You've probably heard a lot about moisture-wicking materials. Manufacturers say that these performance textiles, which are commonly used to produce athletic gear, gym wear, and business polo shirts, may help keep you dry and comfortable by wicking away perspiration. Can cloth, on the other hand, achieve that? The short answer is yes.
The concept of moisture wicking through fabric is not new. In fact, the first patent for such a product was filed in 1941 by Elam Noland who called it "moisture-vapor-proofing fiber." Since then, many different types of polymers have been developed to meet this need. Most modern fabrics use some type of microfiber or filament as the basis for their products. These fibers are able to absorb water vapor from the air while transmitting sweat and urine more than 100 times their own weight.
There are two ways in which clothing with moisture-wicking properties can benefit wearers. First, the presence of these fibers may help maintain an adequate level of hydration in the body. Second, by wicking moisture away from the skin, these materials may also serve to reduce the risk of heat-related injury or illness.
In practice, however, it is difficult for clothing made from moisture-wicking fibers to actually wick any significant amount of moisture away from the body. This is because most fibers are not thermally conductive so they cannot transfer heat from the body to its surroundings.
Moisture-wicking textiles have the capacity to draw moisture away from the skin via microscopic capillaries incorporated into the fabric. Moisture is pulled to the fabric's surface, making it simpler to evaporate. This same mechanism that allows water to be removed from the body also helps rid the body of sweat and other liquid waste.
There are two types of moisture-wicking: wicking and transferring. Wicking means that as moisture is transported through the fiber of the material, it leaves the body in some form. Wicking can occur by physical action or by chemical reaction. For example, in underwear made from cotton fibers, moisture is drawn up the fiber then down again when it reaches the next layer of fabric because there are no chemicals present that would lock in moisture like polyester does.
Transfering means that once moisture has been taken out of the body it remains trapped within the textile until it is washed out with soap and water. Transfering fabrics include polyester and acrylic.
The process of removing moisture from the body mechanically or chemically, transporting it through the fiber of the garment, and then releasing it at the other side is called "wicking/transporting".
Moisture-wicking textiles include synthetic fibers such as polyester or nylon, as well as any material treated with a solution to inhibit water absorption. Polyester and nylon are water-resistant because they are constructed from polymers that have a similar chemistry to plastic. However, these materials will wick moisture if they are not also treated with a moisture-wicking agent. Moisture-wicking treatments come in two forms: imitations of natural fabrics such as silk and cotton, which attract and retain moisture due to the presence of micropores and other surface features; and synthetic fabrics such as polyester that repel water due to the presence of fluorocarbon groups.
Silk is the most effective natural fabric at wicking moisture from the body because it contains many microscopic holes that allow water to be pulled through it. Cotton is a good alternative if you do not want to wear silk every day. It too has microholes but not as many as silk. Other natural fibers such as rayon and hemp have no microholes and so they cannot wick moisture away from the body. They will still dry faster than polyester because there are more open spaces within their structure where water can escape.
Synthetic fabrics such as polyester are used instead because they are durable, comfortable, and colorfast. These qualities are important when wearing clothing as an athletic supporter because you need gear that will hold up over time while providing comfort during exercise.