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Product Insight: How Wicking Works

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Posted by Jenna A on 8 January 2014 at 12:00 AM

Wicking is an essential feature of premium sportswear - the action of drawing moisture away from the skin in order to keep the skin dry and comfortable to optimize performance, but how does it work?

First off, we feel it prudent to distinguish the key differences between what makes a technical sports fabric in comparison to your typical T-shirt or tank top...

Screw the fresh start #sayitwithsweat

  • T-shirts will typically be made of cotton, it's comfortable on the skin but will get heavy and clingy when wet.

  • Technical fabrics will generally be made of a synthetic fibre blend, for example polyester and spandex - this gives a lightweight final product which will stretch with movement, dry quickly and maintain its shape.

Next, let's look into what is wicking?

Wicking is the ability of a fiber to transfer moisture from one section to another. Usually the moisture is moved along the fiber surface but it may also pass through the fiber when a liquid is absorbed by the fiber.

- J. J. Pizzuto's Fabric Science

So, how does wicking technology work?

Wicking is really simple physics: increased surface area will increase the absorption of moisture away from the skin and increase the rate of evaporation from fabric to the air.

Polyester is hydrophobic - it repells water and, while it's not waterproof, a polyester based fabric will channel water along the fibers whereas cotton fibers will absorb water. When the knit of the fabric uses very fine fibers (as technical sportswear does) this hydrophobic property of polyester works to enhance wicking by providing more channels for the moisture to move along.

Put simply, the technical wicking treatment in the fabric pulls moisture away from the skin to the outer layer of the fabric for quick drying as you workout.

How is the surface area increased to speed up the drying process?

Fabrics are treated with wicking agents which, combined with the knit of fine hydrophobic fibers, creates a capillary system to increase the surface area (much like your own body's blood vessel system). These capillaries diffuse the highly concentrated areas of moisture to lower concentrated areas in order to increase the rate of evaporation away from the fabric.

Note in these 2 photos, one is wearing a cotton tank top which has one concentrated sweat patch, compared with the technical fabric in the other photo which has spread to a thinner layer of sweat over a larger surface area:

Wicking comparison

The top on the left is a cotton tank top after a CrossFit session, the top on the right is a Tribesports Performance Tech Tee after an indoor dragonboat training session. Both @winetoweights and @kl_ling have had a nice and sweaty training session however the cotton tank has one clear area of sweat whereas the tech tee has a thinner layer of moisture aross more of the fabric, creating a bigger surface area for evaporation.

Is wicking technology limited by any factors?

Whilst wicking fabrics will out perform non-wicking materials in most situations, they will not work as effectively when worn underneath a waterproof shell - this is because the waterproof shell will trap the moisture and prevent evaporation into the air.

Key features to look for in moisture management sportswear:

When purchasing sportswear, you should look out for moisture management features such as:

  • Lightweight polyester blends - these fabrics will have wicking properties, bear in mind the weight of the fabric because heavier material will use thicker fibers which often have less wicking potential.

  • Zoned ventilation - there are key workout heat zones on the body which will produce more sweat than others, choosing sportswear with increased ventilation (such as the strategically placed power-mesh panels on the Tribesports apparel) in these areas will improve your moisture management when working out.

  • Close fitting design - wicking properties are optimized when the capillary network of the fabric sits close to the skin, this is one of the reasons why Performance fit clothing will be close fitting.

That's all we have for you on the how technical wicking treatments work in performance fabrics - we'll be bringing you more insights on technical sportswear to cut through the jargon and help you make the most educated decisions when it comes to choosing your sportswear.

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    Comments

    20131122040327-janeh

    Good to know that wicking garments aren't as effective underneath a waterproof layer. What would you suggest to wear under a waterproof jacket to keep dry and comfortable?

    Ricci R and Pronsias (Frank) M encouraged this.

    20140811112945-cags

    @janeh - wicking fabrics will still be your best option in waterproofs, it's just that their wicking capability is limited by the waterproof outer material trapping in sweat, unfortunately waterproofs tend to work in both directions (rain stays out but sweat stays in!)

    20140811112945-cags

    I have a cycling waterproof which has zips in the underarms (not a feature I've utilized much) but I think ones which have a netted lining are quite good for absorbing rather than just letting it all condense on the inside

    20150514011901-babygirl93086

    Thanks for the info Jenna!!! Very interesting!

    20140210014824-mariag1

    They do not work great in high humidity, since water doesn't evaporate much when humidity reaches a certain level. But they do not get as heavy since they don't hold as much moisture as other fabrics. Still waiting for a "miracle" fabric that can handle Florida steaming summers : )

    Cags R encouraged this.

    20131229030752-ricci

    We are always learning :))) Thanks for this Jenna :)

    20130213093641-pronsiasm

    I wear waterproofs a lot on the mountains and the more expensive ones that incorporate event or some of the gortex will breathe to let moisture out, but as you are running you might be expelling more moisture or at a quicker rate than the jacket can expel.....but worth checking out the lighter technology waterproofs that will make your wicking under garments perform better.

    20140327205626-murrays

    Great article and great comments. I got a new gortex running jacket for Christmas and luv it. I wear a wicking base layer under it during the cold weather, and the combination pulls moisture away quite nicely.

    Pronsias (Frank) M encouraged this.

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