sheep in a day. Whenever possible, the sheared wool is kept in one piece.
- Grading and sorting. The sheared wool is then graded to sort the wool by quality. The best wool comes from the shoulders and sides and is used for clothing. The rest is used in rugs and other lower-quality products.
- Cleaning and scouring. Contaminants like sand, dirt, grease and dried sweat are removed in alkaline baths. Rollers squeeze the excess water and partially dry the fibers.
- Carding. The mildly wet wool is fed through metal teeth to straighten them into long slivers.
- Spinning. These long fibers are spun into strands to create threads.
- Weaving. The threads are woven into fabric.
Which is better: Cotton vs Wool
To help you compare wool vs cotton when buying clothing, here are some questions to ask yourself to pick the most appropriate material:
Which is warmer?
Wool wins this one, and it’s not even close. Wool’s ability to naturally insulate makes it a good choice when you want to retain warmth. Wool makes for great warm winter jackets and blankets.
Cotton is a better choice for summer or warmer temperatures. This is probably one key reason that most t-shirts are made of cotton blends and not wool.
Which is more durable/stronger?
When comparing just the fibers, cotton fibers have the upper hand over wool fibers in terms of strength. Still, the strength and durability of the garment vary depending on what other materials are mixed with the threads and how the fabric is made.
However, unlike cotton, wool is a more flexible material. Wool fibers can be bent up to 20,000 times without breaking, whereas cotton ones break around 3000. For comparison, silk can bend 2,000 times and rayon fibers just 75 times before breaking.
Which is more eco-friendly?
As natural products, both materials are more eco-friendly than synthetic materials like nylon, spandex, and rayon. Both fabrics are biodegradable and produced from renewable resources. However, the commercialization of these products is where its eco-friendliness starts to decrease. Wool processing and production is a big producer of greenhouse gasses, and cotton is generally grown using more water and pesticides.
We’ll call this one a tie, but either one would be a more eco-friendly and renewable choice when you compare these two fabrics to synthetic fabrics.
Which is more breathable?
Wool garments retain heat well and are generally more breathable in colder temperatures than cotton because it’s breathability goes down to the fiber level. Wearing a cotton sweater will not provide warmth but is likely to make you feel clammy when you sweat, and this can lead to overheating.
However, cotton is more breathable in warm weather and helps soak sweat away from your body to stay cool.
Which performs better when soaking wet?
Wool fibers are naturally coated in lanolin, a natural wax produced by sheep, and protects the fibers from absorbing water too quickly. When water does penetrate the wool, this natural fiber can hold about 30% of its weight in water.
Wool coats, for example, are more moisture-wicking and naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial, making it an excellent material to be next to your skin to prevent trapping moisture next to your body. But, while it’s got great moisture-wicking properties, excess moisture can weaken the fibers. On the other hand, wet cotton will maintain its strength, unlike wool.
Which is less expensive to manufacture?
This is another comparison where there is no contest. Cotton is less expensive than wool for several reasons:
- Cotton can be grown around the world, in larger quantities, year-round (creating a vast supply and lower prices)
- Wool can only be sheared once per year (creating a limited supply, meaning higher prices)
- Costs to feed and care of sheep are greater than the resources to grow cotton fields
Which makes better base wear?
When you plan to wear layers, you want a base layer with the ability to absorb moisture, protect your skin, and manage your body temperature. It should be made of a material that is moisture-wicking and odor resistant. This makes Merino Wool (a gentler, softer version of regular wool and comes from a Merino sheep) one of the best natural fabrics for your base layer. It’s also naturally odor-resistant.
Which makes better outerwear?
The best outer layer for your jacket is one that has Durable Water Repellency (DWR). In wet conditions, DWR coating turns water into beads on the fabric. This will help prevent water from penetrating the fibers and reaching the interior layers of your jacket or to your body.
Which is more flame-retardant?
Pure wool is naturally more flame retardant than cotton. Cotton can be made flame retardant with the use of chemicals or additional compounds.
Are cotton/wool blends the best of both worlds?
In some cases, yes! Blending these different fabrics together works well to harness the properties of both. These cotton/wool fiber blends:
- are warmer and more resilient than 100% cotton garments
- are warmer than 100% wool garments
- are less susceptible to wrinkling
- maintain their appearance, even after multiple washes
- feel good next to the skin
Cotton/wool blends are often found in high-end clothing due to their cost to produce. However, even though it may cost more, these higher-end bands are usually manufactured with closer attention to detail and quality than an off-the-rack cotton t-shirt from a local department store.
How to care for Wool vs Cotton
The best way to keep your cotton or wool clothing looking new is with proper care and washing. The care for each type is slightly different, but not overly complex:
- Wool doesn’t hold on to odor or easily stain, so it doesn’t have to be washed often. When washing time comes, wool garments are best to hand wash in cold water with a mild detergent to avoid ruining the fabric.
- Cotton is more durable and can often be thrown directly in your washer and dryer with your other clothes (hand washing is generally unnecessary). It can withstand higher temperatures and harsher detergents if needed.
Are polyester or synthetic fibers ok for jackets?
When it comes to synthetic fibers and other fabrics, you’ll commonly see Polyester on the label for rainwear and winter jackets. This makes them more sporty-looking, and you get that noisy “swishy” noise when you walk.
Also, these synthetic fabrics are made using various chemicals, and their manufacturing process emits significant waste and dangerous emissions. Polyester production, for example, emits hazardous amounts of carbon monoxide and methane greenhouse gases.
While coats with mainly synthetic fabrics will keep you dry and warm, they can’t always beat the benefits of natural cotton or wool fabrics.
The conclusion: wool vs cotton
When comparing wool vs cotton, we have to admit the decision is not straight cut. Both have equally good characteristics, and the fact that they are both synthetic fibers gets an A+ in our books.
For us, there is no clear winner because each serves different purposes and has unique strengths. It really depends on the garment, if you’re wearing it in cold or hot weather, and what activity you will be doing in the clothing:
- When you want to stay warm around a fire, you’re likely to choose a wool vs cotton blanket.
- If you plan to be active and sweating, you’ll want to wear wool next to your skin for its moisture-wicking and antibacterial properties.
- When budget is an issue, you’re likely to choose cotton fabric over wool clothing.
- When you want breathable fabric for your jacket, you’ll probably wear cotton in the summer and wear warm wool in the winter.
For a general-purpose, warm winter coat, we suggest wearing wool and cotton as a blend. We carry many styles with a soft fleece lining for warmth and cotton herringbone outer fabric for durability.
Using the latest in Durable Water Repellency (DWR) technology, we can create outer shells in cotton and warm wool blends that are water-resistant. Water instantly beads and slides off, making these jackets warmer and more weather resistant than some competitors.
Check out our Stella, Houston, Everglades, Lucia, and Whitney jackets for the best of cotton fabrics and our Hailey, Lexi, Provider and Dana styles for men’s and women’s wool jackets.