Where Function Carries Form: Activewear Shapes and Textiles

By Rebekah Lazear

Activewear is designed with skin in mind. The fabrics often act as a second skin - a breathable barrier both freeing and protective. It isn’t enough to have perfect function, the public nature of exercise requires clothing of desirable form. Going to the gym, running outside, practicing yoga in the park, #fitstagram posts and running errands in between means athletic clothing needs to look as stylish and self-expressive as streetwear. Each activity requires its own silhouette depending on the body movement required. Some textiles are better suited than others based on the activity. These fabrics are wovens and knits with plenty of stretch that allow garments to move with you. Technical performance properties may include moisture-wicking, heat control through cooling or insulation, water resistance and protective barriers. The specifications vary based on the movement requirements of the body.

Textile Rundown

  • Spandex (synthetic)

    • Known for: Stretch, resilience and tight fit

    • Features: Offers freedom of movement, moisture wicking, antibacterial properties, reduces chafing

    • Drawback: If not washed properly,it  loses shape

  • Polyester (synthetic)

    • Versatility: Printing methods like sublimation printing make it easy to apply any color or pattern to the fabric. Wicking properties can be applied

    • Features: Durability, insulated even when wet, dries quickly, holds shape, wrinkle resistant, repels UV rays

  • Polypropylene (synthetic)

    • Features: Like polyester, but water resistant

    • Best use: Great base layer to keep you dry as moisture is pushed to surface to evaporate

  • Nylon (synthetic) is a more durable synthetic polyester

    • Features: Shares many of the same properties as polyester, but does not hold color as well. Mildew resistant

    • Drawbacks: Harder to print on/dye, holds odor

  • Bamboo (cellulose)

    • Features: Natural wicking and absorbing properties, repels odors, can keep you warm in winter/cool in summer, feels soft like cotton, but performs better.

    • Sustainability note: While bamboo is a more renewable resource than cotton, the process of turning this plant into fabric can still be highly polluting

  • Hemp (natural)

    • Features: Natural UV protection, durability, and holds shape because the fiber itself stretches out less than any other natural fiber

  • Cotton (natural)

    • Features: Soft, light

    • Drawback: Holds too much moisture, but works well for light activities if blended with other fabrics, or treated to be wicking

  • Tencel(tm) (cellulose)

    • Features: Wood-based, sustainably sourced, durable, breathable, lightweight, soft while great for compression support

    • Source: Made from eucalyptus pulp

  • Gore-Tex (synthetic)

    • What: Coating applied to fabrics

    • Features: Breathable, durable, waterproof and windproof. No water or wind gets in, but sweat moisture can escape

  • Wool (natural)

    • Features: Breathable, keeps warm and is durable. Does not hold odor

    • Drawbacks: Very heavy when wet and takes a long time to dry

  • X-Static (synthetifc)

    • What: Silver is bonded to fibers. Fibers remain soft and flexible

    • Features: Antimicrobial, prevents fungus and bacteria growth

Activity-Based Performance Needs

  • Basketball

    • Movements: Running, jumping and broad arm movement

    • Requirements: Loose fit away from the body

    • Textiles need to be airy like nylon. Dazzle knits, a spandex-free knit fabric with small ribs and shiny face, coupled with athletic mesh are widely used.

  • Martial arts

    • Requirements: Close fitting garments that allow full range of powerful motion.  Fighters need to protect their most vulnerable areas without excess fabric inhibiting their movements.

    • Muy Thai shorts, for example, fit tight to the waist while loose around the thighs to allow for kicks and fighters dropping low to the ground. These shorts are usually satin and nylon, but sometimes made of cotton.

    • Karate emphasizes movements with a limited range of motion allowing for a closer fit robe. Judo’s speed and mobility needs a lighter weight fabric that is also strong enough to stand up to the throws and grappling practiced.

    • Textiles: The cotton used in these garments are usually ribbed or brush to enable movement. The seams require reinforced stitching to withstand the force of the movements.

  • Yoga

    • Requirements: Clothes are both a second skin and a flowing pocket of air through which breathing flows. Pants are usually tighter with some flow in the tops.

    • Textiles: Common fabrics include polyester, nylon and spandex

  • Baseball uniforms

    • Requirements: Frequent use and rugged slides into bases requires a durable, easily washable fabric

    • Textiles: Polyester is widely used, often double knit for durability

  • Diving and swimming

    • Requirements: Fabrics that are waterproof and breathable.

    • Textiles: Swimwear fabrics have 4-way stretch, a light weight, and absorb very little water. Commonly made of polyurethane (Elastane, Lycra or Spandex), nylon, polyester, or other synthetic blends.

    • Features: Swim textiles conform to fit the body and dry quickly.

  • Dance clothing

    • Requirements: Need to work for a variety of movements. Most pieces need to be highly breathable and fit close to the body, much like swimwear.

    • Textiles: Pieces are commonly made of polyester, nylon or spandex.



Amanda Harth