Even though work clothes are built to be extra-rugged, they’re also designed to be comfortable. However, because a lot of work clothing is made using more durable materials, it may require a little more break-in time compared to standard clothing and outerwear. In this section we’ll cover some of the most popular materials used to make work apparel today and discuss what makes these materials stand out.
By far the most popular workwear fabric, cotton duck is a type of very durable woven canvas. Despite its name, this hardy material has nothing to do with waterfowl. The term "duck" actually comes from the Dutch word doek, which refers to a linen canvas once used to make sailors’ trousers and outerwear. The word "cotton" has been added to modern duck items simply to distinguish them from traditional linen duck. Did you know that cotton duck is actually related to another material commonly used on the job? Duct tape, often called "duck tape," was originally manufactured by adding an adhesive backing to regular cotton duck.
Aside from work clothing, cotton duck is also used to make wall tents, shoes, sand bags and many other products. Popular colors for cotton duck include tan, khaki and shades of brown and green that hide dirt well. There are many advantages to wearing cotton duck. For example, cotton duck has a relatively smooth surface that isn’t prone to snagging and tearing. Other than leather and high-performance shells, few other fabrics can block wind like cotton duck. Unlike synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, cotton duck won’t melt when exposed to high heat (although it’s not inflammable). If you’re working close to a metal forge or welding in the shop, small sparks and hot ashes usually won’t cause any damage to duck fabric. Although it can feel a bit stiff and uncomfortable at first, duck tends to become more comfortable the longer you wear it. Machine washing also helps break it in, and cotton duck doesn’t require any special treatment for laundering.
The cotton duck used to make clothing, bags and other items is available in several different fabric weights or grades, called "numbered duck." Most numbered duck is graded between 1 and 12, with 1 being the thickest and 12 being the thinnest. The grade of numbered duck refers to the number of ounces subtracted from 19 for a 36x22” piece of the fabric. For example, a piece of #8 duck with dimensions of 36x22" weighs 11 ounces. Below is a table of numbered duck weights. You’ll notice that grades 7, 9 and 11 are missing. This is because they're no longer produced.
Cotton Duck Fabric Weight Table
Numbered Duck Grade Fabric Weight (36x22") Common Uses #12 7 oz. Light Clothes #10 9 oz. Work Clothes, Shower Curtains #8 11 oz. Work Clothes, Clothes Bags #6 13 oz. Boat Covers, Heavy Work Clothes #5 14 oz. Heavy Work Clothes #4 15 oz. Sea Bags #3 16 oz. Heavy-Duty Bags #2 17 oz. Hatch Paulins #1 18 oz. Sandbags, Cots, Hammocks
Denim, which is most commonly associated with blue jeans and jean jackets, is a great fabric for work clothes. A rugged cotton twill fabric, denim is easily recognized by the diagonal ribbing on the surface. Although it’s less durable than cotton duck, denim is generally more comfortable to wear and definitely more popular in non-work settings.
Flannel is a light or medium-weight woven cloth that is almost always 100% cotton. This popular fabric has a soft, brushed surface and is frequently used to make long-sleeved shirts, sleepwear and bedding. Flannel work shirts have long been used for working outdoors in colder conditions. Flannel-lined jeans are another popular choice for chilly autumn and winter weather.
Leather is created by tanning various types of animal hide. Common variations of leather are made from cowhide, which is very durable. For example, full-grain cowhide leather is frequently used to make work boots, belts, work gloves and jackets. Other materials like deerskin and elk leather are also used to make work gloves that are both supple and durable. For detailed information on the most common types of leather, check out the Leather Guide.
Nylon, polyester and other synthetic fabrics were relatively uncommon in work clothes of the past. However, with technological advances, these fabrics are becoming more popular in the workwear industry. For example, Carhartt now offers an "extreme" line of work coveralls made of thick, extremely durable Cordura® nylon with a polyurethane coating to block wind and water.
Hard work knows no season, which is why workwear companies always offer products designed specifically for working in cold, windy and snowy winter conditions. One of the most common features found in winter work clothing is a built-in insulated lining. Blanket linings and flannel linings are typically made of soft cotton, wool or acrylic fabrics that provide moderate warmth. Plaid is a popular pattern used to make flannel linings. Quilted linings are usually made from a smooth piece of fabric that is quilt-stitched over a sheet of insulation on the interior of a jacket or other outerwear. Diamond-shaped quilting is the most common variation. Fleece linings offer a layer of plush polyester fleece bonded to the inside of the work outerwear. Fleece is great for insulating and wicks moisture well.
Workwear isn’t known for having lots of unnecessary bells and whistles. However, any features that are included in work clothing are designed with a functional purpose. Below are just a few of the special features available from some of the best workwear brands.
Unlike standard zippers, heavy-duty workwear zippers are designed to hold up longer under more demanding conditions.
Rivets and Bar Tacks
These two features add extra strength at common stress points on a garment. Rivets are familiar to most people, since they often appear on blue jeans at the corners of the front pockets. Bar tacks are also designed to reinforce stress points, but use a series of parallel stitches instead of a metal rivet.
Water Repellency and Waterproofing
Some work clothing and work boots offer built-in weather protection. DWR (Durable Water Repellent) treatment is a nice feature that helps shed moderate rain and snow. Waterproof breathable items typically have a Gore-Tex® or similar membrane insert. Check out our Waterproof Guide for more information.
This feature is just what it sounds like: There are three rows of stitches along each major seam, which makes the seam significantly stronger. Plus, if one row blows out, you’ve still got two to spare.
Heat and Flame Resistance
This feature is only built into select workwear products. Heat-resistant and flame-resistant fabrics can help prevent possible burns from hot surfaces, fire, sparks, welders, etc.
Work Jackets and Work Coats
On the jobsite, your work outerwear is by far your most important layer. A work jacket or coat will protect you from the elements and many job hazards. Some key things to consider when looking for a work coat are:
- Tough, weather-resistant fabrics
- Rugged, durable construction
- Adjustable cuffs or ribbed cuffs for a secure fit
Coveralls and Overalls
Coveralls, sometimes called "work bibs," and overalls are a must-have item for many tough, outdoor jobs. Coveralls are ideal for working on the cold shop floor, kneeling on muddy ground or pounding framing nails in a frigid January wind. Most work overalls and coveralls are insulated for warmth and have reinforcements like triple stitching at the seams. Other features to look for in work coveralls and overalls include:
- Two-way leg zippers that open to the waist, making it easier to put them on and take them off with boots on
- Utility pockets, tool pockets and hammer loops that keep important items close at hand
- Double knees (an added fabric layer over the knees)
- Internal storm cuffs to retain heat
Work Pants and Jeans
Work pants are usually made of either denim or canvas duck. Work pants typically have the same reinforcement features as other types of workwear (triple stitching, rivets, etc.). Many have traditional "five-pocket" jeans styling. A few extras to look for include:
- Tool pockets and loops
- Double knees with "clean-out bottoms" (openings to clean out debris)
- Extra belt loops or wider belt loops to help support the added weight of tools
Typically for work pants and overalls, the weight of the fabric will simply be displayed as the weight (in ounces) of a 36x22" piece of the raw fabric (see fabric weight descriptions under Cotton Duck). Below is a table with our recommendations for the ideal duck weight for work pants.
Best Work Pants by Fabric Weight
Fabric Weight (36x22") Best Season for Use Degree of Durability 7-9 ounces Summer Moderate 10-11 ounces Spring/Fall Moderately High 12-13 ounces Spring/Fall Very High 14-15 ounces Winter, often lined Extremely high
Note: Lighter work pants may have a double front to keep the weight light without sacrificing too much durability.
As with most pants, the only measurements on work pants that you need to be concerned with are inseam, waist and leg opening. If you wear work boots, consider opting for a larger leg opening (about 17-20"). Most work pants are designed with a bootcut leg to accommodate taller, bulkier footwear. Check out the Pant Fit Guide for more information on sizing.
Work vests are superb for layering. You can wear one over a work shirt in moderately cool weather or under your work coat on very cold days for added protection. Almost all work vests are insulated and have large pockets. They also keep your arms free for more dexterity on the job.
Work Shirts and Sweatshirts
Modern work shirts and sweatshirts are available in T-shirts, short-sleeved button-up shirts, long-sleeved flannel shirts, hoodies and just about every other design you can think of. Most are made of comfortable-yet-durable fabrics like cotton or a poly-cotton blend for added wicking.
Work shorts are ideal for hot weather, especially for activities like roofing and landscaping. Expect the same materials and features seen in work pants.
Wearing thermal underwear or long underwear is the best way to add an extra layer of warmth underneath work clothing in the winter. A base layer should effectively wick moisture and provide extra insulation from the cold. Base layers are available in lightweight, midweight and heavyweight fabrics, depending on how much insulation you’ll need. For more info, check out our Layering Guide.
We admit that calluses are cool, but many jobs absolutely demand the protection of work gloves. Most work gloves are crafted from a natural leather like elkskin or deerskin, or sewn from tough cotton duck. For winter jobs, consider grabbing a pair of work gloves with an insulated lining.
Although hard hats are often needed for construction work, a basic work hat can be used for many jobs. For warmer weather, a ball cap or bucket hat is a good choice to block the sun. In winter, a good beanie or winter cap is an essential item.
Sunglasses and Safety Glasses
Blocking the sun and protecting the eyes from harsh UV rays is important for working outside in the bright sun. If you require ANSI-certified eye protection for your job, several eyewear brands offer sunglasses that meet specific ANSI ratings, such as Oakley and Gargoyles. Other features to look for when choosing sunglasses include:
- Polarized lenses are ideal if you’ll be working on or around snow, water, asphalt or other reflective surfaces.
- Wrap-around frames that hug your face provide extra protection from debris and peripheral sunlight.
- Non-slip nose pads and ear pieces help keep sunglasses securely in place, which is ideal for all working conditions.
Important Note: Never substitute regular sunglasses for protective eyewear when using tools that require the use of OSHA-approved safety glasses, unless those sunglasses come with an appropriate ANSI (American National Standards Institute) safety rating. Also, never wear sunglasses with glass lenses on a jobsite, as they can shatter. Impact-resistant polycarbonate lenses are the best choice for general outdoor work.
When it comes to footwear, work boots are an invaluable asset for almost any job. Not only are work boots built of durable materials, they’re also designed to provide all-day support. Most work boots have a tough leather upper and a shock-absorbing midsole to cushion and protect the feet. Other features include steel toes and shanks for additional protection, oil-resistant outsoles for slip-resistant traction and DWR water-repellency or a waterproof membrane to seal out the elements. Some models also include materials that meet AST and EH electrical hazard standards for construction-site work.
Note: Even though steel-toed work boots are great for protecting your toes from falling objects, don’t wear them unless you need them -- they add weight and can make your feet colder in the wintertime.
Western Work Boots
Aside from traditional lace-up boots, a pair of Western work boots is another great option for men and women on the job. Western work boots combine the riding-friendly, slip-on design of traditional cowboy boots with extra-rugged features. Most have a rounded toe and a slip-resistant rubber outsole. Some models also include waterproof construction for added protection from rain, snow and mud.
Unlike standard-issue socks, most work socks are designed to offer additional cushioning and better durability, which makes them the perfect companion to work boots. Many work socks are also crafted with moisture-wicking materials to help keep feet dry. Of course, for frigid winter weather, a heavyweight pair of wool socks is always a good choice.