For something so rotten, it sure feels great.
The closest we’ve come to reviewing cotton on Everyday Wear has been cotton blends (NYCO), outerwear, or stretchy cotton jeans. This is because cotton does not make for a performant garment (especially tops), but you can’t argue against its comfort.
Cotton feels good because it’s soft. While you can get really soft (i.e. low micron) merino, it often still never feels quite as soft as cotton. The softness also sets cotton apart from synthetics, which have a smooth, slippery feel versus the fluffy, soft texture of cotton.
It’s cheaper to make relatively comfortable cotton, you can go to Target and grab a cotton tee that won’t be itchy, because even the cheapest of cottons is soft out of the gate. But that cheap merino t-shirt you found online? Likely to be quite itchy. And even the highest end (think Pima or Egyptian long staple cotton) is at a lower price point than most soft merino.
Lastly, the range of fabric weights/weaves that cotton can support and still be relatively durable is wider. A lightweight slub cotton tee that feels great in the heat will be relatively durable, while a light merino shirt (especially if it’s not blended) will get holes if you look at it wrong.
Cotton is also easy to care for. You can bleach it, you can use almost any stain removing product on it. You can wash it in any machine, and as long as it is pre-shrunk (which most cotton today is) you can typically toss it in a dryer without worry. It’s easy, it’s comfortable.
In a lot of ways cotton is the standard by which all other clothing people talk about is held to.
Why not cotton?
The main reason not to wear cotton: it absorbs moisture and keeps it against your skin. And it absorbs a lot — think about that time you jumped into a pool or got stuck in the rain in a cotton shirt. It gets heavy, sticks to your body, takes forever to dry, and is somehow impossible to take off. Wearing a wet cotton shirt is one of the most uncomfortable things we experience all too often. Cotton is also super uncomfortable in the heat because it handles sweat the same as water, and it is downright dangerous in the cold as it keeps the cold moisture against your body, working against any progress your body is making to warm yourself up. This is why explorers coined the term ‘rotten cotton’ — it has long been a mistake in the outdoors to choose cotton.
We often talk about the odor resistance of tops on Everyday Wear. For a base layer, you are unlikely to get more than one wear out of cotton. This, along with the moisture wicking and temperature regulation properties of merino are why we often favor merino for our base layers.
The other downside to cotton is that it loses its magic once you start trying to make it more technical. Add DWR or any thing to help cotton repel stains, now it is a little too stiff, not quite right, not cotton. Add stretch and you mess up the drape, the light feel, and the cotton becomes odd feeling. While you can enrich other materials to make them more performant, cotton is best left as cotton.
The Cotton We Can’t Get Enough Of
For pajamas, even though you can benefit from better moisture regulation, there’s simply nothing more relaxing than cotton. Cotton sheets, a cotton t-shirt — it is pure comfort. Same for relaxing in a temperature controlled home, a cotton T paired with cotton pants/shorts is relaxing in itself.
A hoodie is another perfect garment in cotton. If you need performance, a hoodie isn’t the right thing to be wearing. If you want to feel cozy, we challenge people to find something better than a cotton hoodie.
Going to the other end, when it comes to certain things like dress shirts for wearing with a suit, cotton is very hard to beat. Nothing drapes and presses out like cotton. It looks sharp, while being exactly what your eye expects it to be. So when you really want to look sharp, often cotton gets the call up to the big leagues.
Some Cotton Products We Love
JCrew Ts (slub cotton)
Buck Mason (slub cotton)
Flint and Tinder 10-Year Hoodie (mostly cotton)
Recent Reviews on EDW
Wildly Goods Socks — Ben’s top sock pick
Faherty Brand Epic Quilted Fleece Pullover — A sharp looking and warm pullover
Outerknown Lost Coast Moleskin Shirt — Steve’s favorite cooler weather shirt
Uniqlo Long Sleeve Merino Polo — An amazing value