Fiber Lesson: Cotton
Fiber is a matter of personal preference and there are many reasons why a designer might choose one fiber over another, so I thought it would be fun to go in-depth on the pros and cons of different fibers. Today’s fiber: cotton.
What is it?
Cotton is a plant fiber derived from the cotton plant. The fiber grows in bolls or capsules around the seeds, and while easily picked by hand, it has been machine-harvested in developed countries since the late 1800s when the mechanical cotton picker was invented. It is spun in the same manner as other fibers into yarns and threads of varying weights.
- This fiber breathes. No heat will get trapped in crocheted cotton fabric, so it’s insulation properties are pretty nil. Good for summer, not so much for winter.
- Cotton lacks elasticity. Some manufacturers are now blending elastic into cotton yarns to give it some elasticity; however we recommend doing blocking the gauge swatches on all projects that use cotton fiber so that you can get a full understand of how much the fabric is going to stretch. Believe me, you don’t want to skip this step when working with cotton yarn. Once stretched out, cotton has a way of staying stretch.
- It readily absorbs water. For this reason, I’m often confused why so many crochet bikinis are made from cotton yarn. Doesn’t it seem like they’d get heavy and stretched out after absorbing all the water from the pool? Clearly those are made for sunbathing, not swimming.
- Cotton is strong. This is one of those fibers you’ll have difficulty breaking with your bare hands — especially if it’s wet. Wetness actually increases the strength of it (hmm, maybe that’s why swimsuits are made from it). The strength can weaken with wear, however.
- Cotton can fade. Prolonged sunlight will increase the rate at which the color in cotton fades, so treat those summer projects with care.
- Depending on how it is spun, cotton yarn can be rough on the hands. Conversely, this property can also make it easier to work with. The roughness keeps the yarn from slipping everywhere on you. But this is why we like Cascade Luna and Luna Paints so much: you get all the benefits of cotton, and it’s actually soft and pleasant to work with.
- It’s machine-washable. There is no downside to this property.
- I like cotton for summer wearables for its breathability, even if it does have a tendency to fade in the sun. The caveat to that is that it also becomes softer with time, so there’s a trade-off there. I used it for the Josephine Set because that is a costume I like to wear to the Renaissance Festival, which for us is in late summer. If you must use it for a swimsuit, I repeat: do not skip the gauge square step, and make sure you measure it after blocking.
- Cotton is also good for certain kitchen projects, due to it’s absorbability. This is why it’s popular for dish cloths and towels. It might not be the best choice for projects like tea cozies or potholders though, since there are many other fibers that are better at insulating.
- This is not my favorite fiber to use for baby projects. There are so many other fibers out there that are more durable and softer than cotton. Of course, this is all a matter of preference and you can use whatever fiber you want for whatever project you want. But I just wanted to point out that if you’re planning to make a baby project out of cotton yarn, make sure it’s a yarn that’s gentle on your hands so that the finished project will be gentle on baby’s skin.
Again, my recommendations are not set in stone and you can feel free to use cotton for any project you like. But if you’re working from a crochet pattern that calls for a different fiber, substitution can get tricky. It is best done when the other fiber has a similar elasticity profile (as in, it doesn’t go back to it’s original shape when stretched). Fibers with low elasticity like cotton include silk and linen.