What Is Cotton?
Cotton is a vegetable fibre from the cotton plant. It is grown in warm climates that have plentiful rain. The cotton fibres are taken from the boll (seed pod) and vary in length. They can be as long as 2 ½” and as short as 3/8”. The long fibres are the more costly, and are harder to produce. Once the cotton is picked, it is separated by a process known as ginning and the long fibres are made into thread.
Cotton fabric is strong and durable, and is even stronger when wet. It is known for its comfort, appearance, versatility, and performance. It can be bought in many fabric weights, colours, patterns, weaves, and prices. Weight and texture is varied to create light voiles or thick corduroy. Glazing can be added to enhance appearance and resist surface soiling.
Cotton can be comfortable all year-round. In hot, humid weather, cotton will absorb perspiration (up to 27 times it’s own weight) and release it on the fabric surface, so that the moisture can evaporate. Despite this, it can also help retain body heat in winter.
It is the fabric of choice when it comes to underwear and other garments that are worn close to the skin. Pure cotton is a non-allergenic fibre that doesn’t contain any chemicals. Just note that manufactures may treat cotton in different ways to obtain certain effects such as colour and pattern dying. Natural cotton that has not been dyed or bleached is a beige-white colour. Due to it’s light colour and absorbent nature, it is very often dyed in vibrant colours.
Cotton is very easy to clean, however it should be frequently cleaned as the fibre’s can be easily soiled. Due to its composition in most cases cotton can be laundered as well as dry clean. Just note that it can drastically shrink – especially when exposed to hot water – so it’s wise to follow the cleaning instructions. Because of this you should always pre-shrink your cotton fabric before staring your sewing project. Wash it in the same way that you will the completed garment. Looser weaves will shrink more whilst closer weaves shrink less. You may want to wash the fabric more than once to help prevent shrinking and to remove any excess dye.
It can be blended quite easily with other types of fibres such as wool, polyester and lycra. This is often used to achieved different effects such as shine, texture or even stretch. Since cotton can wrinkle quite easily it is often blended with polyester to achieve a wrinkle free fabric. Although the cotton/poly blend fabric is easy care, it is not cool as cotton and also pills. Formaldehyde is sometimes added to cotton to create “easy care cotton”. By blending with other fabrics it is possible to create a more slinky or stiff drape.
Since it doesn’t build up static electricity and is not easily damaged by sunlight cotton is often used in the manufacture of medical supplies, homeward and even outdoor products such as tents and tarpaulins.
There are of course, different qualities of cotton. The highest quality cottons are made from the longer fibres, such as Pima, Egyptian and Peruvian cottons. Look for fabrics that the fibres are closely woven (or higher thread count). In general, better quality cotton fabrics are softer than the lesser quality cottons.
The lesser quality cottons often have sizing added to make them seem to be firmer and heavier than they are. Once you wash it, the sizing will be gone, and you will be left with a fabric that will not wear well or last very long. It pays to buy quality! To figure out if the fabric has heavy sizing, rub the fabric against itself. If it softens, or it gives off a powdery feel it indicates that heavy sizing has been used. If you hold it up to the light, you may be able to see the sizing between the threads. Mercerizing permanently straightens the fibres making them smooth, so mercerized cotton is stronger and more lustrous, even after many washes.