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The 7 best fabrics for spring and summer clothing

Hotter days ahead doesn't have to mean sacrificing comfort.

Seersucker and chambray shirts from J. Crew Credit: J. Crew

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Staying cool during the warm days of spring or the dog days of summer is tough—but it’s not impossible. It starts with knowing the right fabrics to wear. While cotton is one of the most popular clothing materials, it’s not the most comfortable when you’re sweaty because it absorbs rather than wicks moisture. There are plenty of lighter, airier fabrics that can keep you cool on even the hottest of days.

We’ve compiled a list of the seven best fabrics to choose for warmer weather attire, from breezy linen to lightweight chambray.

1. Hemp

Man wearing J. Crew blend-blend shirt, woman wearing Madewell hemp-blend pants
Credit: J. Crew / Madewell

J. Crew and Madewell offer breezy cotton-hemp blend garments.

Hemp is a solid alternative to cotton when it’s hot outside. Grown from the Cannabis sativa plant, from which its stalks are spun into usable fiber for textiles, hemp is more breathable and lightweight and is softer on the skin than cotton. It will even continue to soften over time, due to its unique fibers that naturally reveal a new surface after each wash.

Hemp is also more durable than cotton. Its fibers hold up better over time and can last two or three times longer than a typical cotton T-shirt—hemp can last up to 30 years, compared to cotton's 10. Hemp doesn’t absorb moisture and is naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and microbes, so it won’t trap in sweat or odors.

You can find hemp-made basics, like a hemp T-shirt or chino shorts, at a plethora of retailers. Hemp-made shoes are also growing in popularity, with many ethical and sustainable footwear brands choosing to use hemp instead of cotton for production. Compared to cotton, hemp produces 250% more fiber for textile use and 600% more fiber than flax on the same amount of land.

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2. Linen

Woman wearing linen pants, man wearing linen shirt, woman wearing linen t-shirt
Credit: Land's End / Madewell

Linen is a common fabric used for combatting those sweaty days.

Derived from fibers of the flax plant, linen is an absorbent textile that’s quick-drying, breathable, and tough—a potent cocktail of comfort on those hot and humid days. Linen fiber can’t retain air or heat, so it will keep you from overheating in warmer conditions. Linen is also very absorbent—it can hold up to 20% of its weight in moisture—so it’s ideal for anyone who sweats a lot. (Fret not, however, as any moisture absorbed by the fabric will dry quickly.)

Linen’s natural color—which depends entirely on its growing conditions—ranges between shades of oatmeal, grey, and taupe. If it’s left undyed, linen is completely biodegradable—it can take as little as two weeks to begin decomposing when buried in soil. That’s incredible compared to synthetic materials such as polyester, spandex, or nylon, which can take 20 to 200 years, or even cotton, which can take one to five months.

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One downside: Linen is notorious for wrinkling easily. To combat this, look for linen blends (45% linen, 65% cotton, for example), or keep a portable steamer on hand for on-the-go de-wrinkling. To try out the fabric for yourself, opt for classic linen pants or a linen camp collar shirt for a casual looseness that looks great in the sunshine.

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3. Seersucker

Close-up photo of seersucker shirt from J. Crew, woman wearing Vans seersucker pants
Credit: J. Crew / Vans

Seersucker is best known for its puckered appearance.

While technically cotton, seersucker is a lightweight fabric popular in warmer temps. It's defined by its puckered appearance, which is created in the weaving process, by pulling certain portions of the yarn tighter and alternating those with less-tightly-woven flat sections. This creates a cooling effect—the puckered layers of cotton touch the skin while the flatter layers avoid it, resulting in better air circulation. This also makes for a material that barely needs ironing, as that would defeat the purpose.

The thought of seersucker may evoke an image of a Southern gentleman wearing a white-and-blue pinstripe suit. But contemporary uses of the fabric include a variety of solids and plaids. Seersucker is a great option for bottoms if you’re looking to wear pants on hotter days, as it’s lightweight and less prone to wrinkles than linen.

Subtle white-and-blue pinstripe pieces are perfect for office or business settings, while brighter colored pinstripes, like yellow and white, call to mind picnic-chic attire.

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4. Rayon or Viscose

Woman wearing rayon tank top by Madewell, woman lounging in rayon dress by UNIQLO
Credit: Madewell / UNIQLO

Clothes made of rayon offer a drape over the body unmatched by cotton.

Rayon is a fiber made up of natural cellulose that’s typically made from the wood pulp of beech and pine trees, and most recently bamboo. It’s sometimes called viscose. Despite pulling from natural resources, it still requires the use of chemicals to break down those woody fibers into weaveable yarns, which makes it a semi-synthetic fabric. It was originally created in the 19th century as a cheaper alternative to silk and has since been considered to be the first man-made fiber created from cellulose.

Rayon is often used for camp collar and Hawaiian style shirts, as it’s thinner than cotton and drapes well over the body. Its semi-shiny texture resembles that of silk yet is more breathable and less expensive. Of course, with its cheaper cost comes setbacks: 100% rayon is not very durable. Rayon clothing can’t take machine washing and drying very well (air-drying or dry cleaning is best), and dyes can fade over time with washing or exposure to direct sunlight. That's why you may want to watch for rayon blends that include cotton or linen material to improve durability.

Button-down shirts are commonly made of rayon, but for women, dresses are also a great choice for maximum breathability.

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5. Modal

Man wearing Nike undershirt made of modal, woman wearing basic Madewell t-shirt
Credit: Nike / Madewell

Nike's cooling undershirt and Madewell's basic tee are made of silky-smooth modal.

Modal is a type of rayon—it’s still a semi-synthetic fiber but it’s a step up in quality and, often, price. Compared to rayon, modal is a much softer material that’s more absorbent. This prevents sweat or moisture from sitting on your skin, which can cause a swampy feeling and even odor.

Modal has a similar sheen to rayon but has a slicker touch more like silk. It’s more durable than rayon—the price difference between the two is due to the fibers being stretched out during production, which results in a finer, more breathable fabric. This also means modal clothes hold up better in washes and, unlike rayon, won’t shrink as easily in the wash.

Modal is a particularly popular fabric for intimates and underwear, where it’s sometimes blended with spandex for more stretch. Cotton-blended modal T-shirts are also a big hit in the spring and summer, especially in lighter colors for cool comfort.

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6. Lyocell

Man wearing Club Monaco Tencel shirt, woman wearing Tencel pants by Eillen Fisher
Credit: Club Monaco / Eillen Fisher

Tencel is a popular brand-name blend of modal and lyocell, shown here with products by Club Monaco and Eillen Fisher.

Lyocell is the king of semi-synthetics, specially produced to offer a stronger, more breathable iteration of rayon. Compared to modal or rayon, lyocell provides a luxurious feeling unmatched by any other fabric on this list. That relaxed, “I’m hanging out by the beach” look is best achieved with lyocell, as it drapes over the body considerably better than modal and rayon. The fabric also effectively absorbs moisture and sweat, and quickly releases it into the air, making it more resistant to body odor.

Lyocell uses less than half of the amount of water it takes to produce cotton. Because of this, it’s a more expensive fabric. But that extra cost is worth it if you’re seeking a superior drape to your outfit, as well as a slippery, soft touch that feels gentle on the skin.

When shopping for lyocell clothing, look for button-up shirts that give-off a comfortable, relaxed vibe. If athleisure is your vibe, seek out lyocell blends in athletic shirts, shorts, or leggings for its superior moisture management. Tencel, a sustainable brand-name blend of modal and lyocell, is also commonly found on clothing labels—if something is made of Tencel, expect a sleekness similar to modal or lyocell.

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7. Chambray

Man sitting in a chair wearing chambray shirt, woman standing in chambray shirt
Credit: J. Crew / Loft

Chambray may look like denim, but it's an airier fabric fit for spring and summer.

Although it appears similar to denim, chambray is a lightweight fabric favored for its airiness and denseness. Chambray is usually derived from cotton, with a unique weft-and-weave pattern—where denim is sewn in a diagonal twill pattern, chambray has a looser, crisscross pattern. It’s often seen in light shades of indigo or blue, making it a solid option for those who can’t stay away from jeans yet know that darker hues absorb more heat from the sun.

Look for long-sleeve chambray shirts on cooler spring days for layering, or pants made of chambray for a breezy alternative to jeans.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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