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The Fabric Hero We Need: Cotton’s Performance Superpowers Through the Ages

For hundreds of years, one material has outperformed all the others.

As a design student over a decade ago, I remember professors telling us, “Don’t spec cotton for athletic wear.” The message was loud and clear: it wasn’t a performance fabric. In the decades since, working with brands as a designer, developer, and consultant, I’ve found quite the opposite to be true: cotton was and still is the original performance material. Not only is it notable for its adaptability and performance benefits, it has historically held a high standard for sustainability, too. It can be tricky to untangle the threads of textile history, but by exploring the evolution of specific fibers, fabrics, and finishes, it becomes clear that cotton’s been our sustainability hero all along.

We’ll start by going way back to the 1500s, when cotton’s waterproof superpower hit the stage, or should we say sea. This is when British and Scottish mariners discovered that by applying fish oils and grease to their cotton sailcloth the sails became more efficient when wet and lighter when dry, out-performing sails that were untreated. So began a series of designs and developments resulting in what we now know as waxed cotton — cotton impregnated with a paraffin or natural beeswax. Eventually, mariners made capes out of the treated sailcloth. The Royal Navy even used waxed cotton on the sails of ships set for Egypt to obtain more cotton.

The shipping industry dominated the commercial application of cotton throughout the 17-1800s, and then Barbour entered the scene. In the early 1930s, they chose waxed cotton for their team’s motorcycle suits, which were worn by the British International team in competition from 1936 to 1977 and famously donned by American actor Steve McQueen. The British Armed Forces also wore uniforms made from waxed cotton in World War II. The fabric has evolved from there to include broader use in apparel that benefit from its protective warmth.

Next cotton superpower: protection from the elements. Grenfell Cloth (1923), Byrd Cloth (1934), and Ventile (1943) are just a few fabrics developed for comfort in all conditions. Grenfell Cloth, named after a British medical missionary, is made from 600 thread-per-inch cotton and strong enough to withstand the extreme climate of Newfoundland where Grenfell was working. Like Grenfell Cloth, Byrd Cloth was designed to protect in harsh conditions. Richard Byrd was an Antarctic explorer and needed clothing that was windproof, yet breathable, so sweat could evaporate from his body rather than freeze on his skin. Similar to waxed cotton, Byrd Cloth became a go-to for army uniforms, as it stayed drier, promoted breathability, repelled mosquitos, and was lighter than twill. It continues to be used in cold-weather clothing today.

Lastly, we’ll talk about Ventile, a weatherproof textile with a unique twist. Ventile is a cotton textile woven from an extra-long staple fiber (ELS). Only available from around 2% of the world's entire cotton crop, ELS fibers create yarns with enhanced strength that can be tightly woven into a high-density textile to create a 100% cotton fabric that effectively protects from inclement weather. It naturally delivers all-day comfort due to its drape and breathability, while being durable and quiet in use. First developed by scientists at the Shirley Institute in Manchester, England, Ventile is now only manufactured by the Stotz & Co AG in Switzerland, which spins, twists, weaves and dyes the raw materials, selling the textile directly under its own branding of etaProof cotton to clothing manufacturers and wholesale textile distributors globally.

For cotton’s last superpower spotlight, we have an innovation that combines both performance and sustainability, Foxfibre. One of my favorite stories in textile history, Foxfibre was developed in 1980 by Sally Fox. Revolutionary for its time, it was the first commercially spinnable, colored cotton. By creating a long staple variety of colored cotton, Sally Fox mitigated the harmful bleaching, water waste, and labor costs previously associated with hand spinning this fiber. Her singular expertise in naturally colored cotton brought beautiful, soft, environmentally friendly solutions to market. Some of her big-name customers were Levi's, Land's End and L.L. Bean—companies still leading the sustainability charge today by prioritizing organic and biodynamic sources.

You may still be wondering, why this walk down memory lane? The idea here is to demonstrate that while language and marketing can change how consumers understand fabric choice, cotton was and still is versatile and performative. History shows us that before there was athletic wear, there was workwear. Before we called it performance, we called it utility and solved for comfort. If it kept you dry, it was comfort. If it wicked and breathed, it was comfort. If it was soft, it was comfort. Cotton’s natural powers were minimized over time thanks to the popularity of synthetics, but today it’s charging back in part because consumers know what’s at stake.

Today, we are all reckoning with the fact that the synthetics that have become so commonplace in our wardrobes are actually creating tons of micro-plastics pollution. Consumers now want their clothes to save the planet and deliver performance. And they are not willing to compromise. Thanks to new advancements in fibers, fabric, and finishes, cotton can deliver everything we discussed above - plus benefits like micro-climate creation, muscle recovery, moisture management, durability, enhanced stretch and recovery, and anti-odor/ antimicrobial benefits, which are currently being explored by companies focused on cotton/ material R&D. All of this is happening while respectfully considering the full product lifecycle - ultimately creating sustainable cotton innovations.

Organizations like Cotton Council International have even developed new metrics to quantify impact, making it clear which innovations are most sustainable. From biodegradable fabric and microfibers1 to precision agriculture and carbon-neutral farming practice, cotton innovators are continually demonstrating what cradle-to-cradle responsibility can look like.

As you think about the future of your brand or your next collection, consider exploring more of cotton’s rich history. For even more inspiration, take a look at initiatives like WHAT’S NEW IN COTTONTM, which showcases fashion technologies2 in finishes, blends, and yarn innovation. It’s imperative that we get back to a more natural way of doing things, and we have to look no further than cotton for our roadmap forward.



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