Monday, October 18, 2010

Fabrics: Cotton

      Clothing with the three-layer system is crucial to staying comfortable and healthy in every season we have in The Big Apple.  We live in a temperate climate, with a wide range of temperatures and we see it all.  From highs in the hundreds and humidity that is oppressive, to lows in the single digits with a negative thirty wind chill.  Not to mention that the indoor, outdoor changes can be drastic. The subway in the summer is a perfect example of that; sitting on a hot ninety degree platform, sweating profusely, walking into a seventy degree subway cart is a sure way of making you chilled or worse yet sick!  Here in our urban environment we dress more for fashion then comfort.  Paying more attention to what’s “hot and trendy” as opposed to what’s well made and functional.  I know it is not always easy, but you can get good quality, well made clothing from some of the “outdoor” clothing companies that are up there with current fashion trends.  Companies like Patagonia, or The North Face make excellent “normal” clothing with great fabrics and up to date designs.  Not to mention these are excellent companies that give many things back to the environment.  I personally make an effort to buy clothing that looks fashionable, but also serves a purpose.  I never want to look out of place in full battle fatigues.  If you would like to keep things minimal, and don’t want to spend a fortune on a new wardrobe, I suggest buying one or two of the different layers, and then building up from there if you find you need a few more pairs of a certain layer.  For the outer-shell layer you will most likely only need one jacket.  You will probably want a few more pairs of your base layer, like underwear and socks, unless you hand wash them every night.

     The first step to understanding how to stay comfortable in your 'clothing microclimate' is figuring out good and bad fabrics.  Fabric can make all the difference in the world, and it turns out, most of us don’t have a very good understanding of them at all.  There are a bunch of wonder fabrics on the market these days and I am going to go over a few of these in my "Fabrics Posts" to clear up some of the misconceptions we have about them.


      If you look in your closet right now, you will find that ninety percent of the things you own are made of cotton.  In fact, most people that live in urban and suburban locations do.  I would like to say we’ve been duped, but I guess it has a few good applications; it’s cheap, comfortable against the skin, and it helps keep you a bit cooler in hot climates.  Beyond that it loses its luster quickly.  It is a hydrophilic, meaning it absorbs water, taking wetness from the skin, while sucking up any water in the air like rain or humidity not allowing the skin, or fabric, to dry.  When wet, it loses up to ninety percent of its insulating properties, and can actually suck the heat out of your body.  That may not be so bad on a hot day, but anything below the seventies, and you’re probably going to start getting cold real quick.  Like for instance, standing on the hot subway platform again, and walking into the cold subway cart with your wet cotton t-shirt on.  The drastic temperature change, and cottons lack of insulating properties would chill you to the bone in twenty minutes.  You can actually stay warmer without a shirt on when wet, rather than keeping a wet cotton shirt on.  Not that I suggest you ride the subway shirtless (even though I’ve seen it done, and it wasn’t a pretty site). You can wet it down intentionally though to cool yourself off, just remember that it takes a long time to dry, so if you’re going somewhere cool within a few hours, it may be a bad idea.   

      Cotton in a cold climate can be a death sentence, and some outdoor survivalists call it “death fabric”.  If you use it for any layer and it gets wet, you’re at risk of being really cold until you can find warm shelter or worse, risk hypothermia.  We use cotton in almost all base layer clothing such as socks and underwear, which constantly sweat even in cold climates.  Cotton socks make your feet much more susceptible to blisters if you wear them with hiking boots, or sneakers because of the sweat that area produces.  Since cotton takes a long time to dry, you need to either change socks, or stop and dry them because the blisters can become debilitating.  Because cotton loses heat twenty-five times faster than air once wet, our sensitive areas are prone to being very chilled throughout the cold weather months.  If you are outdoors or camping for extended periods of time in the winter, I suggest staying clear of cotton for any clothing article.  I can’t tell you how many times my feet were freezing in the winter due to the misconception of cotton and my lack of understanding the science behind good fabrics when I was younger!  Cotton can be a bit more useful when blended, but with all the wonder fibers, man-made and natural, there is really no reason to buy it other than it is cheap.  Just remember, that sometimes in life, you get what you pay for.


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