Activewear fabrics / Sewing activewear

The ultimate guide to activewear fabrics

Finding the right activewear fabrics is often the hardest part when sewing our own workout wear. There are so many types, brand names and proclaimed functions, and picking the wrong fabrics can result in pretty unpleasant workouts So I decided to enlist the help of some activewear fabrics vendors that sells fabrics to us homesewists and ask them some questions that we all have about activewear fabrics.

Picking the right fabric with Sew Active Fabrics

Sew Active Fabrics was created to fill a very specific niche in the Australian domestic fabric market. Owner Laura went looking for technical performance fabrics to make bespoke activewear and realised she couldn’t get any locally, so decided to rectify that for other Aussie activewear sewists and started Sew Active Fabrics.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, meaning that a commission is earned from qualifying purchases.

What is the difference between a compression fabric compared to regular Spandex knits?

From a garment life point of view, compression fabrics tend to have greater recovery and will, therefore, have a longer lifespan in your wardrobe. From a sports performance point of view, compression garments have been shown to provide a range of benefits including reduced muscle fatigue and soreness, injury prevention, increased oxygenation, faster post-workout recovery and even greater jumping ability!

Wicking Compression Spandex from Sew Active Dynamic Fabrics

There are even some studies showing a psychological benefit of ‘improved perceived exertion’ – if you think the compression is going to improve your workout, then it probably will!

Of course, getting the fit of a compression garment right is paramount for gaining these benefits, so a certain amount of experience with sewing stretch fabrics would be beneficial if you wanted to make your own compression wear. The fit of your favourite leggings made in a standard Lycra will be different if made in a compression fabric, so it might take a couple of trials to get the fit that’s going to work for you.

I’m only doing pilates and yoga, should I use different fabrics than, say, a runner?

I would say that might depend on your intensity level. If you’re really sweating it out, then you want a really good wicking fabric to keep you dry and comfortable – but if you’re working at a lower intensity, then you might not need it to be quite so high-performance.

It also depends on your tolerance level – if being a bit sweaty bothers you, or not, could determine your choice. Runners also need to consider seam placement and chafing as well as fabric performance.

How can I tell if the fabric is moisture wicking?

Hopefully, your fabric vendor can tell you! But if it’s a mystery fabric, it can be hard, but you can try to do a water test:

  • Cut a sample piece of your fabric, about 10cm square. If it’s a solid colour, you might want to mark the ‘Back’ and ‘Front’.
  • Spray or flick some water onto the back of the fabric, hold it up and keep an eye on both sides.
  • The water should travel through the fabric. You probably won’t see droplets coming out the front, but it might feel damp, and the back should feel dry. I sometimes hold a tissue against each side (if I feel like I can’t tell if it’s moist or not) and see if it comes away damp.
  • If the piece just feels wet all the way through, then it’s not going to wick.

What’s the best fabric for leggings?

For leggings, you want something with good moisture management properties, around 260gsm or more (anything less than about 250gsm probably isn’t going to pass the ‘squat test’). A high percentage of Spandex/ Lycra/Elastane will provide good recovery – anywhere from 8-30%, depending on the blend.

Sew Active Fabrics

Activewear fabrics for outdoor activities with Discovery Trekking Outfitters

About Discovery Trekking Outfitters
They are a Canadian manufacturer of multiple, diverse product lines for outdoors, sports, equestrian, and even Special Needs. In addition to using highly technical fabrics in their own products, they offer hard to find performance textiles to the home sewist in the online store

There are so many versions of fleece. What do all the numbers and names mean?

All fabrics are sold by weight, but in the case of Polartec, the original developer of fleece, there are so many weights and styles that they created classifications.
100 weight is thin and an example would be a fleece base layer
200 weight is what you would commonly see in activewear
300 is much heavier and would be for cold weather garments

Polartec 200 fleece

There are also many versions of Polartec fleece:
Polartec Windpro is a fleece made with a super-tight knit yarn, and that creates wind resistance. Often Windpro is made water repellent (DWR) by a special finish.
Hard Face, which creates an added durability on the face and is often recognized by the pattern (often called Treads, as it looks a bit like a checkmark) Windpro also comes in stretch styles.

Polartec Windpro

Windbloc usually has a traditional fleece face, but can also have a smooth nylon face. Its bonded to some kind of lining, from moisture-wicking fleece to base layers like Power Dry. The face is normally water repellent, and the fabric has a polyurethane layer sandwiched in between that adds to the wind blocking but also breathes.

A step up from Windbloc is Polartec Neoshell and Polartec Power Shield. Both are laminates that are highly breathable and super water repellent.

However, there are literally hundreds of styles of each “family” of fabrics, and often no two are exactly alike on our site. We do try to classify them as to their use, as much as possible.

In outdoor activities the terms base-layer, mid-layer and shell are commonly used. Can you give me examples of suitable fabrics for each layer?

Base-layers mean garments that are next-to-skin. We like to use fabrics that are moisture-wicking so we can stay dry. We have such a huge selection, it really depends on the climate as to the weight you choose. We particularly like Polartec Power Dry, and if you love the benefits of wool, we also recommend Polartec Power Wool, which is a blend of merino and synthetic. It gives you the best of both worlds without any itch.

For mid-layers, you are looking for warmth. They don’t have to be water repellent but they can be. Mid-layers should be multifunctional so that they can be worn alone, or with a waterproof, windproof shell. We have too many choices to name. Fleece is always good, and you can get Thermal Pro (the highest warmth to weight ratio) or if you want tons of stretch, Polartec Power Stretch.

Shells are fantastic. They are a thin, wind and water repellent fabric that can be worn alone in warmer weather, and layered to enhance the mid layer warmth. Neoshell is the top choice for us, as it is so incredibly breathable. But, we also have hi-vent and other really technical shells that are wonderful as well.

Water-proof and shower-proof. What is the difference?

Most fabrics are treated with DWR (Durable Water Repellency) to make water repel. We refer to shower-proof as a water repellent. Water-proof is normally something that you would find in a non-breathable rubber type fabric, not suitable for clothing, it’s more like a wetsuit.

However, some of the latest outerwear fabrics such as Polartec Neoshell are advertised as waterproof. It is twice as a water repellent and breathable as Gore-Tex. Even Polartec Power Shield has a durable nylon face that water literally runs off.

Discovery Fabrics

Activewear fabrics and the environment with Sew Dynamic Fabrics

About Sew Dynamic Fabrics
Launched in March 2019, US-based Sew Dynamic Fabrics began when owner Michelle attended a fabric expo, where she learned about Repreve fibres and was instantly intrigued. Repreve fibres are made from recycled materials with their polyester fibres being made from plastic bottles and nylon fibres being made from pre-consumer waste. In addition, they are traceable, transparent and certifiable. She wanted to bring those fabrics to the sewing community, a recycled option for polyester and nylon fabrics.

Solid Black Recycled Poly from Sew Dynamic Fabrics

I want to make sustainable, eco-friendlier, activewear. What types of fabrics do you recommend?

It depends on what type of activity you are sewing for. Not all of these fabrics are suited for high intensity or sweaty workouts, so you must consider the type of activity you want to sew for. You also have to pay attention to what the fabric is blended with.

While all of these fabrics have their pros and cons when it comes to the environment, these are some of the more widely available fabrics I would look for:

Hemp needs no pesticides or irrigation, and returns almost 70% of the nutrients it takes back to the soil.

Lyocell and the brand version Tencel, are cellulose fibres made by dissolving wood pulp. They are biodegradable and require little water. A closed loop production process is used, which means 99.5% of the chemicals used are captured and reused in continuous processing.

Recycled fabrics
Recycled fabrics like the generic rPET, and the brand name Repreve, are made from post-consumer recycled plastic such as water bottles, containers, and secondhand polyester garments. The use of recycled materials reduces the use of oil, reuses waste, and cuts out the need for the virgin polyester industry.

Merino wool
Merino Wool is renewable and biodegradable. However, I would look for fabric with standards and certifications that ensure the fair treatment of animals.

Naturally produced bamboo does not require insecticides, pesticides or replanting. It also requires very little water.

Modal is made from a renewable crop, biodegradable, and made using a closed loop process.

Some thoughts about cotton
While not ideal for high-intensity activities I’ll also include organic cotton. It is grown with non-GMO seeds and without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It would work for activities where you do not expect to sweat or if blended with a quick drying or wicking fabric.

It’s also a good idea to find out what sustainable certifications the fabric mill has. The production process and employee well being are also important factors to consider when buying fabric.

Power Air: Polartec made of recycled polyester from Sew Dynamic Fabrics

What about fleece? It sheds micro-plastic, which is bad for our waters, but it’s a great fabric to keep warm. What should I do?

A single fleece jacket could shed as many as 250,000 synthetic fibres during laundering. Many of these fibres are too tiny to be caught by our washing machine filters and the filters at waste treatment facilities, and may eventually make their way into our oceans.

The easiest solution is to not wash your fleece jacket. But in times when a wash is needed, there are a couple of easy and affordable solutions. One is to put the jacket (and any synthetic garments) into a Guppyfriend Washing Bag (Amazon affiliate link) This washing bag is designed to both prevent and capture any microfibers released during washing. It reduces shedding by 79% (for partly synthetic blends) up to 86% (for completely synthetic garments).

Another option is to use a Cora Ball when washing synthetics. The Cora Ball is a laundry ball that you toss into your washing machine. It collects microfibers and once enough has been collected turns into lint that can then be easily removed.

I list several other filters you can install and other tips on washing your activewear in a more eco-friendly way on my website.

Sew Dynamic Fabrics


Hope you found this guide useful! I plan to update it more moving forwards with more questions and answers, so if you have any please share and I’ll ask them moving forward!

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, meaning that a commission is earned from qualifying purchases.



  • Nicole
    May 24, 2019 at 9:09 pm

    Great blog, I will save this in my favourite. In the Netherlands there are some brands that make clothes of lycra and call it travel jersey. I love that style and made some items of that Lycra too. But so nice to read about those differences. I love your blog and vlogs, thanks for all tips.

  • Johanna
    May 25, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you! Travel jersey sounds like a smart idea, it’s really nice to travel with these kind of fabrics and they are so versatile, plus the quality of these fabric has gotten so good, so I feel really stylish wearing them,

  • […] Last Stitch published the ultimate guide to activewear fabrics.  […]

  • Jenn Shaw
    May 30, 2019 at 2:30 am

    This is fantastic!! I am really excited to start making my own workout tops and swimwear. Yesterday, I watched one of your videos, on you tube.

    • Johanna
      June 1, 2019 at 12:14 pm

      Yay! I think you will really enjoy exploring these new sewing avenues! I find that it’s hard to go back to RTW once I got into making my own athletic wear, and it motivates me to workout more too!

  • Tiffany Sherman
    June 3, 2019 at 5:11 am

    Unfortunately, while bamboo is sustainable, most comes from China (an issue in and of itself) and is processed with highly toxic chemicals.

    • Johanna
      June 3, 2019 at 9:44 am

      Thank you for raising this point! How the fibers and plants are treated is also something we need to factor in, and I still miss a lot of solid certifications on these things, so that we can trust that our fabrics are sustainably made in the entire cycle

  • Leslie Hanes
    June 24, 2019 at 10:55 pm

    Thank you for including Discovery Fabrics in your guide. We have historically been the go-to source for technical outerwear and base layer fabrics. Since last speaking with you, we’ve expanded to include high performance activewear fabrics from across the globe, as well as a nice selection of natural fabrics, such as Tencel (Lyocell) and other natural fabrics. Tencel is butter-soft, plant-based, and in addition to using less water and energy to produce than cotton, it also takes less dye. I’ve yet to find a perfect fabric, but I think we are on the right track.

  • […] if you want to learn even more about activewear fabrics, check out The ultimate guide to activewear fabrics with lots of excellent tips from vendors specialising in activewear […]

  • […] is that activewear aims to provide a comfortable transition to casual attire and its chosen fabrics, clothing cuts, and styles show it. If you’re someone who loves to spend time outdoors but you […]

  • […] out my big list of activewear fabric shops. Another helpful resource is the Ultimate Guide to Activewear Fabrics that I did with the help of activewear fabric […]

  • Henry Nichols
    September 11, 2021 at 9:09 am

    Wonderful post! Very useful about active wear fabrics. Thanks for sharing.

  • […] This image credit goes to The Last Stitch […]

  • Sewing Brain
    October 4, 2023 at 6:28 pm

    This comprehensive guide on activewear fabrics is a treasure trove of information! I’ve always been curious about the properties of different fabrics for workout gear, and this article answered all my questions.
    I especially appreciated the section on viscose fabric. Learning about its unique qualities and stretchiness was enlightening. If you’re also curious about viscose fabric’s stretchiness, I’d recommend checking out this related article: Is Viscose Fabric Stretchy? . It’s the perfect complement to this informative guide! Thanks for sharing this valuable resource.


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