Merino wool vs cotton: Which is better?

The debate about merino wool vs cotton has been ongoing for years and it’s not just a matter of personal preference.

While cotton is the staple of every wardrobe and has been around for centuries, merino wool is quickly gaining popularity for its unique properties.

So, which is better – merino wool or cotton?

In this blog post, we’ll delve into the nitty-gritty of both materials to understand the differences. Hopefully, this will help you make an informed decision about which one deserves a prime spot in your closet.

What is cotton?

Cotton is a soft, fluffy, and naturally grown fiber that is harvested from the seed pods of the cotton plant.

It is one of the most widely used natural fibers in the world as it is used to make a wide variety of products, including clothing, bed sheets, towels, and more.

The cotton plant is a shrub-like plant that grows in warm and humid regions such as parts of the United States, India, and Egypt.

It produces fluffy bolls, which are the fruits of the plant that contain cotton fibers.

Once the bolls are mature, they are picked and the fibers are separated from the seeds and other plant matter using a process called ginning.

The fibers are then cleaned, carded, and spun into yarn or thread, which is then woven or knitted into fabrics of various weights and textures.

what is cotton and how it compares to merino wool?

Differences between wool and cotton 

Merino wool and cotton are two different natural fibers that have distinct properties and characteristics.

Here’s a summary of some of the key differences.

Qualities Merino wool Cotton
Softness Very soft Soft
Breathability Highly breathable Breathable
Moisture-wicking Excellent at wicking moisture Poor at wicking moisture
Warmth Warm and highly insulating Lightweight and less insulating
Durability Highly durable Less durable than wool
Odor resistance Resistant to odor buildup Prone to odor buildup
Sustainability Renewable and biodegradable Not sustainable
Hypoallergenic Naturally hypoallergenic Hypoallergenic
Cost More expensive than cotton Less expensive than wool
Uses Outdoor, cold weather wear, athletic wear Casual wear, everyday clothing

1. Softness

When it comes to softness, many people find that merino wool is actually softer than cotton.

This may come as a surprise since wool is often thought of as itchy or scratchy. However, merino wool is a special type of wool that is known for being particularly fine and soft.

The fibers also have a unique crimping pattern that allows them to bend and flex more easily. This makes the wool feel softer and more comfortable against the skin.

Cotton fabric on the other hand can feel rough and stiff due to the natural structure of cotton fibers.

The fibers are more rigid and lack the natural crimping pattern found in merino wool fibers. This rigidity can lead to the fabric feeling rough and scratchy, especially after repeated washing and wear.

Additionally, the fibers tend to become compacted and flattened over time, which can further diminish their softness.

2. Breathability

Breathability refers to the ability of a fabric to allow air to circulate through it, allowing body heat and moisture to escape.

Both merino wool and cotton are breathable fabrics, but they differ in their degree of breathability.

The breathability of wool is attributed to its fibers that are thinner and have more crimps creating small pockets of air that allow for ventilation.

This allows for the regulation of body temperature preventing overheating in summer or chilling in cold weather.

However, cotton is not as breathable as wool because its fibers do not allow a lot of air to pass through.

Although cotton does have some natural ventilation like merino wool, it traps heat and moisture against the skin making it less comfortable to wear in hot and humid weather.

3. Moisture-wicking

Moisture wicking is the ability of a fabric to move sweat and moisture away from your skin and towards the surface of the fabric, where it can evaporate quickly.

This is important for staying cool and dry during physical activity or hot weather.

Merino wool is known for its excellent moisture-wicking properties.

This is attributed to its wool fibers that have a natural crimp that helps to create tiny pockets of air between them.

These pockets trap moisture and move it away from the skin, allowing it to evaporate quickly.

This means that even if you’re working up a sweat, you can still feel comfortable and dry.

In contrast, cotton is not as effective at moisture-wicking. While it is absorbent and can soak up sweat, it tends to hold onto moisture and can take a long time to dry.

This leaves you feeling uncomfortable and damp, especially during intense exercise or humid weather.

I support this because when I go for a run in a cotton t-shirt, I often end up feeling sweaty and sticky. However, when I wear a merino wool t-shirt, I notice that the sweat is quickly pulled away from my skin and I feel much more comfortable throughout my workout.

4. Warmth

Wool is generally warmer than cotton due to several reasons.

Merino wool for instance is known for its exceptional warmth and insulating properties.

The natural crimp of the wool fibers creates small pockets of air that trap body heat and provide insulation.

This makes merino wool a great choice for colder temperatures and outdoor activities such as skiing, snowboarding, and hiking.

When compared to wool, cotton is not a good insulator since it does not trap air well.

It easily absorbs moisture and when wet, it loses any insulating properties it may have had making you feel colder.

Thus, cotton is ideal for warmer climates as it is also lightweight.

5. Odor resistance

Merino wool is known for its superior odor resistance compared to cotton.

The natural lanolin found in merino wool is anti-bacterial and anti-microbial, which means it helps to prevent the growth of odor-causing bacteria in wool clothing.

On the other hand, cotton tends to hold onto odors more than merino wool, especially when it comes to sweat.

This is because cotton is not as efficient at wicking moisture away from the skin as merino wool, which allows bacteria to thrive and produce odors.

For instance, if you wear a cotton t-shirt during a workout, you may notice that it starts to smell bad if you don’t wash it after the workout.

Your merino wool t-shirt on the other hand might not smell even if you fail to wash it for a while.

In my personal experience, I have found that my merino wool clothing stays fresher for longer, even after multiple wears compared to my cotton clothing. This is especially true for items like socks where odor resistance is especially important

6. Hypoallergenic properties

When it comes to hypoallergenic properties, merino wool and cotton have some differences.

Merino wool is naturally hypoallergenic because it has a smaller diameter than other types of wool, and this makes it less itchy and irritating to the skin.

It also has lanolin, which natural oil emollient that keeps the wool soft making it less likely to cause the skin to become itchy and irritated.  

In addition, lanolin repels dirt and bacteria, which can help reduce the risk of skin irritations and allergies for people with sensitive skin.

In contrast, cotton is not inherently hypoallergenic as it can attract dust and other allergens, which can cause skin irritations or allergies.

However, cotton is often used in hypoallergenic products as it is generally less irritating than other synthetic fabrics and more affordable than wool.

Merino wool vs cotton

I have a friend who has sensitive skin and often experiences rashes and itchiness when wearing certain types of fabric.

She finds that wearing merino wool clothes, especially in colder weather, helps her avoid any skin irritations.

On the other hand, she has to be careful with cotton clothes, especially if they are not washed frequently or if she wears them for extended periods of time as they can cause some mild irritation and redness.

7. Durability 

In regards to durability, I know for a fact that my wool clothing lasts much longer than my cotton clothing because I have a wool sweater that I have been wearing for years and it still looks almost new, while some of my cotton t-shirts have started to wear out after just a few washes.

I attributed this durability of wool to its fibers which are naturally strong and elastic so they can withstand more wear and tear without losing their shape or breaking down.

Cotton fibers are not as strong as wool fibers and can become weaker over time with repeated washing and wearing. This results in clothes that become thinner, frayed, or even develop holes within a short time.

8. Cost

There is no doubt that merino wool clothing is more expensive than cotton clothing due to its higher quality material that is more difficult and costly to produce.

Merino wool is a premium material that requires special care and attention during production whereas cotton is a more widely available and easily produced fabric.

In addition, merino wool is often used in high-performance clothing and outdoor gear, which can further increase its cost.

However, the cost difference between merino wool and cotton clothing will depend on the specific product and brand you are considering, as well as your individual budget and priorities.

For example, a basic merino wool t-shirt might cost significantly less than a high-end cotton sweater.

9. Sustainability

The sustainability of merino wool and cotton clothing can depend on several factors, such as the farming practices, processing, and dyeing methods used to create the final product.

Merino wool is often considered a sustainable option as it is a renewable resource that can be harvested annually without harming the sheep.

Additionally, many companies that produce merino wool clothing use sustainable farming and processing methods, such as reducing water usage, using non-toxic dyes, and ensuring fair labor practices.

Cotton farming on the other hand can be environmentally taxing due to its heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and water usage.

However, there are also sustainable cotton farming methods, such as organic cotton farming, which avoids the use of harmful chemicals.

So, organic cotton can be considered more sustainable than conventional cotton because it is grown without the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals.

It also uses less water and promotes biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystem.

However, organic cotton still requires a significant amount of water and resources to produce, and transportation and processing also have an environmental impact.

10. Uses and applications 

Both merino wool and cotton have a variety of uses and applications, and their properties make them suited for different purposes. Here are a few examples;

  • Clothing

Both merino wool and cotton are commonly used in clothing. Cotton is often used for casual wear as it is comfortable and breathable.

Merino wool, on the other hand, is often used for athletic wear or outdoor clothing as it is warm, moisture-wicking, and odor-resistant.

  • Bedding

Cotton is used for sheets, pillowcases, and other bedding items because it is soft and a little breathable.

Merino wool is also used for bedding, as it is naturally hypoallergenic and can regulate body temperature during sleep.

  • Outdoor gear

Merino wool is often used in outdoor gear, such as socks, hats, and gloves because of its warmth and moisture-wicking properties.

Cotton is sometimes used in outdoor gear, such as jackets or pants, but it is not as common as wool.

  • Home décor

Cotton is used in home decor items, such as curtains and tablecloths, because of its durability and easy care.

Merino wool is sometimes used in home decor items, such as blankets or throws because of its warmth and softness.

  • Medical applications

Cotton is often used in medical applications, such as bandages or gauze, because of its absorbency and softness.

Merino wool is also used in medical applications, such as wound dressings or compression garments because of its hypoallergenic and moisture-wicking properties.

Wool vs cotton socks for summer

When it comes to socks for summer, many people prefer to wear socks made from materials that are breathable, moisture-wicking, and lightweight.

Both wool and cotton socks have their advantages and disadvantages.

Cotton socks are generally less expensive than wool socks and are readily available in most stores.

They are also lightweight and soft, which makes them comfortable to wear in warm weather.

Wool vs cotton socks for summer

However, cotton socks tend to retain moisture and can become soggy and uncomfortable in hot, humid conditions. This can lead to blisters and other foot problems.

On the other hand, wool socks are great for summer because they are breathable and naturally moisture-wicking, which helps to keep your feet dry and comfortable.

They also provide good insulation, which means they can help regulate your foot temperature in both hot and cold weather.

Wool socks are also more durable than cotton socks and can last for years with proper care.

That being said, not all wool socks are made the same. Some wool socks can be thick and heavy, which may not be ideal for hot summer days since they can be too warm.

However, there are many lightweight and breathable wool socks available that are perfect for summer.

What is wool/cotton blend fabric? 

A wool/cotton blend fabric is a type of textile that combines wool and cotton fibers into a single yarn or thread.

This fabric is created by blending wool and cotton fibers at the spinning stage, resulting in a final fabric that incorporates the properties of both materials.

Wool cotton blend fabrics can vary in the ratio of wool to cotton with some blends containing more wool and others containing more cotton.

Wool cotton blends are often used in clothing, such as sweaters, socks, and blankets, as well as in home textiles like curtains and upholstery. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the choice between Merino wool and cotton ultimately depends on the intended use of the material and personal preferences.

While cotton is a popular and widely used fabric for its affordability and versatility, Merino wool is a luxurious and high-performing option that can provide superior warmth, moisture-wicking properties, and durability.

Merino wool may be the better choice for outdoor activities, colder weather, and high-performance clothing, while cotton is a great option for casual wear and everyday use.

Additionally, Merino wool is a more sustainable and eco-friendly choice as it is a renewable and biodegradable material that requires less water and energy to produce than cotton.

That said, cotton is a vegan alternative to wool so it is a great choice for if you prefer not to wear animal-derived materials or have ethical concerns.

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