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Functional clothing: The materials for sportswear

An incredible crowd Sportswear made from functional materials does not make it easy for athletes to choose the right garment. Runners, strength athletes, cyclists, hikers, skiers and all other athletes now all have their own functional clothing. Special fabrics with special membranes breathe, protect, compress and usually look "particularly cool". The main goal of functional clothing is the athlete's well-being and increased performance in all weathers. Manufacturers seem to keep coming up with new things in this area that are more or less revolutionary and functional.

Just a few years ago, the runner was wearing a wide, washed-out T-shirt (which was probably no longer used for any other purpose) with matching cotton trousers. Today the modern runner wears compression underwear, a shirt made of high-tech fibers, a particularly breathable but windproof running jacket and skin-tight running tights with eye-catching reflective surfaces.

The large selection of different materials and functions does not make choosing the right sportswear easy. Since I keep asking myself which material is the best for sporting activities, I have used the most used Textile types for functional clothing and to find the most important properties, advantages and disadvantages and brand examples for the respective types of fabric.

The most important properties of functional clothing

  • Protection against wind and weather

In conjunction with membranes, special fabrics can protect against wind and are also waterproof. Well-known brands that successfully manufacture functional clothing in this area are, for example, Gore Tex and Gore Windstopper.

Functional sportswear supports the transport of moisture - sweat and moisture is transported from the skin through the clothing to the outside. This breathability means that the athlete's body and clothing remain dry and possible hypothermia is avoided. In sportswear, particular value is often placed on breathability.

The ideal temperature should prevail under the sportswear, not too cold, but not too warm either. This degree of warmth varies depending on the load and type of sport.

Functional clothing should of course also be hard-wearing, because the material is particularly stressed during sporting activities. The weight of the equipment and of course the clothing is extremely important in many sports, because every gram that you carry unnecessarily steals energy and worsens times and results.


The stuff that sportswear is made of

Sportswear is made from a wide variety of materials - a distinction can essentially be made between natural materials and synthetic materials. Both types of textile have advantages and disadvantages with regard to the above-mentioned properties of functional clothing.


Overview of materials for sports / functional clothing



Polyester - a synthetic fiber widely used in the textile industry (one also speaks of a chemical fiber made from synthetic polymers), which is often used in functional sportswear. Polyester fibers (PES for short) can be found in many pieces of clothing at least partially and often in combination with cotton.

The synthetic fiber polyester offers some advantages that make sense especially for sportswear: T-shirts and running jackets made of polyester dry very quickly and are usually light. In winter jackets, polyester is often used as a lining for thermal insulation.

However, some of the disadvantages can also be derived directly from these advantages of the polyester plastic. The synthetic material is quick drying because it does not absorb moisture. As a result, when you sweat, the moisture remains on the surface of the fabric, where it is broken down by the body's own germs. The unpleasant smell of sweat arises from the decomposition of the germs. Incidentally, this process also takes place with natural materials (e.g. cotton), but with a time delay because the decomposition of moisture takes place inside the natural fibers. The increased moisture on the skin can also lead to skin irritation in sensitive people, mostly caused by pore blockages. The good thermal insulation of the synthetic fiber can also quickly lead to a build-up of heat, which leads to increased sweating during sporting activities.

Refinements to the material can positively change the textile properties. The smooth synthetic fiber can be crimped, for example by texturing, so that the volume of the fabric increases. This gives the polyester fabric increased moisture absorption and better thermal insulation, as air cushions can form between the skin and the fabric. The smooth polyester fiber feels rather cool on the skin and sticks to sweaty skin.

Membrane, which is used especially in functional clothing, is often made of polyester. The synthetic fiber is processed in such a way (e.g. through additional lamination) that it becomes windproof, waterproof and breathable.


  • fast drying
  • light
  • wrinkle free
  • durable
  • dimensionally stable
  • Warm polyester fillings (e.g. winter jacket, sleeping bag)


  • low moisture absorption
  • Heat build-up
  • tends to develop an unpleasant odor
  • Skin irritation possible
  • Polyester fibers are made from petroleum





Functional underwear made of polyamide *

Another synthetic fiber is polyamide, also known as nylon, Perlon, Kevlar or Helanca (all protected brand names, by the way). This synthetic material is characterized by a particularly high tear resistance, elasticity and abrasion resistance. The polyamide fiber is therefore often combined with other fabrics and thus the advantages of both materials. The combination with polyester or cotton, for example, is particularly comfortable to wear.

Polyamide is a particularly light material, which is particularly strong when dry and wet, but at the same time is more stretchy and elastic than polyester. Regardless of the moisture in the fabric, it remains very dimensionally stable, which makes the material an ideal basis for functional underwear and sports pants. However, the thermal insulation is rather poor and, like polyester, depends on the processing. The smooth polyamide fibers can be crimped by texturing, which are then given a little more volume when woven into the fabric. This also increases the thermal insulation slightly.


  • fast drying
  • light
  • wrinkle free
  • hard-wearing, tear-resistant
  • dimensionally stable


  • low thermal insulation
  • low moisture absorption
  • not resistant to acids
  • no light resistance
  • tends to yellow
  • Polyamide fibers are made from petroleum





Elastane (also called elastane or spandex) is another synthetic fiber whose special property is its extreme stretchability and elasticity. The synthetic fiber (also known under the brand "Lycra") was developed by DuPont in the USA and brought onto the market in 1959.

Most functional clothing for the sporting sector has a small component (up to five percent) of elastane. It is the ideal combination fiber and is rarely processed alone. The positive properties of the material, in particular its high elasticity and dimensional stability, are used to enhance functional clothing and make it more comfortable to wear. It is mixed with other fibers and makes the clothing particularly elastic and therefore a perfect fit.

Incidentally, spandex threads can stretch up to seven times their length and then retract back to their original length - proof of the special dimensional stability of this material. Elastane is usually found in cuffs and fabrics that are supposed to be particularly stretchy and close-fitting.


  • permanent elasticity
  • dimensionally stable
  • fast drying
  • light


  • low moisture absorption


Brand examples for elastane

All of the sports clothing mentioned above, from functional underwear to running shirts to running jackets, all contain a certain amount of elastane. The running trousers from Ultrasport and the softshell running jacket from Gore Running Wear have a particularly high proportion.




The best-known material for clothing and textiles in general is probably cotton. In the field of sportswear, however, cotton now plays a rather subordinate role. A few years ago, when sportswear wasn't called “functional clothing”, it was completely different. Even if the fine fibers of cotton feel pleasantly soft on the skin, the fabric has some disadvantages compared to synthetic but also natural alternatives (for example merino wool) in the sporting sector.

The natural fiber can absorb large amounts of moisture. The fibers soak up, swell and increase their volume. According to Wikipedia, cotton can absorb up to 32% of its own weight in water. Going for a run in a wet T-shirt can be very pleasant and cool when the outside temperature is high. But as soon as the temperatures drop, the wet cotton shirt can quickly become too cold.

The particular absorbency of the material also means that as the moisture in the cotton increases, so does the weight of the garment. Another reason why cotton is only partially suitable for sportswear. Once the cotton fabric is soaked in moisture, it takes a long time for it to dry completely. A major disadvantage compared to the synthetic materials used in sportswear.


  • Comfortable to wear when dry


  • low elasticity
  • dries slowly
  • heavy weight, especially wet


Brand examples for cotton

The disadvantages of cotton in sportswear clearly outweigh other materials. The natural material is suitable for relaxed clothes that you wear after exercise, for example, or the good old towel:

Cotton sweatpants *

Sport towels *


Merino wool


Merino T-Shirt by Icebreaker *

Merino wool is one of the few natural materials that has been able to establish itself in modern functional clothing. The properties of the natural fibers, which are obtained from the wool of the merino sheep, can compete with synthetic fabrics in many ways and sometimes even surpass them in terms of their function.

The low volume weight and the excellent heat regulation properties of merino wool are outstanding. The wool has its low volumetric weight due to its extremely fine and thin fibers, which correspond to only about one sixth of the hair of the human head and are only half as thin as that of conventional sheep. The excellent heat regulation is due to the fluffy structure of the natural wool. The fine fibers of the natural wool are strongly crimped so that small air pockets can arise. The air in the tiny spaces in between serves as a particularly effective insulation layer from cold but also from heat. In addition, there is a cooling effect through evaporation cold, because the wool can absorb a third of its own weight in moisture. The moisture is equally absorbed by the gaps and the wool fibers and slowly passed on to the outside, where the wool dries in the ambient air and the cooling evaporative cold is created in the process.

Two other properties make merino wool a serious alternative to plastics: The wet sports clothing dries particularly quickly and does not smell unpleasant even after being worn several times! I regularly wear Merino T-shirts myself and keep finding that the T-shirts dry much faster after washing than cotton shirts and almost as quickly as T-shirts made of synthetic fibers. Merino wool fabrics do not smell unpleasant so quickly, thanks to the protein molecules of the merino fibers, which practically destroy odor-causing bacteria. Both positive factors that are very helpful on multi-day bike tours or long hikes. You have to wash the clothes you have worn less, so you can pack less and if you wash the merino sportswear, it can easily dry overnight.

Merino wool is particularly popular for the lower layer of clothing, i.e. underwear and shirts. From my own experience, I know that merino wool feels very comfortable and so the fabric can also be worn directly on the skin without any problems. The wool fibers are so fine that my T-shirts feel like silk on the skin.

What I noticed equally with my Merino T-shirts from different brands is the increased susceptibility to small holes. The merino wool fabric doesn't seem to be as durable as other functional clothing. The combination with synthetic fibers can counteract this, because the artificial fibers make the wool shirts stronger and more robust.

In another post about merino wool in general and merino shirts in particular, I will inform you here:Merino guide | Benefits, brands & recommendations


  • comfortable to wear
  • excellent thermoregulatory properties
  • warms or cools
  • fast drying
  • Low odor even after repeated use


  • not as hard-wearing as synthetic fibers
  • high price


Brand examples for merino wool

I also wear Merino T-shirts for running - the properties of this natural material are particularly impressive in summer when temperatures are high. A long time ago I bought an Icebreaker T-shirt, which I still wear and which I am super satisfied with. Incidentally, 6th place in the Amazon functional underwear category:

Icebreaker T-Shirt Everyday *

The Swedish brand Woolpower produces other high-quality functional clothing made of merino wool:

Woolpower *

Modal, Lyocell & TENCEL


Modal and Lyocell is called "chemical natural fibers" - they are based on Wood. The natural raw material wood (beech, eucalyptus or spruce) is decomposed in a chemical process, the cellulose obtained is further processed and ultimately spun into a continuous thread.

TENCEL is now a brand name of the textile company Lenzingfrom Austria. Modal or Lyocell can be concealed behind the name “TENCEL”. The materials are named accordingly TENCEL Modal or TENCEL Lyocell. Tencel was originally developed and marketed by Courtaulds in the USA. The area of ​​Tencel production was later sold to the Austrian Lenzing AG.

The difference between modal and lyocell on the one hand is the type of wood from which the cellulose is obtained, on the other hand the manufacturing processes differ. For Modal, beech wood, from which the cellulose is dissolved, is used, for Tencel Lyocell a mixture of eucalyptus wood, beech and spruce is used as the raw material.

Modal is a further development of viscose, the properties of which should be improved. By modifying the manufacturing process, the durability and dimensional stability of the viscose could be improved without losing the positive properties of the fabric. The newly gained material is called modal. The production of modal is very similar to the process of viscose production, and unfortunately the need for chemicals is similarly high.

Lyocell was developed almost 50 years ago in the USA and is in turn a further development of Modal. The properties should be improved again, but especially the manufacturing process of the fibers should be made more environmentally friendly. Now only a single chemical is used to dissolve the cellulose, and almost all of it (99%) can be reused. Lenzing in particular has once again improved the manufacturing process and made it more environmentally friendly.

The properties of modal and lyocell

The modal and lyocell fibers make clothing light, airy, cooling and, like silk, slightly shimmering.

Compared to cotton, modal and lyocell have significantly more positive properties that the fabric is also suitable for Sportswear make it interesting. Especially lyocell is for Sportswear made from natural materials suitable and offers in the overall package a good basis for (almost) sustainable sportswear.

Materials made from natural fibers can absorb a lot of moisture and direct it away from the body. This avoids the formation of bacteria and odors. Lenzing has measured up to 50 percent better moisture absorption in TENCEL Lyocell compared to cotton. In contrast to cotton, Lyocell can also quickly release moisture.

TENCEL Lyocell is biodegradable and completely compostable.

Brand examples for TENCEL Lyocell

Runamics *

Runamics uses a mixture of these for their running shirts TENCEL lyocell and merino wool. In this way, the positive properties of both materials are combined to functional and natural sportswear to bring to market.


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