When choosing the right fabric for your next garment, whether you’re making it or buying it, it’s important to know all the facts about the fabric. If you’re interested in a natural fiber rather than a synthetic, you might want to consider cotton vs. wool.
Cotton and wool are both natural fibers. Cotton comes from a plant, and wool comes from animal fleece, usually sheep. Wool is more durable and warm, but also more expensive than cotton. Cotton is easier to care for and softer to the touch than wool.
The type of garment or project you choose will influence which fabric is best for you. This guide will show you all the ways cotton and wool compare so you can decide which will give you the most benefits.
Cotton vs. Wool: Key Points
Cotton and wool are both high-performance fabrics made with natural materials. They’re both useful fabrics that humans have used for a variety of purposes for centuries. However, these wardrobe-staple textiles have some key differences that separate them from each other.
The table below compares some of these key similarities and differences.
|Moderately soft to scratchy
|Poor moisture wicking
|Excellent moisture wicking
|Ease of Care
|Warm weather garments, t-shirts, pajamas
|Cold weather garments, outer wear, hats, gloves, scarves
What Is Cotton Fabric?Cotton fabric is a textile that comes from the fibers of the cotton plant. The fluffy part of the plant that wraps around the seeds is what people use for textiles. Manufacturers harvest it, comb the seeds and other debris, and then spin it into yarn for weaving or knitting.
Cotton is a durable, breathable, soft fabric. It’s inexpensive to produce compared to other natural fibers and is useful in various textile types. It’s water absorbent, so it washes well in the washing machine. It is easy to dye, so there are many types of printed and colored cotton available. It does, however, fade over time.
It is easy to make cotton fabric in a variety of thicknesses, stiffnesses, and fabric types. There are woven cotton fabrics and machine-knitted fabrics, each with its properties and performance strengths.
No matter how you spin, weave or knit it, cotton is an easy-care fiber. You can machine wash and dry it without damaging the structure. Cotton garments may shrink during initial washes, but for most of the garment’s life, it will retain its size and shape.
What Is Wool?Wool is a natural fiber that comes from animals. The most common type of wool is from sheep, but some species of goats, llamas, and rabbits are also used for wool production. Unless another animal is specified on a garment tag or label, you can assume wool garments come from sheep’s wool.
Shearers shear sheep’s fleece, and then manufacturers clean, card, and spin it into yarn for weaving or knitting. Most commercial woolen fabric is woven. Wool fabrics are heavy and thick, which makes them warm despite the high breathability of the fabric.
Wool is easy to dye and holds color well. It comes in various colors and patterns, whether it is sold in fabric or yarn form. It is more expensive than some other natural fibers. However, due to the number of manufacturing processes, it goes through between the sheep and the consumer.
When you agitate and wet wool enough, it will felt. This is a process that binds the protein in the fibers together to make the fabric denser. Felted wool is most common for outerwear and hats. However, if you wash it incorrectly, you can accidentally felt wool fabric.
What Is the Difference Between Cotton and Wool?
If both cotton and wool are high-quality natural fibers, what are the differences between the two? Aside from being from two different sources—cotton from plants and wool from animals—the two fibers make fabrics with different qualities and strengths.
BreathabilityCotton and wool are both breathable fabrics. The structure of the fibers allows air to circulate freely throughout the fabric, even when the weave is tight. While both cotton and wool make breathable fabrics, some factors impact how breathable each one feels.
Cotton usually feels less breathable, especially in damp weather, as it is more absorbent and less moisture-wicking than wool. So while air will still circulate through the fabric, water doesn’t evaporate at the same rate it soaks into the fiber, making the garment feel less breathable.
Wool is better at pulling moisture away from the fibers and keeping it out of the internal structure of the fabric. Because it takes longer for wool to absorb water, it feels breathable in damp conditions much longer than cotton.
Cotton and wool are both durable fibers, especially compared to fabrics made with synthetic or semi-synthetic fibers. However, wool is significantly more durable than cotton in some regards, as long as both fabrics are cared for properly.
Wool fabric requires more delicate handling for care and maintenance than cotton does. You can wash cotton at higher temperatures and use a machine rather than washing it by hand. But, if you maintain proper care for both fabrics, wool will last longer.
Wool fibers can take more pressure and repetitive movement before they break than cotton fibers. You’ll see holes or tears in cotton fabrics before wool ones. Wool is also more fire-resistant than cotton.
In terms of softness, cotton comes out on top. It is a smoother fiber, so regardless of thickness or other treatments, the texture of the cotton fabric is going to be softer and smoother against the skin than wool fabric.
The protein structure of the wool fibers is scaled. Hundreds of tiny scales overlap to form the thread, but these scales can also catch on each other or your skin and hair. Those scales make the surface rougher than cotton.
Manufacturers can use treatments to smooth and soften wool fibers, but cotton achieves this texture naturally. The cellulose fibers that make up cotton are naturally smoother than animal hair. Cotton also softens with use and repeated washing, so over time, it will continue to get softer.
WarmthWool is by far the warmer of the two fibers. It is a thicker fiber and holds heat better than cotton does. There are tiny spaces in wool fibers that capture and hold air as an insulating layer. As your body heat radiates out from you, the wool catches it and keeps it in those spaces, which is what keeps you warm.
While cotton has similar spaces in the fiber, cotton is also more absorbent, so those spaces tend to fill with water, not air. Cotton will only keep you warm until it gets wet. Even if you aren’t in damp weather, cotton can absorb moisture from the air, decreasing the fabric’s warmth. Wool doesn’t absorb water as quickly or easily, so it will keep you warmer for longer.
Wool fabric is also generally thicker than cotton fabric. Dense fabrics, particularly felted wool, are insulating and can help you trap body heat against your skin while keeping out unwanted weather elements like wind or rain.
Both cotton and wool are variable in weight. Manufacturers can spin the fibers to different sizes and weave or knit with one or more threads at a time to make different yarn and fabric weights. Wool tends to be heavier than cotton.
In their raw form, cotton fibers are thinner than most wool fibers. While the size of wool fibers differs based on the animal, they came from. Most sheep fleece is thicker than cotton. Spinning and manufacturing treatments can easily build up the weight of fiber, but it is harder to thin it out beyond the fiber’s original size.
Additionally, because wool is better at trapping warmth, manufacturers tend to use it for thicker, cold-weather clothing than cotton. You’re more likely to find thick wool than thick cotton because manufacturers play to the fiber’s strengths when they decide how to process it into cloth.
When a fabric is moisture-wicking, it means the fibers can pick up the moisture of your skin—such as sweat—and pull it through to the surface of the fabric to evaporate. The moisture moves through the same spaces in the fiber that help it insulate and keep your body heat. Moisture wicking works by letting more water evaporate than a fiber absorbs.
Cotton’s high absorbency means it is not good at moisture wicking. While water will evaporate from thin cotton much easier than thick cotton, wool will have less water that needs evaporating in the first place. As water moves away from your skin and towards the air, less of it will get stuck in wool fabric than cotton fabric.
The more water cotton absorbs, the less it can wick away. Once the fibers are saturated, cotton takes a long time to dry, and it will feel damp against your skin. While you might not want to work up a sweat in an all-wool outfit, this property is helpful to keep in mind when you’re choosing between cotton and wool items like jackets or socks.
Wool is on the higher end of the price scale than cotton is. Cotton is cheaper to produce and there is a larger supply of it around the world. Many wool animals can only have their fleece shorn once a year, limiting the amount anyone can produce in a year.
In certain climates, cotton can grow nearly year-round and produce multiple yields. It also generally requires less land and fewer resources to produce than wool does.
Once both fibers are harvested, wool also needs more treatment and processes to become fabric. While high-end cotton or cotton from specific and more rare plants (such as Pima cotton) can be pricier than most cotton, wool of any variety tends to be more expensive.
When you consider the durability of the materials, you may end up spending roughly the same amount of money over time on a single wool jacket versus several cotton jackets that wear out faster. So wool is an upfront investment, but it will last a long time, increasing its value.
Ease of Care
Cotton is hands down easier to care for than wool fabric. Because you can wash and dry it in machines, it requires significantly less hands-on maintenance than wool. Wool is susceptible to shrinkage, felting, and other issues if you machine-wash or dry it.
While wool is a hand-wash or dry-clean only fiber, it is naturally antimicrobial, so it will not get soiled as quickly as other fibers. The natural oil that sheep have on their fleece, called lanolin, helps repel dirt and microbes, so it stays fresh longer than highly absorbent cotton.
Both fibers will last longer with gentle detergent than with harsh soaps or chemicals. Avoiding excessive sun exposure and heat will also increase the lifespan of these fabrics. So while cotton is easier to launder, both fabrics are low maintenance over their lifespan if you’re gentle with them.
Both cotton and wool are widely used in the garment industry. However, cotton has many other uses in the textile industry and wool is more limited. Both fabrics are useful in interior furnishings and décor, but cotton has more industrial applications in fabrics like canvas.
Wool garments tend to be cold-weather items, including base layers like long underwear and socks; accessories like hats, gloves, and scarves; outerwear like jackets and coats; and heavier mid-layers like wool skirts, dresses, and sweaters.
Cotton garments tend to be warm-weather items. These include t-shirts, underwear, socks, pajamas, and denim, as well as thicker cotton items like sweatshirts. This fabric also shows up frequently in blends with other fibers like polyester and spandex.
Pros and Cons of CottonThe biggest advantages to cotton are the cost and the softness. It is an affordable, comfortable fabric for apparel and other uses. It gets softer with use, which is another advantage. It’s great for people with sensitive skin or who might have wool allergies, as wool is scratchier.
Its high absorbency makes it useful for projects like tie-dying or other creative activities. It also makes it useful for items like kitchen towels or even bath towels. Cotton is also an easy-care fiber that washes well in the washing machine.
The cons of cotton are that it can fade over time, won’t keep you warm, and it isn’t particularly good at moisture wicking. Buying cotton garments may be cheaper at the point of purchase, but these garments will fade and wear out over time, so you’ll need to replace them more often, which can get expensive quickly.
The moisture-wicking and absorbency also mean that cotton is not useful for winter layers or cold-weather gear.
Advantages and Disadvantages of WoolWool has the advantages of durability and warmth without sacrificing breathability. The high level of moisture wicking in the wool fabric makes it an excellent choice for layering and cold-weather gear, particularly for accessories like socks or gloves. It lasts for a long time, so you get years of wear out of a single purchase.
On the flip side, it is an expensive and hard-to-care-for fabric. While it is naturally antimicrobial, when you do need to wash it, you must do so by hand. The upfront cost of wool garments is also generally more expensive than similar garments in another fabric, like cotton.
However, if you take good care of it, wool will last much longer than cotton or synthetic fibers. Over the lifespan of a garment, you will get the full value of the more expensive price tag because you won’t need to replace the garment as often or worry about holes or tears.
If you’re willing to hand wash your garments, then wool apparel is worth the investment for your winter wardrobe.
Wool vs Cotton Sweater: Which One Is Better?
When you’re deciding between cotton and wool for a sweater, you should consider when you will wear the sweater and how long you want it to last. The colder the weather, the stronger the argument for a wool sweater over a cotton one.
Light cotton sweaters can be good transitional pieces in late spring or early fall when you’re adding an extra layer for chilly mornings. However, cotton isn’t going to give you significant warmth throughout the cold seasons.
Cotton also won’t give you the same protection from the elements as wool will. Any snow or rain that gets on a cotton sweater will immediately lower its effectiveness as a warm layer. While wool may not feel as soft against the skin as cotton, you can layer a wool sweater over a softer underlayer to get the appropriate warmth.
Wool sweaters will be more expensive than cotton ones, but they will function better as a winter layer and last longer than a single season. The same sweater can keep you warm every winter for years and years.
Cotton vs Wool Socks
The arguments for socks are similar to those for sweaters. Cotton socks will not last as long as wool, and they will not keep your feat as insulated as wool. This is especially true for high-performance socks like hiking socks.
Cotton socks are fine for everyday wear, but they will get holes in them sooner than later. Feet also tends to sweat more when you wear shoes and socks, so cotton’s absorbency will work against you, while wool will help keep your feet dry.
Socks are a garment that gets a lot of wear and tear. They experience a large amount of friction inside shoes, especially during activewear like running or hiking. This can cause some pilling and felting in wool socks, but they will still outlast a pair of comparable cotton socks.
However, since you have to wash wool socks by hand, it is good to have cotton socks for everyday use and save your wool socks for high-impact occasions. Wool socks are also great in the winter for adding a warm layer to your snow boots. You can pull them on over thinner sock liners to avoid itchy feet.
Which Should You Use, Cotton or Wool?
Cotton and wool each have their place in any wardrobe. You can largely separate them seasonally, keeping your cotton items for warm months and your wool items for colder seasons. When you reach for layers, use wool before choosing cotton to keep your skin dry and warm.
In the summer, leave your wool in the closet in favor of lighter cotton materials. The thinner material won’t hold in as much heat, which will leave you feeling more comfortable.
For occasions like hiking or camping, bring your woolens even if the weather is warm. Wool hiking socks, outer layers, and long underwear are all a better choice than cotton items. They won’t absorb as much of your sweat and they won’t give out on you mid-hike.
Cotton and wool are both incredibly useful natural fibers. They are long-lasting, versatile, and have had a place in the textile industry for centuries. However, wool does better in cooler climates and cotton thrives in warm weather.
Between the inviting softness of cotton and the rugged durability of wool, you’re sure to find a place for both of these fabrics in your wardrobe.