You Can Keep Cool
    (If you know your fabrics!)

By Karen R. Smith


We’ve had an early taste of high temperatures here in the Southwest, and most of us weren’t ready for it. The mercury rose to 116 here in Tucson, and up in Phoenix, it was five degrees hotter. From the look of it, we’re in for a long, hot summer. There are strategies you can use to stay more comfortable, and none is more important than the fabrics you choose to wear.

Take inventory

Now is a good time to go through your everyday clothes, whether that’s tee shirts and slacks or dresses, or polo shirts and skirts. Read the labels, and take everything made of polyester or ‘microfiber’ and put those items away to wear next Fall. Ditto nylon, dacron, spandex, or polyamide. Synthetic fabrics are a bad idea when the temperatures hit 100 or more; they don’t breathe and can actually melt!

Make a shopping list if you need to fill in gaps once you’ve gotten the synthetics out of the way. You’ll find plenty of choices in fabrics that will keep you cool and comfortable, and you’ll make intelligent choices once you know what to look for. There are tried and true fabrics that have kept humans cooler in hot climates for most of our history, and brand new fabrics that employ cutting-edge technology to engineer comfort as the days get hotter.

Old School Cool

From early civilizations straight through to modern times, linen has kept human beings cool in extremely hot temperatures. Linen is a natural fabric made from the stalk of the flax plant. It gets softer over time (with every additional washing) and dries quickly thanks to its open weave. That ‘openess’ allows perspiration to evaporate, too. For centuries, the answer to hot weather is linen, and for good reason. Try a linen dress or shirt...or linen slacks. Linen can be machine washed and dried, although I prefer to hang the laundry outside for that lovely fresh smell!

Yes, it wrinkles (although there are new linens that wrinkle a lot less, thanks to an innovative weaving process). In dry climates like Tucson, the easy way to cope with the wrinkles is to smooth them out with wet hands. My favorite linen garments for summer are the pants I picked up at Burlington over on Broadway...they were under $20 each! Two pair are cut like jeans and the other two are drawstring. With a simple cotton tank, I’m ready for anything!

Cotton, of course, is also an ancient textile, and once kept Egyptian pharaohs cool despite the heat of desert. Another natural fabric, cotton can be woven in various configurations, and can even be looped to create knit fabrics that ‘stretch’ without the additional of synthetic fibers.

Cotton is easy to care for, and like linen can be machine washed and dried or air dried. Prewash and dry any cotton that is NOT preshrunk to avoid surprises later on. However cotton is woven, it ventilates against the skin, keeping the wearer cool. Both linen and cotton are hypoallergenic, and both fabrics wick moisture away from the skin.

Rayon is a created fabric, made from cellulose taken from trees, which are natural, so many people consider it a natural fabric too. It’s both sustainable and renewable. The rayon fibers can be ‘shaped’ in lots of different ways, so rayon can mimic silk or cotton or even wool. The threads produced are finer, which is why rayon garments drape so beautifully. My husband has a closet full of rayon Hawaiian style shirts and wears them daily in the hot weather. He finds them cool and comfortable and notes that they look as good at the end of the day as they did at the start. Rayon is also machine washable and dryable, and can also be air dried. It does not wick moisture as effectively as cotton or linen, so if heavy perspiration is a problem, choose them instead.

Chambray, which looks like denim but is vastly lighter, is a cotton fabric. Beware of imitation chambrays loaded with polyester! Traditional denim is simply too densely woven to be cool in the summertime, but a pair of chambray jeans is thin, breathable and perfect for the weeks to come. Banana Republic, The Gap and Forever 21 all have terrific chambray jeans this season. You’re bound to find the fit and price you want, and they are available in mens, womens and kids sizes!

Silk is another ancient natural fiber, and it is delightfully cool in the summertime. It does not wick as much moisture as either cotton or linen, so again, your own perspiration level should be a guide. I love silk dresses in the summer months, and Nordstrom’s Rack has a great selection right now. Regardless of what the labels says, I handwash my silks and air dry them.

Seersucker, like chambray, is a cotton fabric that appears during the summer months. Traditionally, it’s made of white ‘ribs’ alternating with blue ones, but seersucker can be white and green, white and black, and just about anything else. It’s a common choice for mens suits throughout the southern states in the summer time, and looks great on just about anybody. J. Crew has a seersucker skirt...and I really like the seersucker shorts at Target. And speaking of shorts, Madras shorts are a summer staple around my house. Madras is the name for an assortment of thin cotton plaids that originated in Madras, India (now known as Chennai). They are a classic, and widely available in sizes for every member of your family.

And let’s not overlook wool. Yes, wool. Baa baa black sheep and all the other sheep too! Summer wools are worn all over the tropics, and with good reason. They are lightweight, offering breathability and moisture wicking properties. They also look fabulous and feel wonderful on. I have a pair of St. John slacks in a summer weight wool and they are marvelous!

Brand New and High Tech

Believe it or not, the inspiration for some of the newest technological wonder fabrics comes from your jewelry box!

“Armachillo” fabric from Duluth is made with microscopic jade particles. Jade has such low thermal conductivity that it helps keep your body cool. Brand 2XU is making Jade infused workout clothes too. Rhone is adding threads of gold and silver to gym and hiking clothes for the antimicrobial qualities. While you may not be cooler, you will certainly smell better!

Lululemon is making workout clothes from Pima cotton, which provides more absorption than polyesters (and supports less microbacteria too!). Athleta and Adidas add polygiene to their performance fabrics -- polygiene inhibits odor-causing bacteria growth.

32 Degrees Cool makes their shirts from recycled plastic bottles -- five of them in the size large tee shirt I bought my husband, in fact. I thought that was pretty awesome, but the fabric does even more: it wicks moisture away from the body, keeping him cooler during his workouts. He’s happy, and I bought it at Costco, where the two pack was under $20!

Cut and color

Whatever fabric you choose, remember, light colors will keep you cooler than dark colors. I honestly didn’t believe this one, having spent my formative years in New York City where the official uniform of working women is black, black and more black. But when I moved to Tucson, I waited for a sunny hot day and tried a black shirt and sat out on the patio for ten minutes. Then did the same thing in a white shirt. And the white shirt was definitely cooler. So now I save my black clothes for the winter time, and wear light colors during the three-digit days of summer!

A note about garment construction: reading the labels is always important, and much moreso during the summer months. Buying a cotton summer jacket is great, but it won’t keep you cool if it has a polyester lining. About half the silk pants I’ve looked at in stores this week were lined with polyester. I made it a point to tell store personnel why I wasn’t making a purchase. I’m hoping management gets the message.

Today I’m wearing a cotton jersey sundress and a pair of sandals, my husband’s in a pair of cotton khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, and we both felt so cool we raised the thermostat!

About the Author:
Karen R. Smith is an award-winning journalist and publicist. Her book, "Stylishly Sexy" is available online and she takes private style clients throughout Arizona and across the country. Visit her at