If you’ve never knit with cotton yarn before, you’ll need to know how this fiber behaves, feels, and looks. Truly, before beginning any knitting project, you should be knowledgeable about your knitting fiber. So today, we’re going to talk about cotton from field to fiber to finished product.
There’s a lot of information, as you can imagine, so there’s no time to waste. Let’s get right to it.
What is Cotton?
When talking about cotton it’s best to see it for yourself. So take a minute, go to your bathroom, and take a look at a cotton ball or cotton washcloth. Put your face really close to the material.
What you’ll see are the fine, hair-like fibers. Do you see them? Each individual hair or fiber is a single cell. These cells are cotton fibers which makes up cotton itself. Pretty interesting, right?
Of all the natural fibers produced on the planet, cotton is the most widely used and widely produced.
Before we continue, I just wanted to clarify something. In some instances you may see the phrase natural fibers spelled as natural fibres. To be clear, they are one and the same. It is simply a matter of American English vs. British English. In the case of this post, I will employ the American version only.
What are Natural Fibers?
Natural fibers are fibers that originate from plants or animals. Some examples of natural fibers are cotton, silk, or wool to name a few. But while cotton and wool are natural fibers, they are both from different fiber classes: plant and animal.
Is Cotton a Protein Fiber?
Remember when we said cotton fibers are actual cells? Good. What this means is cotton is made up of cellulose. In other words, it is grown by plants, not animals. Therefore, it is not a protein fiber.
Unlike protein fibers like wool, cellulose fibers pull heat away from the body. This is what makes cotton a great fiber to use for warm weather knits.
Where Does Cotton Come From?
Cotton begins with the cotton plant. It is from this plant that the cotton fibers are extracted. But this description really doesn’t do justice to this amazing natural fiber. Let’s take a minute to really discuss the growth process of cotton fibers.
How Does Cotton Grow?
When the cotton plant or shrub grows, it produces a flower or cotton blossom. This blossom then evolves into a cotton boll, a protective case which surrounds the seeds. As the boll ripens, the case begins to dry and crack, which exposes the natural cotton fibers.
Doesn't sound too amazing, I know, but it really is.
What's incredible about this process is the fact that the cotton fibers begin to form on Day 1 of flowering. And within a short amount of time, the transformation is complete. From blossom to boll to fiber, the whole process takes only 60 days. Then these cotton fibers are ready to harvest.
In truth, cotton fibers grow from the outer layer of the cotton seeds, the seed coat. Then a process of separation occurs. First, the cotton seeds from the plant, then the fibers from the seeds. Finally, the cotton fibers get converted into thread, natural fiber yarn, or other soft cotton textiles.
Earliest Cotton Fragments
Historically speaking, cotton has been in use since prehistoric times. Some of the earliest cotton fragments found were threads in copper beads. This evidence dates back to the Neolithic time period, around the 5th millennium BC.
What Does a Cotton Plant Look Like?
If you’re wondering what a cotton plant looks like, here’s an example.
Where is Cotton Grown?
These days the biggest producers of cotton are China, India, and the United States respectively. In the U.S., Texas is the leading cotton producing state. Outside of Texas, cotton grows in 17 southern states. The map below shows all 17 states where cotton is grown in the U.S.
How is Cotton Made into Yarn?
Raw cotton is first spun and twisted, then made into yarn. This process locks the fibers together and gives the yarn strength.
If you’re interested in the process of cotton from farm field to finished product, then check out this video. It shows how cotton yarn is made along with other cotton products.
Is Cotton Vegan?
As I’ve mentioned before, cotton yarn gets made from plants. Many would consider this a vegan friendly fiber, and it is, but not if you live an organic lifestyle.
See, to protect the cotton plant from insects and pests, pesticides and fertilizers often get used. But there is an alternative to common cotton yarn. We’ll continue this discussion a little later on in the post.
For now, let’s take a minute to discuss cotton yarn and its properties.
Properties of Cotton Yarn
- Cotton is an incredibly strong and durable natural fiber, wet or dry.
- Capable of absorbing up to 27x its weight in water, cotton can also allow water to evaporate.
- It’s soft to the touch and lightweight. And because it’s a cellulose fiber, it pulls heat away from the body. This trait makes cotton garments comfortable to wear any time of year.
- Cotton makes for a very soft yarn. It’s machine-washable and, over time, cotton actually gets softer with more use.
- Generally, it's an inexpensive yarn, but quality varies by price. Depending on your cotton yarn knitting pattern, spending a little more might be worth it.
- Cotton yarn shows every stitch in great detail. Just look at the beautiful garter stitch texture in the image below.
Some properties of cotton yarn are less advantageous but are, nevertheless, important to know.
What You Should Know Before You Knit with Cotton Yarn
- 100% cotton knits may be a little stiffer than other yarns or blended yarns.
- Because cotton holds water better than other yarns, it also has the chance to stretch and sag. Once it has stretched, it'll never return to its original size or shape.
- Cotton has no elasticity or “memory”. This can make it difficult to keep even knitting tension or cause hand strain.
- The bulkier the yarn, the heavier your project. This may make it difficult to wash and care for, depending on the size. The bigger the project, the more weight, the more stretch…you get the idea.
- Dyed cotton, especially darker colors, has a tendency to bleed. This is why it’s important to knit a gauge swatch before you knit your project. You’ll want to treat your swatch like your finished article to test color, stretch, and size.
- Finally, unless you’re using organic cotton, your cotton yarn was treated with pesticides. If you’re looking for something more eco-friendly, give organic cotton a try.
What is Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton yarn is completely free of pesticides and is not genetically modified. Organic cotton yarn is very eco-friendly and, some say, even softer than other cotton yarns. Softer, planet friendly, and toxin-free? Sounds pretty amazing.
Uses of Cotton Yarn
Because cotton makes for a soft baby yarn, knitters love to make cool cotton knit blankets.
You could also make knitted dishcloths or wash cloths, produce bags, or other household projects. It’s also a great summer yarn, perfect for making light summer tops or blouses.
Tips for Knitting with Cotton Yarn
- To counter 100% cotton yarn’s lack of memory, some knitters suggest knitting with smaller needles than the yarn label suggests. This will give you a tighter, more solid knit fabric.
- Some knitters find cotton to be slippery. You may want to experiment with different types of knitting needles before starting your knitting project.
- Another way to help hold your yarn project’s shape is to use textured stitches. Stockinette stitch is fine for small projects. If you’re knitting a baby blanket or something larger, stitch variation will help keep its shape better.
- If you want to knit something cool for summer, consider using a cotton blend yarn instead. Depending on the blend, you will get more drape, less weight, and more elasticity.
Finally, there are a few more important facts we need to discuss before we wrap up.
Does Cotton Shrink in the Wash?
When laundering cotton knits, it’s best to err on the side of caution. For long-lasting results, use cool water and a delicate cycle. This will reduce the chance for color fading and shrinking.
Does 100% Cotton Shrink in the Dryer?
If it’s a natural fiber, it will shrink in the dryer. Cotton yarn is no exception.
You should care for a cotton project by gently washing it, reshaping it, and laying it flat to dry. If you're worried about keeping the shape of your knit, use a blended cotton yarn.
Just make sure that if you wash and dry your cotton knits, you allow them to completely dry. Why? Keep reading.
Do Moths Eat Cotton?
Unlike wool, moths do not love cotton, but cotton does have enemies. They are mold and mildew, not moths. Because cotton is so absorbent, it tends to take longer to dry, especially in humid environments.
This is why you should allow your knitted piece to dry fully before storing it away. Doing this will extend the life of your cotton knits.
Below is an example of a cotton dishcloth. This is one of my favorite knitting patterns to make with cotton yarn. You can find the knitting pattern for the Petal Dishcloth here. Enjoy!
So now you know more than you need to know about cotton yarn, its properties, uses, and its drawbacks. You can now make a truly informed decision about cotton yarn before choosing your next knitting project.
Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah