Fiber Feature - Cotton

Today, in our ongoing discussion about fibers and substituting yarns I'm going to talk about cotton.

When I'm helping customers choose just the right yarn I sometimes feel like we don't have many cotton yarns. But while preparing for today's post I listed out all of our 100% cotton yarns. WOW! We do have a lot!  Not counting those that we have on sale, we have 32 - 100% cotton yarns and 51 cotton blends! This was a great exercise for me to freshen my memory of what we've carried for awhile and to learn about the new yarns we just received this season. Because we do have so many, today, I will only be discussing 100% cotton yarns and save the blends for my next post.

As most people already know, cotton is a plant fiber. It's the fluff that surrounds the cotton plant's seeds and helps the plant to disburse the seeds. Cotton is a member same plant family that includes okra, cocoa and hibiscus and is native to the tropical regions around the world. The cotton plant was domesticated independently in both the old world and the new world. According to the archeological record, the use of cotton in textiles goes back at least 7000 years.

Cotton is the most common textile fiber we can find our daily lives. I would say it's probably very difficult to find an environment where there is not at least one cotton item present. Your jeans, bedsheets, towels and under garments are most likely all made from cotton. Jeans, towels and most sheets are made from fabrics of woven cotton or cotton blends. T-shirts, sweatshirts, socks, and many under garments are typically made of knitted cotton or cotton blend fabrics.

Cotton's properties as a fiber are: a comfortable and soft hand (feel), it's absorbent, retains color well, is machine washable or dry cleanable, has a staple length of 1/2 inch to 2 1/2 inches, and drapes well. Like linen, cotton is damaged by acids but is resistant to alkali. Prolonged exposure to sunlight weakens the fibers and it is susceptible to mold, mildew and damage by silverfish. Cotton burns readily and is damaged by prolonged exposure to temperatures over 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because cotton fibers are relatively short compared to many other fibers, a lot of twist is needed to make a stable yarn, thread, twine or rope. The typical construction is many very thin plies twisted together in different numbers to create different thicknesses. More plies equal a stronger yarn or thread. Some yarns like Blue Sky Alpaca Worsted Cotton and Tahki Rosa have fewer, thicker plies that give a wonderfully soft feel, great for baby blankets but at a sacrifice of durability when handled as roughly as say a pair of blue jeans. These yarns are also more likely to shed fibers because there is less twist to hold the fibers together.

Mercerization is a treatment  used on cotton and hemp fabrics and threads which gives them more luster, strength, affinity for dye, and resistance to mildew. On the other hand it increases the fabric's affinity for gathering lint. During the mercerization process the fabric or thread is held under tension to keep the fibers from shrinking, then treated with an alkali (lye), neutralized with an acid and finally passed through a gas flame to remove any stray fibers. Hard to believe after all that it's stronger than before, but it is! I love the shine and brilliant colors of mercerized cottons! I love the colors so much that I'm even using them to choose paint colors for a home decorating project I'm planning.

When choosing alternate yarns for patterns, it is possible to sometimes substitute cotton for other fibers but you must consider the yarn structure to make sure it performs similarly to the yarn the garment was originally designed to use. In general, cotton will have more drape and less elasticity than wool, breaths well, absorbs moisture well and will not retain as much heat as protein fibers. Cotton does dry slowly which makes it good for staying cool on hot summer days but not so good for keeping your feet warm in cold weather. Cotton is also unlikely to stimulate allergic reactions for most people.

Some of my very favorite cotton yarns that I recommend often are:

Mercerized, drapey & shiny:

I love these yarns for children's clothes, shells, light cardigans, summery shawls, bags, purses, skirts and dresses. Washcloths made from mercerized cotton will feel a bit more scrubby and hold up better as dishcloths than softer cottons.

Soft, drapy with a soft sheen:

These are great for children's clothes, soft washcloths, baby items, hats, summer tops & tanks, and scarves.

Interesting textures & ribbons:

These are fun for clothes of all sorts - pullovers, dresses, cardigans, tops, tanks, shells, bags, hats, and baby items.

Great sources for more information about cotton can be found here:

The Knitter's Book of Yarn by Clara Parkes
Alabama Chanin

And don't forget to check out all of our cotton woven fabric too! They make great liners and coordinates for your yarn projects!

I hope you are finding these discussions about different fibers helpful.  If there is anything I'm not covering or you would like me to discuss in more detail please let me know!  As always you can email your questions about knitting, fibers, crochet, weaving, and spinning to me at askTerry (at) jimmybeanswool (dot) com.


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