There are two main types of fabrics in the world: synthetic and natural. Natural fabrics have been around for thousands of years – these are typically harvested from plants or animals (such as cotton and wool). Synthetic fabrics are a 20th century invention (rayon was invented in 1924 and nylon in 1938). These fabrics are spun from synthetic fibers.
Each of these fabrics has positives and negatives – especially for travelers. It doesn’t matter how you’re traveling – space is always an issue. Selecting the right fabric for the right trip can be the difference between a good and great experience.
Let’s start with natural fabrics. Cotton is the heavy-hitter here (I’m not going to focus much on wool in this post – wool is fascinating and will be the focus of a subsequent post) and has two major advantages over synthetic fabric: comfort and looks. There’s nothing better then throwing on a pair of jeans and your favorite t-shirt. Going out to dinner? Throw on a nice button-down shirt and you are good to go.
Cotton has one huge weakness: water. When wet, it loses all insulating properties and actually leeches heat from your body. It takes forever to dry. It stains easily. Wearing a cotton shirt on rainy day is a miserable experience.
Synthetics have no issues with water. They dry quickly and can keep you warm even when wet. Cutting edge fabric treatments allow water to bead right off. They are stain-resistant (some are even stain-proof!) and can be made resistant to UV rays and insects.
Unfortunately, synthetic materials still have a couple of disadvantages. Feel is the biggest one. Things have improved but synthetic fabrics still aren’t as comfortable as cotton. Personally, I don’t notice this much but for others it may be a deal breaker. Synthetic fabric also lacks the variety of styles and designs that are available in natural fabric. Clothing made from synthetic fabric is mostly the domain of out door companies (who do not typically have a high demand for style) so this may change one day as the market grows. There are several companies that have introduced checked and striped patterns, making these shirts more viable as daily wear.
An understanding of the differences between synthetic and natural fabrics can really help you select gear for a trip. I tend to pack mostly synthetics, which I primarily wear during the day (when I’m most active). A pair of jeans and a cotton button-down or two also end up in my bag for use at night. Of course, each trip is different. Hanging in the city? You can probably get away with packing natural stuff. Travelling around the world with just a backpack? I would recommend mostly synthetics.