Cotton Kills

By , October 8, 2009

Alaskans have a common saying: “Cotton kills.” Those two words  remind us to guard against hypothermia, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when one’s body temperature falls below 95°F. As everyone knows, Alaska has a whole lot of outdoors, and a whole lot of severe weather. While the legendary cold of Alaska isn’t as pervasive as many people think, even our warmest areas tend to have more than their share of weather that is potentially deadly to the unprepared.

Clothing made from cotton fabric can increase the likelihood of hypothermia in exposed conditions because it readily absorbs moisture, losing its insulating qualities in the process. Rather than wicking moisture away, it holds it close to the skin, cooling it rapidly.

Fabrics such as wool continue to insulate when wet. Wool can absorb up to 30% its weight in water before it begins to lose insulating ability. Synthetic fabrics, particularly microfibers and polyester fleece such as Polertech® are similar, or better.

While this is something we keep in mind when going outdoors for extended periods, many Alaskans don’t worry too much about it from day to day. In bigger towns and cities, normal activity rarely requires careful attention to the type of clothing worn. Cotton’s many other advantages, such as breathability, light weight and ease of care come into play, making it more sensible for daily wear in situations where hypothermia is not a threat.

Personally, I like cotton clothing a lot, especially flannel. Like you, I have my favorite clothes, and most of the shirts are flannel shirts in checks or plaids. I especially prefer flannel for pajamas.

Moving to the homestead increased our outdoor activity exponentially, drastically narrowing the window for wearing cotton. Most of my cotton clothing is restricted to the warmer, drier summer. That sort of weather is too warm for flannel shirts, so my opportunities for wearing them is even further reduced. Even cotton pajamas aren’t such a good idea, since a midnight necessary trip is not just down the hall, but outside, where it’s often raining.

I have collected a few wool flannel shirts over the years. They are as colorful and patterned as cotton flannel, and even have the advantage of fading more slowly. Unfortunately, they’re not as easy to clean, and they itch—I rarely wear one without an undershirt for that reason. That in no way feels like a good, soft flannel shirt, and for me, feel beats fashion every time. Wool flannel pajamas? Forget it!

Luckily, fleece shirts are similarly styled, sometimes patterned like flannel shirts, and undeniably cozy. With the added wicking and insulating qualities, they’re the best choice for this lifestyle. I’ve switched almost completely to fleece shirts, but most of these are in solid colors. They’re great, they protect me from hypothermia, but I miss the plaids.

As autumn progresses, we’re beginning to raid the clothing boxes in the shed, the ones marked “winter” or “cold weather.” As this happens, I’m realizing that the window for wearing my favorite flannel shirts is slipping away. Unless we get crisp, clear weather, or even an Indian summer, the few shirts I brought out this year will soon be packed away, waiting for next year, and another season. It’s a small price to pay for the lifestyle, but there’s a certain irony to this: I have to give up my flannel shirts—a popular symbol of the rugged outdoor life—in order to live that life.

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