Fitness Fabrics Explained: What You Need to Look for When Buying Workout Clothes

Modern women’s fashion has begun to blur the lines between categories of clothing. This is especially true for workout clothes due to the growing fitness craze around the world. With the rise of fads like athleisure, exercise has turned into a more public affair. Now, an outfit consisting of a breathable top and fashion tights can not only work for a morning run, but also for breakfast at a café.

It’s because of this that technological innovations in fashion have produced fabrics with varying properties to suit different activities and needs.  That said, choosing what to wear for any exercise can seem quite difficult, as there’s so much more to consider beyond simply looking good. To better understand the various factors that can make or break your choice of activewear, let’s look into the history of sportswear and the pros and cons of different types of fabrics.

History of Women’s Workout Clothing

The idea of the woman’s workout attire rose in the 1920s when achieving an ideal figure shifted away from the use of outerwear and corsets to lifestyle adjustments for weight loss. Because exercising at home rose in popularity, most women opted to work out in sleepwear due to the loose fit that allowed for mobility and comfort. Similarly, gym clothes for women in school consisted of middy blouses and bloomer shorts, made to be loose enough for physical activity as well.

The trend of loose-fitting sportswear continued for another decade until the second World War during which fashion called for women to maintain their fitness in case they were enlisted for service. As such, their workout attire also changed to a collared shirt with shorter shorts to provide improved agility to the limbs.

Succeeding decades presented an ideal for the female body that was simply unattainable, but this didn’t stop women from striving to achieve it. Workout fashion then built upon the prior style while embracing femininity. It was defined by sleeveless collared shirts or sometimes tube tops, higher cut shorts, and a variety of one-piece playsuits catered to outdoor activity.

Then came another great shift in exercise fashion, wherein more of an emphasis was placed on being slender. By then, physical regimens like yoga and dance demanded more flexibility. So began the era of leotards which allowed a full range of movement. These suits were often brief-bottomed with tights worn underneath them, matched in contrasting bright colors to showcase a shapely physique. This combination would eventually play a great influence in separates which would become common in women’s sportswear come the 21st century.

Towards the end of the 20th century, exercise became less of a leisurely at-home activity thanks to the rise of the fitness craze and commercial gyms. Subsequently, there came a split between outfits for casual exercise and intensive workouts. The former favored warm-up attires, namely fleeced sweaters and joggers, while the latter continued the trend of flexible, tight-fitting separates.

Types of Fitness Fabrics and Their Respective Qualities

While sportswear has seen many changes, designers of this type of fashion continue to strive for the same goal: flexible and comfortable outfits that are also fashionably form-fitting. Textile technology has addressed this through various innovations in clothing materials and fibers, offering a variety of options for fabrics:

Cotton is a common natural fabric that works best at preventing body odor while absorbing moisture. However, its absorbent property can drench shirts in sweat.

Bamboo is another natural fabric that’s soft, breathable, and comfortable to wear. It also doesn’t stick as easily to the skin as it doesn’t generate any static. It’s also perfect for people who love to exercise outdoors, as it can protect the skin against the harmful UV rays of the sun.

Wool is a go-to natural fabric for extreme weather due to its ability to allow air and heat in but not out. It’s very effective at regulating heat, making it perfect for cold-weather garments. And because of its breathability and moisture-wicking abilities, wool does not develop bad odors and doesn’t have to be washed as often.

TENCEL is a special anti-microbial material based on wood pulp that emulates many characteristics of polyester. This fabric contains tiny hairs that not only give it a premium and luxurious feel but also effectively draw sweat away from the skin.

Nylon is considered the first commercial synthetic fiber that grew in popularity due to its stretchability as well as its ability to dry quickly and prevent mildew growth. This fabric not only allows air to pass through and reach the skin but also draws sweat away to let it evaporate on the surface of your clothes, resulting in a cool and comfy feel all day long.

Polyester is a synthetic fabric used in most athletic apparel today. Its tightly woven plastic fibers make it resistant to moisture, damage, and wrinkling, and also allows it to block out the sun’s harmful UV rays. Like many synthetic fibers, though, polyester tends to develop undesirable odors as the material tends to foster the growth of bacteria.

Polypropylene is also a synthetic fabric that’s specially made to be water-resistant. This fabric is effective at drawing moisture away from the skin and expelling it to the material’s surface. So even if the outside of the garment feels wet, the inside will remain dry, making it perfect to use for base layer activewear.

Spandex is by far the most flexible of fabrics for sportswear. It allows for a full range of movement without sacrificing comfort, all while being equally resistant to damage and strain. While it is absorbent, it also dries quickly and easily.

GORE-TEX is a highly durable and breathable synthetic fabric built for withstanding extreme weather. This windproof and waterproof material is often used to create outdoor gear and clothing such as jackets, gloves, and shoes.

X-STATIC is a special type of fabric that has a layer of silver woven into its textile fibers. This heavy metal not only makes this material more durable but also prevents the growth of fungi and bacteria, which means it won’t develop any nasty odors.

Aside from these, the modern age has seen the creation of more sustainable fabrics such as Econyl which are made of recycled material and plastics. While the characteristics of these fabrics vary, they offer the promise of being recyclable themselves, minimizing waste produced from worn-out clothing that’s thrown out.

Choosing the Best Fabric for Workouts

When trying to decide what types of fitness fabrics to go for, the right choice depends on the activity. It’s best to first think about what sort of activities, uses, and even environments the sportswear will be used for.

For example, cotton is best for more casual and leisurely exercises such as light jogging and at-home activities. It also fares well during activities that don’t produce a lot of sweat, such as yoga. For most intensive indoor workouts, the more breathable and comfortable fabrics would work best. The most common of these would be nylon and polyester, especially for weightlifting, training muscle groups, and other anaerobic exercises.

Fabrics with resistance to UV rays are optimal for outdoor exercises, especially in tropical environments and during the summer. Among these fabrics would be bamboo, polyester, and polypropylene. On the opposite end, wool and GORE-TEX may be better suited for exercising in colder or windier areas due to their heat-regulating, windproof, and waterproof properties.

For people who love cardio, spandex is a flexible material that won’t permanently stretch itself out after use. This makes it perfect for swimmers, cyclists, and gymnasts, or for any activities that require full-body movements and repetitive movements.

After a workout, it’s also important to consider how easily the fabric can be cleaned. Cotton may be the easiest to wash, but it isn’t ideal for physically demanding activities. However, polypropylene is uniquely resistant to staining, and just like nylon, it dries quicker. That said, people who want stench-free clothes may want to avoid any clothes made of synthetic fabrics as they tend to develop odor-causing bacteria.

For people who want activewear that’s designed to last, they may want to invest in more specialized fabrics like GORE-TEX and X-STATIC due to their extra durability. Those who are environmentally conscious may also want to consider natural biodegradable fabrics (like cotton, bamboo, and TENCEL) or ones made with recycled materials.

By knowing the differences between all of these different fitness fabrics, you can come up with an activewear outfit that’s perfectly suited to your needs. You don’t necessarily have to settle on pieces using the same material, either. Mix and match fabrics based on what you plan to use them for or whatever properties you prioritize. All in all, what matters most is choosing what’s best for you!

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