1. Fabric construction and weight: In general, tighter knits or weaves create less breathable fabrics, while more open knits or looser weaves will be more breathable than tight ones. Thinner materials and finer yarns also affect breathability. For a quick, non-scientific test, hold a fabric up and see how much light passes through it—more light suggests more breathability.
2. Moisture management: Lightweight breathable fabrics help reduce sweat, but moisture-wicking and quick-drying materials go further by taking advantage of the body’s natural cooling mechanism to evaporate moisture away from the skin.
3. Fit: If your primary activity will be relaxing, then look for a loose fit; if you’re getting moisture-wicking clothing because you plan to be more active, then you need the garment to be in contact with your skin to do its job—not necessarily skin-tight, but not super billowy either.
4. Mesh panels and air vents: Some clothing, especially product designed to provide sun protection, includes strategically placed mesh panels and zippered air vents. To learn more about soaking up the sun more safely, read.
Below are broad characteristics of some common warm-weather fabrics. Be aware that features can vary quite a bit within each type of fabric. Also, clothing makers can blend fabrics to achieve a difference in performance, and they can add finishes that alter the typical characteristics of a fabric.
Available in an incredible variety of fabrics, including all sorts of “non-active” summer clothing.
Pros: Soft, durable, breathable, versatile and easy to care for.
Cons: Absorbs moisture (doesn’t wick away moisture or dry), which is why it’s a poor choice if you plan to break a sweat—in searing heat, though, some people wear cotton and douse it in water to enhance the evaporation cooling effect.
2. Nylon and Polyester
Most activewear features one of these two synthetic materials.
Pros: Wicks moisture and dries quickly; resists pilling and abrasion.
Cons: Not as soft as cotton; retains odour; breathability varies based on yarn size and knit or weave.
You find a wide variety of plant-based-but-highly-processed fabrics under names that include rayon, viscose and lyocell; fabric properties vary widely, and these fabrics are often blended with other fabrics to achieve different characteristics.
Pros: Has a silky feel, moderate breathability, drapes nicely, dries quickly.
Cons: Doesn't wick away moisture as well as polyesters or nylons; wrinkles easily; many rayons require dry cleaning.
Derived from the stalks of flax plants, it’s a popular fabric for casual summer wear.
Pros: Very durable and easy to care for; typically has excellent breathability because linen fibres are large and clothing styles feature more open weaves.
Cons: Like cotton, it absorbs moisture (doesn’t wick away moisture or dry), which is why it’s a poor choice if you plan to break a sweat; also wrinkles very easily.
Often used in underwear; also used in upscale casual wear.
Pros: Luxuriously soft, lightweight and breathable.
Cons: Fragile; not moisture wicking; retains odours; typically requires hand washing.
6. Merino Wool
Often used in long underwear or winter wear, it can also be a good summer fabric; early generations of wool were scratchy; today’s merino wools are quite soft.
Pros: Breathes well; wicks moisture and is available in lightweight, summer-worthy styles. Doesn’t retain odours like synthetic fabrics do.
Cons: Less durable than cottons, nylons and polyesters.