Polo shirts are a staple item in any man’s wardrobe. Whether you’re heading to the office, out to dinner, or hitting the golf course, you can always count on the classic comfort of a polo.
However, it is not as simple as picking up any old polo. Depending on your preferences, and what you want from a polo, choosing the best material is crucial. Quite simply, the best fabric for a polo shirt is the one that best suits your needs and lifestyle.
Different materials have their own advantages and disadvantages, and when it comes to the best fabric for a polo, you have three main contenders: cotton, polyester, and merino wool.
As a massive fan of the humble polo (and because I live in a climate that is hot year all year round), I have a few in each fabric! But that won’t be necessary for everyone. Each has its own unique set of pros and cons, and it’s important to understand the differences before you make a purchase.
Read on to learn about the pros and cons of cotton, polyester, and merino wool.
What is Cotton?
Cotton is a vegetable fiber that is produced from the seeds of the cotton plant. It’s been used for textiles and other materials for thousands of years, and today is one of the most widely-used natural fibers in the world.
Cotton fabrics are renowned for their durability and breathability. They are also easy to clean and tend not to wrinkle or shrink too badly.
All of these features make cotton an extremely versatile fabric that can be used for a wide range of applications, from clothing to bedding.
As far as I can see, cotton is probably the most commonly-worn fabric for polos and is almost certainly what most people imagine when they think of a classic polo.
Pros of Cotton
Cotton can absorb a lot of moisture easily. As a natural material, it also feels great on the skin. This makes it quite comfortable to wear in mild and even hotter weather.
Cotton is also relatively durable, so it can last a long time. This can be particularly useful if you wear polo shirts frequently and would like them to last longer than a few months. Unlike more delicate materials, cotton can be thrown in the washing material with the rest of your laundry and you shouldn’t have any problem.
A big pro in my book is that a cotton polo looks very classic. It is the choice of a classy man. It’s just more presentable than most polyester polos. It can be dressed up with some wool slacks or dressed down with a pair of shorts. For versatility, cotton is a great choice.
Finally, cotton is relatively cheap to produce and purchase, which can be a positive for people on a budget.
Cons of Cotton
I know I mentioned that cotton is pretty easy to care for. However, be aware that cotton garments can shrink if washed or dried incorrectly. Just keep the heat down and you shouldn’t have any issues.
While it is durable, cotton can lose its shape over time. I’ve also found that it can fade if it gets a lot of direct sunlight. For some this fading is a deal-breaker but I actually quite like this worn-in look. It’s up to you!
Finally, cotton may not be the best for people who live in very hot climates or those who want a polo for activewear, as it will retain water leading to the polo feeling heavy and weighing you down somewhat. It will also show sweat and takes a long time to go away. If you are worried about this, it might be best to opt for white, black, or navy. Steer clear of light grays and baby blues if you have sweaty pits!
As a guy who does live in a hot climate, I don’t see this as much of an issue in daily wear. However, I wouldn’t be reaching for a cotton polo to go to the gym or for a run.
What is Polyester?
Polyester is a synthetic fiber. It is probably the most widely-used synthetic fiber in the world, with lots of clothes and luggage being made from it.
Because it is very durable even when thin, it is often used for outdoor clothing that’s subject to rough treatment and sports clothing.
Polyester polo shirts are everywhere. Almost all sporting polos have at least some polyester in them. Think golf polos, tennis polos etc.
Pros of Polyester
Polyester is highly durable so it is a good choice for frequent wearers like travelers, for active wear or for you adventurers out there. I like to wear it when I play golf and when I travel.
Polyester is also unlikely to shrink or lose its shape. Unlike cotton, I have found that it tends to hold its color very well even after exposure to direct sunlight and after many washes.
Moreover, is generally easier to care for than natural fabrics like cotton or merino wool. It is more stain-resistant, creases less easily, and dries very quickly.
It also tends to be very thin when compared to cotton which means it takes up less space in your wardrobe or more crucially, your suitcase.
Finally, good quality polyester is designed to be breathable and will not highlight that you are sweating in the same way that cotton does.
All of these pros make polyester a great choice for activewear and for travel.
When I am traveling, I always bring at least one polyester polo shirt. I tend to reach for Uniqlo’s active polo as it looks pretty stylish, packs very small, and dries in a matter of minutes during the day here. This means that I pack really light; I can wash it in the evening when I take a shower and be confident that it will be dry and fresh by the next morning.
Cons of Polyester
Polyester is relatively cheap to produce, and it is often known for being uncomfortable and not very breathable.
I think this is probably true of the cheapest polyester products but I haven’t this to be a big issue. Most companies nowadays have found ways to make it more breathable and comfortable while still keeping the benefits described previously. Uniqlo’s Airism and active polos are a good example of this and they are still well within most people’s budgets!
The one thing about most polyester polos that I don’t like is that they look, well sporty. This makes them more difficult to dress up than cotton which makes them less versatile in this way.
I would not, for example, wear a polyester polo to a nice weekend lunch. I’d happily wear a cotton or merino wool polo. If a classic or even a preppy look is what you want from a polo, cotton or merino wool are probably better options.
What is Merino Wool?
Merino wool is a type of sheep’s wool that is shorn from the Merino sheep bred in Australia and New Zealand.
It’s highly breathable, looks great,, and is naturally resistant to odors, which makes it a popular choice for many types of clothing, including polo shirts. Merino wool is also less itchy than other types of wool.
Merino wool polos are in a league of their own. They are most often found in long-sleeved versions but can be got in short sleeve versions too. The material gives them a very luxurious feel; something you would not expect from a humble polo. Despite being made of wool, which most people consider to be for winter, merino wool polos are a staple in my wardrobe.
Pros of Merino Wool
Merino wool is naturally anti-microbial, which means it resists the growth of germs and odor, making it ideal for people who lead active lifestyles or are traveling and don’t always have access to a washing machine.
Merino wool is very breathable, making it a good choice for warmer weather and outdoor activities.
It’s naturally durable, so it can last a long time if taken care of properly. It’s softer than most other fabrics and does not limit your movement in any way making it incredibly comfortable.
Style-wise merino wool polos can be dressed up or down like cotton polos. However, the material brings a more luxurious refined touch to any outfit. I tend to wear merino wool polos when I want to be a little more dressed up; with light wool pants as opposed to shorts, but you can do as you please.
Cons of Merino Wool
Despite all these pros, merino wool has some cons.
The first and most significant is that it needs to be washed and dried properly.
Merino wool can shrink if you don’t wash it properly. Many merino wool polo shirts will require handwashing which is a bit of an inconvenience. Who has time for that? However, some companies are now selling merino wool polos that are machine washable.
Furthermore, while it dries quite quickly, it is often recommended to dry it flat to make sure it maintains its shape.
I would highly recommend taking note of and following the care instructions for merino wool as you can easily ruin your, usually expensive polo. Believe me, I learned this the hard way!
Bringing us nicely on to the last point, merino wool polos tend to be more expensive; sometimes as much as twice or three times the price of a cotton polo from the same retailer. For me, the pros outweigh the cons for merino wool polos. When I want a more ‘polished’ casual or smart casual summer look, there really is nothing better.
The cotton vs polyester vs merino wool debate may never be settled. As I mentioned earlier, the best fabric for a polo shirt is the one that best suits your needs and lifestyle.
That said, if you’re looking for a classic-looking polo that’s relatively durable, easy to take care of, and affordable, cotton may be the best choice for you.
If you’re looking for something that’s easy to care for and very quick to dry, and you don’t mind looking a bit sporty, polyester may be the best choice for you.
If you want a more luxurious feel and don’t mind spending more time caring for your polo, merino wool might be your best option.