Silk has been revered as a symbol of wealth since it was first seen adorning Chinese Emperors thousands of years ago. Even today, silk is considered to be a treasured item of luxury–so… maybe it’s fancy, but is it actually good for wearing in all weather conditions? What if it’s super cold outside?
Silk performs well as a base layer. Silk is considered breathable with acceptable insulation properties as well as positive moisture absorption properties similar to wool.
Silk is amazing! I learned a lot about it while studying for this article. But is it worth the hype? When might you want to choose silk over wool or vice versa?
By the way, as an Amazon Associate, I earn when buying qualified products through links on my site.
Why Silk is Ideal for Winter and Cold Weather
So, there’s a lot to be said about cold weather. Obviously, the primary purpose of clothing for cold weather is to keep our bodies warm. However, comfort is also important.
If Comfort Is the Goal, Go For Silk
The cold dry air of winter creates a number of problems for the human body. Cracked lips and itchy skin creeps upon us as the temperatures drop. And the drier the air gets, the more likely we are to get a zap from static electricity.
Silk is ideal for winter to combat the dangers of cold dry air. As a base layer, silk worn directly against the skin creates a near-frictionless shield. This initial layer of fabric provides a hypo-allergenic barrier against the cold and your other clothing.
The texture of silk allows it to glide over the skin rather than drag across like many other fabrics tend to do. Wearing a layer of silk is highly recommended for people who suffer from skin conditions such as eczema. Silk is very fine so it feels smooth on the skin and so this can work really well as a base layer, especially between clothing heavier (and scratchier) clothing.
I found this consumer analysis that lists out all of Silk’s qualities in an a great table. In many respects silk is on par with wool in the following terms:
- Moisture absorption
In addition, silk has the natural ability to create a balance in the moisture levels of the skin. When worn as a base layer, silk wicks away only the excess moisture the body releases during exertion. It then transfers the water into the next layer of clothing, keeping it away from the skin.
Staying warm in the winter requires dressing properly from head to toe. Silk makes the perfect first layer of clothing because of its loose, free-flowing feel.
Is Silk Warm?
In comparison to other fabrics, silk isn’t made to be very bulky so generally, you won’t see something like a silk coat or silk mid-layer.
However, the way silk is sold is that it gives thermal protection in the cold but is breathable enough and wicks moisture well enough to be good for warm conditions.
A fabric’s ability to keep you warm is essentially determined by three primary factors:
- Weight of the fabric used to make the garment
- Breathability to regulate body temperature
- Resistance to the chilling elements of wind and water
Average Silk Weight
Let’s try and compare silk with other fabrics to get an idea of its warmth.
Silk Fabric Weights and Uses
|Weight in GSM (grams per sq meter)||Descriptor||Typical Uses|
|24 – 30||sheer||Scarves, blouses, and dresses|
|45 – 60||medium||Ties, lingerie, and bedding|
|70 – 80||heavy||Trousers and evening wear|
|90 – 113||dense||Bridal gowns|
|150||heaviest||Bridal gowns and suits|
Is Silk Warmer than Wool?
In general, outdoor gear made with wool is going to be warmer than what you can find in silk.
Weight of the Fabric
When comparing silk and wool, the first clear difference we can see is the weight of the two fabrics. Silk is made from the cocoon fibers of the mulberry silkworm.
The weight of silk fabric is traditionally measured in momme (mm) where 1 mm is roughly equivalent to 4.3 grams per square meter. The following chart illustrates the range of silk fabric weights and their intended uses.
Wool, on the other hand, is made from the hair fibers of a variety of mammals giving it a wider range of weights and densities. The additional thickness adds a significant weight difference, making wool a much heavier fabric. Wool fabric typically weighs around 700 gsm making it ideal for heavy outer layers of clothing.
Wool can be woven in such a way to be extremely fine as well, and you will see base layers made in this way, but wool can be much bulkier than silk.
Bulky is excellent for keeping you warm. Thus, wool can be made to be warmer than silk.
Breathability to Regulate Body Temperature
Defined by how well a fabric allows air and moisture to pass through, fabric breathability plays an important role in regulating body temperature. The best fabrics are those that allow the right amount of air to properly evaporate sweat. This keeps the skin from becoming damp and keeps you warm.
Silk ranks high on the breathability scale and is known for its speedy dry time. Keeping the body dry is a key component for a base layer of clothing. Silk’s ability to manage moisture levels quickly means even if you’re breaking a sweat, you won’t become cold and clammy.
Resistance to Elements
Silk is less resistant to the harsh winds and damp conditions found in snowy locations. Taking into consideration the climate mulberry silkworms live in, we can see it wasn’t intended for cold climates on its own. Silk does its best work against the outer elements when it is located closest to the body.
Wool, on the other hand, comes from warm-blooded animals that have little trouble surviving in harsh climates. The thickness of the wool fabric and its resistance to colder climates gives wool an advantage over silk as an insulating layer. In addition, wool stands out among other fabrics for its natural waterproof qualities making it ideal for outer layers of clothing.
Another thing to consider is that because silk and wool are organic products they can decompose. It’s very important to prevent mildew and mold from growing on silk (don’t store in an enclosed space wet) because the fabric will lose its strength.
Is Silk Warmer than Cotton?
Like wool, cotton is an all-natural fiber. This one happens to come from a plant. It has the strength and durability seen in silk and wool but how does it stack up in keeping us warm?
When considering the three primary factors of weight, breathability, and resistance to the elements, cotton falls short where needed most. While it fits somewhere in the middle of the weight class and high in breathability, it fails at keeping out the element of water.
Of the three fabrics, cotton is the worst insulator in the group. This is because it’s extremely good at absorbing water. Fabric made from cotton can absorb up to 30 times its weight in water and the wetter cotton gets, the less it is able to insulate against the cold. In fact, you can use a wet cotton towel to help cool off as it can help trigger evaporative cooling. (that feeling like you’re freeze when you get out of the pool)
Unlike silk, cotton does not wick moisture away from the body. If worn as a base layer, cotton will continually absorb water at a faster rate than it can dry. This results in clothes feeling damp and before long you’ll be feeling clammy and cold.
If used together, the best place for cotton layers of clothing would be between the silk layer and the outer wool layer. The cotton layer would be able to absorb all of the excess moisture the silk wicked away from the body. It would also serve as thermal insulation to keep the body warm.
Does that mean cotton is terrible? No, absolutely not. Cotton is cheap and it has its uses. Check out where cotton makes sense in our article, here.
Silk Apparel and Gear for Winter
Silk is gaining popularity in outdoor apparel as more people learn about its versatility. L.L. Bean produces 100% silk long-sleeve crew neck tops and midweight pants. These lightweight pieces provide comfort that will work well as a base layer in the outdoors.
Other product lines, like Silk Living, provide a wide range of fashionable clothing and gear specifically designed for hiking and camping adventures in the cold. T-shirts in short and long sleeves pair well with their leggings. Add in the hoodies, headscarves, gloves, boxers, and balaclavas.
Kingdom Outdoor Gear boasts one of the more unique uses for silk with regard to the outdoors and adventure. For around $40, the 100% silk sleeping bag liner comes with a built-in pillowcase and travel sheet that stores in its own tote bag. The full-length zipper wraps around all three sides with the flex and stretch of spandex mixed with polyester.
What makes the sleeping bag liner great for travel and outdoors is silk’s hypoallergenic qualities and its ability to repel dust mites and bed bugs. It will also protect you from mosquitoes and unsanitary sleeping conditions. The versatility of the liner lets you use it inside a standard sleeping bag or entirely on its own, weather permitting.