Unless you’ve scored yourself a job as a lifeguard, you probably can’t get away with wearing as little clothing as possible during the summer, no matter how hot, humid, and unbearably sticky it gets. Those of us whose bosses don’t consider sheer sarongs proper work attire know how uncomfortable it can be to sit all day in a stifling suit or skirt and blouse that seem to encourage sweat. This is exactly why stocking your closet with the best summer-friendly fabrics so essential. To help you dress smarter for what’s sure to be a sweltering August, we talked to fashion designer and fabric expert, Erica Waddell, on the best fabrics to wear when it’s really, really hot.
The Best Fabrics For Summer
“In general, natural fibers (even wool!) breathe better than synthetics (even advanced performancewear!) because natural fibers have to withstand fluctuations in weather for the survival of the creature it originates from,” Waddell says. “There is a close correlation between the fiber’s purpose and its breathability. Think about how a silk worm cocoon has to function compared to a lab-born petrochemical fabric like polyester. A lot of emphasis has been put on these synthetic materials to tout their moisture wicking, but in reality, they get their breathability from weave and absorption, not from the all-important air permeability.”
In laymens terms, that means fabrics like bamboo and lyocell are the most breathable and therefore the most ideal on scorching summer days. “These are natural rayons that come from plants. Since plants cannot move, the original state of these fibers had to keep the plant cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and guess what? They do the same to you!” Waddell explains.
Your next best choices? Linen, silk, cotton and hemp. “Look for lightweight knits or wovens,” in these fabrics Waddell says.
The Worst Fabrics For Summer
The least breathable fabrics include acrylic, nylon, vinyl, polyester, fleece and other acetates. When it’s really warm, avoid these all costs unless you enjoy sweating a lot.
Natural heavyweight knits and wovens along lightweight synthetic knits like nylon tricot and polyester jersey also aren’t ideal because air won’t easily pass through them.
Lastly, wool (really!), performance synthetics like spandex or athletic wear and rayons aren’t great options, but they are better than acrylics, nylons, polyester and fleece.
Waddell says it’s important to remember that easy, breezy summer wear is about more than just choosing the right fiber–weave, cut, and even color should be considered, too.
“A tight fitting garment is still going to be pretty hot compared to something flowing,” she says. “Color is also something to consider, since darker colors absorb heat rather than reflecting it. To minimize time with a hot iron, pick a knit or just pull your clothes out of the dryer as quickly as possible. A great tip is to take advantage of the summer sun to line dry your clothes. They will have fewer wrinkles, require less energy, and feel cooler to the touch when you hang them on the line. Fabrics like silk and bamboo as well as synthetics like elastane (spandex) dry almost as fast in fresh air as they do in a hot dryer.”
The Bottom Line
“Always choose a light knit like jersey that is 100% bamboo, tencel, lyocell, or silk. Lightweight knits like 100% cotton or wool jersey along with light to medium wovens like cotton, silk, or hemp are good. Always opt for 100% natural contents rather than blends, with the exception of linen if you hate to iron. Performance wear is good for specific activities, but stop being effective (or comfortable) after a couple of hours. If you must wear something lined (like a suit), opt for silk, rayon, or cupro lining instead of the more common nylon acetate. And of course, ditch tight synthetic leggings and nylon hosiery.”