The Ultimate Guide to Leggings (Part 1): Start Here

My aim with this series is to arm you with the legging knowledge you never knew you needed, to streamline that process so you can feel confident buying and wearing your leggings. In this article, we’ll do a deep dive into fabrics.

The Ultimate Guide to Leggings (Part 1): Start Here

By: Brooke Haubenstricker

This article is the first in a three-part series from Coach Brooke. Part Two talks more specifically about women’s leggings, and Part Three will tackle men’s. Stay tuned for the rest of the series, or check back here. We will link them as we publish them. And to get more from Coach Brooke, check out her bio here.

We’ve all struggled through leggings fiascos in our fitness journeys. There’s the dreaded crotch seam burst, pills galore, sizing that is too big and too small at the same time, and the classic “yanking them up every five seconds.” By this point, it’s safe to say we’ve all mastered the “pull and hop” maneuver for wrenching on stubborn leggings. And don’t worry ladies: I haven’t forgotten about camel toe. That gets its own special section in the women’s legging article.

Yet, despite our suffering, we keep coming back to this garment. There’s nothing quite like the hug of a good pair of leggings. They have a special way of making us feel mobile, agile, and powerful. But sometimes, it feels like we have to crack a few eggs—or bust a few seams—in our search to find the leggings that meet the trifecta of fit, function, and longevity.

My aim with this series is to arm you with the legging knowledge you never knew you needed, to streamline that process so you can feel confident buying and wearing your leggings. In this article, we’ll do a deep dive into fabrics. In the following articles, we’ll discuss construction and fit for women and men. As tempting as it may be to skip to the next article, read through this one first. Leggings are quite literally nothing without fabric. Their longevity depends on their composition and how you care for them.

Fibers

I can’t stress this enough: you must understand the fibers that make up your clothing. It’s the first step in identifying quality garments, whether they’re workout clothes or everyday clothes. Whenever I find an intriguing piece of clothing at the store, I immediately feel the fabric and check its fiber content. It’s a life-changing habit. Not only will that tell you how the garment will feel when it’s worn and what kind of characteristics it will have, but it can also tell you what kind of care it needs, how the fabric will age, and how long it will last. I won’t go into all of those details here because it can be a bit overwhelming. You can pick up that information over time. What’s important is that you know the three categories of fibers: synthetic, natural, and semi-synthetic.

Synthetic

Synthetic fibers are man-made fibers derived from plastics. The most common synthetic fibers are polyester, acrylic, and polyamide (“nylon”). Synthetic fibers dominate the fitness industry because of their desirable, specifically-engineered properties—like moisture-wicking, color steadfastness, UV resistance, lightness in weight, and their relatively low cost. In addition, athletic fabrics typically contain elastane (also called Lycra or spandex), which is what gives them their iconic stretch. Most fibers have little to no stretch without the addition of elastane, which is why you’ll find it in all of your leggings. Aside from being made of plastic, synthetic fibers are frequently knocked for not being very breathable, for “shedding” microplastics, and for not aging well—although this varies greatly depending on the garment.

Natural

Natural fibers are derived from raw animal and plant materials. Examples of animal-based fibers include wool and silk, and plant-based fibers include cotton, linen, and hemp. Natural fibers have taken a back seat in the fitness industry, but they can still be found in many garments, particularly when blended with synthetic fibers. Cotton is the most common. It’s popular because of its breathability and cheap cost, but its downfall is that it’s highly absorbent. If you’ve ever worn a 100% cotton t-shirt during gym class, you know that it’s super effective at mopping up all of that workout sweat and not letting it go, leaving you with a heavier, less breathable, cold, unflattering garment plastered to your body. Not fun. (Although its roughness is better for gripping the bench during bench press than its slick synthetic counterparts.) It’s best to avoid this fiber if you tend to get sweaty in your nether regions. Most leggings made with higher quantities of cotton or natural fibers are intended for loungewear, anyway. Thankfully.

Semi-synthetic

Semi-synthetic fibers come from natural materials but require intensive chemical processing to be turned into a usable product. For example, rayon (also called viscose or viscose rayon) is a fiber that can be made from various types of wood pulp. (I bet you’ve never picked up a rayon top and thought, “Wow, this feels very wood-y!”) Modal, Lyocell, and Tencel are also types of semi-synthetics. Bamboo is sometimes touted as a natural fiber, but it would technically fall into this category as well. There are performance leggings made with bamboo, but they aren’t as popular as synthetic fibers and tend to be a part of a fiber blend. While bamboo is renowned for its softness, it’s not as durable as other fibers.

The bottom line is that the majority of leggings are made partially or entirely of synthetic fibers. Despite the backlash against fossil fuels, I don’t recommend discriminating against these fibers, or you’re going to seriously limit your options. Instead, be aware of the fibers that go into your leggings and seek out the fabrics and brands that have given you the best results. For lifting, that’s going to be thicker, compressive fabrics that stay put during your workouts and can withstand a plethora of body movements and frequent bar contact.

The Green Lie

The disappointing reality for green-conscious shoppers is that there is no perfect solution for purchasing athleticwear and having zero impact on the environment. Many companies make bold claims about reducing their carbon footprint or using recycled or natural materials, but those claims are largely misleading. Greenwashing—when companies portray their products or practices as being more environmentally friendly than they actually are—is highly prevalent in the fashion industry, and athleticwear is no exception.

Claim: We make our products using recycled materials

Reality: We are currently not able to produce leggings made entirely of recycled materials, so manufacturers actually use a blend of recycled and virgin (non-recycled) materials. The best-case scenario is that they are composed of recycled polyester with virgin spandex. More commonly, you’ll see the recycled materials making up a significantly smaller percentage of the total fiber content, or certain parts of the leggings won’t be made of recycled materials. Be sure to check the fabric label to clarify.

The bad news is that the word “recycled” isn’t a well-regulated term. It’s like seeing the words “organic” and “fair trade” in grocery stores. A garment made with recycled materials may contain undisclosed virgin materials as well. You would have to check to see if the company was certified through credible associations like the GRS (Global Recycled Standard) and SCS (Scientific Certification System) to be confident in their claims.

Also, keep in mind that our ability to recycle garments is still in its early stages of development. This means nearly all the fibers used to make recycled fabric weren’t originally fabric, and your leggings may still end up in a landfill at the end of their life.

Claim: We use all-natural materials like bamboo

Reality: First of all, elastane (a synthetic material) is needed in leggings to give them their elasticity and recoverability, so these garments are not made from 100% raw materials. Secondly, many raw materials, such as bamboo, are semi-synthetic. As mentioned above, this means that they have to undergo a lot of chemical processing in order to be turned into fabric. There is a lot of toxicity and waste in these processes. Thirdly, just because a material is all-natural does not mean it will make a superior product. Synthetic materials tend to make better-functioning, longer-lasting garments for athletic wear.

So, what can you do to realistically limit your impact on the environment? The answer is: buy less. Purchase highly-durable garments and wear them until they give out. You can go a step further and purchase used clothing, but it may be more difficult to find exactly what you need, and you may end up with a product that already has a lot of mileage on it. It’s fine to buy new clothes, but have the mindset of purchasing clothing for the long haul as opposed to buying whatever shiny, new thing comes out that season. Then, when your leggings give out, recycle them. Local fabric recycling drop-offs are becoming more common. H&M also accepts clothing for recycling, and you will get a coupon for your next purchase in return. Yes, I know I just said before that we don’t have the technology yet to recycle all of our garments, but some of these companies are actively working toward that goal. Recycling your clothes can get you into the habit early on, and these companies may be able to work with some of your clothes right now.

If you want to make a greater impact with your purchases, there are other important causes that you can support with your money. Consider purchasing from companies that are—

  • Not participating in, or are moving away from, fast fashion practices.
  • Prioritizing the reduction of waste in their manufacturing processes and transportation.
  • Investing in sustainable fabric research and development.
  • Paying their workers a livable wage.
  • Giving money to charities.
  • Small businesses.

Fabric Care

Properly washing and drying your clothes plays a huge role in their longevity. No, you can’t wash all clothes the same way, although certain practices are more universally healthy for clothes than others.

This should go without saying, but you should be washing your athleticwear after every use. You don’t want sweat, dirt, bacteria, chalk, and whatever else you come into contact with to build up on your clothing. Aside from making you supremely smelly, it can require more cleaning in order to remove all that gunk. If you aren’t able to wash your used workout clothes right away, drape them on the edge of your hamper to air dry before adding them to the rest of your dirty clothes. This will keep mildew from forming. To prep them for the wash, close any zippers and turn them inside out. This will prevent unnecessary friction and snagging on the outside of your garments while they’re in the machine.

Sort your clothes by color to avoid dye bleeding. (If you have a new garment, it’s always a good idea to wash it by itself before wearing it, especially if it’s a bold color like red.) The basic color sort is lights, darks, and reds, but you can be more specific than that. Growing up in a family of seven, we were able to run full loads of each of the main color groups. You can also choose to further sort your clothes by care needs. (This is important if you have clothes with very specific needs, especially if they clash with your normal wash cycle.) Lastly, I would highly recommend placing sports bras and other delicate pieces of clothing in a delicate bag or a bra wash bag as an added layer of protection before placing them in the washing machine.

The most obvious place to look for fabric care information is on the care label of your clothing. Like an instruction manual for Ikea furniture, the care label is often overlooked and undervalued. It literally walks you through how to wash and dry your clothing properly. If you’ve cut off your labels, no worries. You’ll find that your athleticwear follows a similar care pattern (since most athleticwear is made of synthetic fibers), so getting into the care groove will be fairly easy.

Hot or Not?

Remember that section about fiber types where I wrote synthetic fibers are basically plastic? Yeah, that’s a big deal when it comes to care. Plastic breaks down in heat, and the first heat it can come into contact with is your washing machine. I know what you’re going to say. “But hot water is necessary for cleaning clothes thoroughly!” It’s true that warmer temperatures work best for detergent. But most of the time, hot and even warm water isn’t necessary for getting rid of the buildup and funky smells in athletic clothes, and cold water won’t cause the fabric to break down as quickly. This is an extra important consideration due to how frequently athleticwear needs to be washed. Regular and heavier-duty wash cycles can also lead to a faster breakdown in synthetic fabrics, so put your machine on a gentle cycle as well.

Detergents and Softeners

More is not better when it comes to detergent. Always stick to the recommended amount of detergent, no matter how bad of a condition your clothes are in. It will just make it more difficult to get all of that detergent out, which can lead up to buildup and bacteria. If you’ve accidentally poured in too much detergent, add an extra rinse cycle. If you think regular detergent isn’t getting the job done, switch to a detergent specifically formulated for athleticwear. Some people will also pre-soak athletic wear in distilled white vinegar (usually diluted in a 1:4 ratio with water) for 15-30 minutes and then rinse it out before washing in the machine. This can help remove the stink from synthetic fabrics. I’ve never had to do this method, so I can’t personally vouch for it, but if you try it, you could test it out on one of your less-expensive, less-loved pieces of athleticwear first.

Now, take a deep breath and repeat after me: fabric softener is not necessary. That’s right; you don’t need to use any fabric softener when you’re washing your athleticwear. In fact, it’s better that you don’t use it! Fabric softener can interfere with your detergent’s effectiveness, and it coats the clothing, reducing its moisture-wicking properties. Prolonged skin contact with fabric softener can also be irritating for people with sensitive skin. If you’ve ever put on a freshly cleaned pair of bottoms and felt a little itchy after a while, that’s probably why. Switching to “free and clear” detergent and softeners can help, and will reduce your overall use of fabric softeners. If your clothes feel stiffer than usual after drying, don’t panic. They will soften up as they’re worn.

Drying

Lastly, we have to contend with the dryer. I know, it’s super convenient to pop your clothes in the dryer on high heat so they’re ready for your workout in 30 minutes, but planning ahead is going to be vital if you want to take good care of your clothes. As I said before, heat isn’t good for synthetic fabrics, and the dryer is an even worse culprit than the washing machine. The elastane in your athleticwear is going to break down more quickly in the dryer, and there’s nothing quite like the disappointment of stretched-out leggings. Cotton is notorious for shrinking in hot dryers too, so keep that in mind if you’re wearing a blended fabric. The best way to care for your leggings is to air dry them. Drying racks are cheap and can be folded away for storage if you have a small living space. You can also drape leggings across a countertop or hanger and place them in an area with good airflow (meaning, not smashed into your closet). If you wash your clothes in the evening, they will usually be ready the following morning. If you can flip your clothes after a few hours or put them in front of a fan, that will help speed up the drying process even more. You can air dry clothes outside as well if the weather is nice and not too humid or cold. Avoid direct sunlight, though, as that can cause certain fabrics to fade. If you really want to use your dryer, you can put your athletic clothes on a cycle with the lowest heat setting.

No dryer sheets! They have the same effect as fabric softeners. I couldn’t find any good information on dryer ball use for athletic wear, so use them at your own risk. They won’t coat the fabric like a dryer sheet, but the wool balls can be a little messy as they break down, and the spiked rubber ones could pull at the synthetic fabric when it’s already vulnerable in a warm dryer.

A note on pilling, as it is the bane of my existence. If you do experience pilling, you can remove the pills with a new, cheap disposable razor. Lay the clean garment on a hard, flat surface and gently run the razor down the fabric using very small strokes. Go slow and be careful not to shave over fabric that is bunched up, or you’ll risk making a hole. There are special pill removers you can buy as well, but I’ve found the razor method to be more effective as long as you have patience and a steady hand. When you’re done, go over the garment with a lint roller to remove the lint.

Pilling is most likely to appear in areas where you have friction, such as between the upper thighs if your legs rub together when you walk. However, certain fabrics are prone to pilling all over. (I’ve found that leggings that are advertised to be “buttery soft” can be some of the worst offenders.) If that’s the case, it may not be worth the effort to shave it, especially if it will come back in full force right after the next wash. For those garments, I make a mental note of the brand and fiber content, then avoid it like the plague in the future. After all, if I’m going to wear my clothes for a really long time, I want them to look good for a really long time.

Treat Your Leggings Kindly

How you put on your leggings and treat them while you’re wearing them can affect their longevity as well. If you try to yank on your leggings like a pair of jeans, you’re more likely to struggle, pop some seams, and damage your fabric. Instead, bring the leggings up as high as they’ll go without stretching and get the pant ankles into place. Then, do a series of smaller, lighter tugs starting from the upper calves or knees and work your way up. Alternatively, you can put them on like a pair of tights or nylons: bunch up the pant legs, then gradually release the fabric as you pull them up your legs. To get a snug fit around the butt, you can reach into the back portion of your leggings (palms facing away from your body) and gently run your fingers up the leggings toward the waistband to pull the fabric up. If your leggings tend to sink down during your workouts, perform another series of smaller tugs from your lower thighs to your waistband.

Never do single, big tugs from the thighs or waistband. The less you overstretch your fabric, the better.

Retiring Clothes

Ideally, if you purchase high-quality clothes and take care of them as best you can, they should last until the fabric breaks down. It’s normal for this to take several years with athleticwear—or even over a decade.

As your clothing ages, be mindful of how the fabric is thinning. Friction, as well as continually stretching the fabric around seams with little to no stretch (more on that in the next articles), can cause the fabric to weaken in those areas, making them prone to holes. Holding your leggings up to the light and looking at the seams from the inside of the garment can give you clues as to where your garment is weakening, and it can reveal small holes before they become big problems. The most important seam to check is the center back seam. If your fabric has become concerningly thin, you may need to stop wearing them, or you’ll risk that area busting open during one of your workouts.

Guide to Leggings

Pictured above is a pair of old leggings being held up against a window. The back of the waistband is at the top of the picture, and the front of the waistband is hanging down at the bottom, giving us a clear look inside. The crotch seam is pictured off-center to the right, veering off into the triangular gusset, along with several holes to its left. In this pair of leggings, the bulk of the worn-down fabric is located quite far away from the center seam, on the lower right butt cheek.

At the end of their life, you may see the elastane fibers start to break down in your leggings. They look like tiny rubber band strands that have been cut, making the ends curl up. This will result in the garment losing its elasticity. While not glamorous, they will still function well for quite a while after this process begins.

I would recommend waiting until a garment’s function deteriorates to officially retire it (e.g., when the fabric no longer hugs your thighs well, so you have to constantly hike them up). Hopefully, their final destination will be a local fabric recycling operation.

Conclusion

Congrats on making it to the end of this article! I know it wasn’t terribly exciting, but your newfound fabric knowledge will save you money. The next step in making smart legging purchases is understanding how leggings are constructed, assessing whether the fit is appropriate for you, and being armed with tips and tricks to take with you when you’re shopping. I’ll dive into men’s and women’s leggings in the next articles.

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