Guide to Sports Fabrics for Athletic Clothes

Technical fabrics for sports clothes

Do you wonder what your sports clothes are made from? What about how to best care for your sports fabrics to prolong their lives and the all important removal of stains and odours.

Most athletic clothes are made from a combination of fibers to give a sport specific advantage, but care of these technical fabrics can be a bit tricky if you don’t understand a bit about the fibers. Below is a brief introduction to common sports fabrics used in athletic clothes; however, please read the care instructions on your clothes to prolong their useful life.

Fibers Making Up Common Athletic Clothes


Synthetic Fibers:

Polyester is made from polymers which come from organic compounds (this the chemistry definition of organic meaning Cyclistsbased on compounds containing both carbon and hydrogen). Polyesters are usually made from petroleum (fossil fuel) although there are some plant based sources available which are derived from cane sugar. Most polyester is not biodegradable. Originally derived in the UK in the 1920s, the DuPont Corporation brought it into mass production as part of the second world war effort.

Polyester is very breathable with high moisture wicking abilities. It can be washed in any temperature water; however, it is linked to synthetic microfiber pollution. When blended with natural fibers it can increase their durability and resistance to wrinkling and shrinking, but will melt if it gets very hot. Microfiber products, known for their liquid absorbency and softness are made from a type of polyester.

Elastane, also known as spandex or by its trade name Lycra is known for being incredibly elastic, elastane fibers can be stretched to almost 500% times their own length while recoiling when released. Elastane, made from polyurethane is always synthetic. It was invented in the 1950s by the DuPont Corporation based on research done by IG Faben in Germany doing the second world war.

Elastane is highly breathable with high moisture wicking abilities, but it does not retain heat well. It should be washed in cold or warm water. It is used in almost every type of garment requiring stretchiness; however, it is usually only used in small proportions.

Nylon, also a member of the polyamide fabrics was first developed in the 1920s by the DuPont Corporation and manufactured in the 1930s, it was the first synthetic material manufactured in the United States and replaced the silk, needed for parachutes during the second world war, used in stockings. Nylon is made from polymers of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. It has good wrinkle resistance, but is not as good as polyester, however; it is stronger with good abrasion resistance but does not absorb water meaning that it’s prone to creating static electricity.

Nylon has low breath ability and high stretch with moderate moisture wicking and heat retention abilities. It should be washed only in warm water. It is most often found as a blend with other fibers, where it preserves nylon’s desirable attributes while avoiding its propensity to runs and tears.

Polyamide fabrics include Nylon, Kevlar, and Nomex are made out of a variety of synthetic polymers. They all have low breath ability, moderate moisture wicking and heat retention abilities and high stretch ability. They should all be washed at warm temperatures. All polyamide fabrics are derived from carbon based synthetic materials, although technically chemists could refer to silk and wool as polyamides. Kevlar (used in ballet proof vests) and Nomex (flame retardant used in firefighting gear) are very specialized fabrics still only made by the DuPont Corporation.

Natural Fibers:

Wool fibers are 100% natural renewable and biodegradable. Wool is wrinkle resistant, naturally breathable and as an activesheep fiber it reacts to changes in body temperature. As a natural fiber wool is anti-bacterial, absorbs sweat and is resistant to the odour molecules caused by perspiration.

Merino Wool comes from the Merino sheep, they have a dense wool coat that traps heat next to their body due to the harsh weather conditions prevalent in their traditional environment. Merino wool has a high natural wicking ability and resistance to staining. It should be washed on low to medium temperatures, and separately or with fabrics like denim and without using any form of chlorine bleach. They should be dried laying flat, rather than hung on a line, dried with any form of heat or put in a dryer to reduce the risk of shrinkage.

Cashmere Wool is made from the hairs of cashmere or pashmina goats native to the Gobi Desert and Central Asia. Its extreme softness makes it ideal for use next to the skin, perfect for underwear. It has high breath ability and high moisture wicking properties with moderate stretch ability but isn’t quite as warm as other types of wool. It should be hand washed in cool water and like all wools, dried lying flat.


bambooCellulosic fibers are derived from wood or bamboo pulp. They are more like plant based fabrics such as cotton or linen rather than synthetic fibers like nylon. They are manufactured using a combination of raw cellulose based materials and chemical manufacturing processes.

Beech Tree Pulp is predominantly used to create Modal fabric, it is stretchy, breathable and 50% more water absorbent than cotton. It was originally developed in Japan in the 1950s. Lyocell was developed in the 1990s and is made from oak, birch or eucalyptus and is slightly heavier textured than Modal with good wicking abilities, antibacterial properties and has a superior level of odour resistance. It should be washed on a gentle cycle with warm water, non-bleach laundry detergent should be used and it should be dried on a low setting for hung to dry.

Bamboo can be used to create fibers in two different ways. A natural fiber made from mechanically crushed bamboo, or a cellulosic fabric bamboo rayon. It should be washed with non-bleach laundry detergent on a gentle cycle with cold water, it should be dried on a low setting or hung to dry. It is very breathable with high moisture wicking properties and moderate heat retention properties.


So what do you think? Is this information useful? What else would you like to know? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!








Cellulosic fibers:

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4 Responses

  1. Denton says:

    Well written and very informative! I personally prefer a good polyester shirt while i am training helps to not soak my whole shirt through! I never knew it was fossil fuel based though!

    Do you have a recommendation for the best shirt material for weight lifting? It would be truly helpful in my fitness journey!

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Denton,

      Thanks! I’ve found it fascinating digging into the details of what makes up my favourite workout clothes, with the exception of wool I’ve always found the synthetic fabrics do a much better job of keeping me feeling mostly dry while working out too.

      I chose my weightlifting shirts depending on what lifts I’m doing, for instance, I’ll use a tight fitting high elastane content shirt for Olympic lifts (like Snatch or Clean and Jerk) just because it keeps the fabric out of the bar path and is one less thing to worry about. If I’m squatting or bench pressing I want something fairly form fitting around the back and shoulders to avoid the fabric bunching up under the bar or against the bench, but for something like deadlifts I tend to wear a loose polyester running shirt for maximum ventilation.

      Good luck with your fitness journey!

  2. Sharon says:

    I personally believe it’s something people don’t even think about. It can be terrible doing a workout and the clothes you wear being too tight or unbreathable! Have you a personal preference when it comes to the material or is it more a case of what’s available/what looks good?

    Very informative article by the way!


    • Lisa says:

      Hi Sharon,
      Thank you for your comment! Despite everything I know, I still end up with avoidable exercise discomfort related to my clothing or underwear choice, and I always find it inhibits my performance at whatever sport I’m undertaking.

      My fabric preferences depend on what I’m doing, for instance:
      – For an endurance activity I will go for clothing derived predominantly from natural fibres such as wool for their odour resistant properties
      – For a shorter workout I will usually use a synthetic blend that depends on the workout – for anything sweaty especially I want wicking, breathability and seamless or seam reduced design


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