Wick Away

Wick Away, Wick Away - How Does High Tech Wicking Fiber Work?

I’m a pretty nice guy, so I’ll just come right out and forgive you if you call me “old school” after reading the first few lines of this blog.

For most of my life, when I worked out, I grabbed a cotton t-shirt and shorts and hit the gym. Yes, it was sweaty and the shirt got heavy and even cold. But compared to the polyester t-shirts that seemed to hold the heat in, cotton clothing tends to breathe and lets the sweat evaporate. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. You can call me old school now!

However, this old dog does learn new tricks and there are many times I work out now wearing what is being called “performance apparel.” It’s a fancy name for fabric that has wicking properties. Since I was doing a story on NC State’s Textile Performance and Comfort Center, North Carolina Science Now's Textile Trials, I decided to ask how wicking fabric works.

“Wicking fabric works because of two factors that are designed into the material,” says Dr. Roger Barker, a professor in NCSU’s College of Textiles and the Director of TPACC. “The fabric has some type of capillary action as well as water repulsion.”

All wicking-type materials use a capillary action to pull the moisture away from the body. The fabric is designed to spread sweat throughout the material. That way, areas with a lot of moisture will bleed the water into a drier area. The material is also designed to help air circulate between the skin and the fabric for faster evaporation. 

To increase the wicking process, the fibers in the fabric are either coated with a water repellent or the repellent is woven into the material. The woven repellent is usually some type of polyester fiber or a microfiber. Microfibers, by the way, are not fibers themselves. It’s a technology that is used to produce an ultra-fine fiber that is then woven or knitted into a high quality fabric.

Many performance type shirts are treated with gore-tex, a water-repellent coating that is added to the material. Since the fabric repels water, sweat tends to bead up and then evaporate, rather than be absorbed into the cloth. That allows the shirt to dry quicker.

By the way, I’m not getting rid of my cotton t-shirts because they are still a very good fabric for sportswear. Cotton is lightweight, it breathes well, and can be washed multiple times. Dr. Barker says repeated washing and drying of performance apparel will gradually lower its wicking properties.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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