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Cotton and the Great Outdoors

March 23, 2016

Catherine Salfino

Among the many scenes where one had to suspend disbelief while watching the Oscar-nominated “The Revenant” were those where frontiersman walked through icy river waters and then plodded through knee-deep snow without freezing to death. Clearly, the magic of Hollywood was at work.  While no one is advocating replicating such a perilous journey, today’s technical apparel is far more likely to truly withstand weather’s highs and lows, even if the clothes are made from what’s seen as an unlikely outdoor fabric — cotton.[quote]

Due to its absorbent qualities, cotton is not usually the first fabric that comes to mind in the outdoors market. But new treatments and technologies have the industry revisiting the natural fiber.

“Hopefully things will change as more and more outdoor retailers and brands realize that cotton can perform as well or better than synthetics in the category,” says Yvonne Johnson, director of product development for Cotton Incorporated.

“If you drill down to the least common denominator, outdoor apparel performance comes down to two issues: moisture management and thermal regulation,” she says. “Cotton is an incredibly absorbent fiber. We love that in a towel — but absorbing and retaining rain from the outside of a garment, or perspiration from the inside, is not what outdoor enthusiasts want or need. However, cotton is an incredibly versatile fiber. Through fabric engineering and textile chemistry, we’ve been able to adapt the way cotton addresses both exterior and interior moisture management, and thermal regulation.”

At a time when activewear stores like Sports Authority are dealing with business challenges, it’s imperative that makers understand what their shoppers want. The majority of consumers say they mainly participate in outdoor activities such as walking (42 percent), running (21 percent), fishing (14 percent), hiking (12 percent), and camping (12 percent), according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. And more than 1 in 2 outdoor exercisers (57 percent) say they would be more likely to shop at a store offering activewear made from natural fibers such as cotton or wool than a store that did not.



This is not lost on retailers like Cabela’s, which offers a variety of cotton and cotton blend products, including the Dri-release tops in the OutfitHER line, ColorPhase hoodies that change color to match the outdoor conditions, 5.11 Tactical Series long-sleeve shirts with stain and soil resistance, and STORM COTTON™ camo hoodies.

Manufacturers and retailers should note that nearly 2 in 3 consumers (65 percent) say they prefer their activewear be made of cotton and cotton blends.

That made sense to Ray Giuriceo, operating manager of Alister MacKenzie golf apparel. The green grass line, named for the renowned 20th Century British golf course designer, features Cotton Incorporated’s WICKING WINDOWS™ finish in all of its knit polo shirts. Thistechnology transfers moisture away from the skin to the outside of a garment, keeping its wearer drier and more comfortable during exercise.

“We wanted to bring a higher quality product to the market that was all-cotton but with performance features,” Giuriceo explains. “We wanted cotton because it has the right hand-feel and breathability. So we chose this fabric with this finish because there’s a market for a better product and most of the synthetics are not better products.”

Giuriceo says there are a lot of golf customers that would prefer a fine cotton shirt — but it has to perform.

“That’s where our shirt comes in. In any activity where you perspire, the garment will get wet, cling and become uncomfortable,” he says. “We worked with Cotton Incorporated and its WICKING WINDOWS™ technology, understanding that it will pull moisture to the outside of the shirt to help keep the customer cooler and dry. And it works. It absolutely works.”

When surveyed, more than 9 in 10 outdoor exercisers say they would choose cotton activewear over synthetics if the cotton apparel that had thermal regulating properties (95 percent), dried faster (94 percent), wicked moisture (93 percent), and did not show sweat (92 percent), according to Cotton Incorporated’s 2014 Sports Apparel Survey. And the majority say they would pay more for cotton activewear that wicks moisture (71 percent), dries faster (70 percent), has thermal regulating properties (68 percent), and does not show sweat (59 percent).

“By now I think most retailers and brands are aware of our STORM COTTON™ technology, a finish that provides water resistance to cotton fabrics; and the TransDRY™ and WICKING WINDOWS™ moisture-management finishes,” Johnson says. “What’s new is how we are combining those with new fabric constructions specific to the outdoor category. By creating three-dimensional fabrics that either trap air or allow for greater air movement, and combining them with the appropriate moisture management system, we are able to provide solutions for numerous weather climates.”

Johnson says one of the most-requested constructions from recent trade shows is a single-knit jacquard that she referred to as “the mushroom fabric” because it was inspired by the underside of a mushroom. It consists of a flat, tightly knit outer surface and an insulating interior with peaks and valleys.

“The tight construction of the outer layer helps protect the wearer from wind,” she explains. “The multiple folds and grooves increase the surface area of the fabric, helping the wearer to retain body heat.  Now, when we incorporate the STORM COTTON™ water-resistant technology, what we have is a thermal-regulating fabric that will provide protection from the elements — ideal for outerwear. It scored better than technical fleece by leading brands in the categories of air permeability and thermal resistance.”

These new technologies and fabric constructions will move toward putting to rest the old “Cotton Kills” slogan that permeated the outdoor market.

“‘Cotton Kills’ was not an indictment of cotton itself, but of its performance in specific environments,” Johnson says. “Now that we are showing brands and retailers what can be achieved, you could say cotton has been exonerated.”