Cotton is the most commonplace of all fabrics but with its own charm. In the garment industry, more than 50% of clothes are made of cotton fibers. For a sewist, you cannot run too far from the cotton fabric.
Blouses, dresses, skirts, jackets, pants, shawls – you name a garment and you can make it in cotton. And you probably know all that is needed to sew with it. So one would think that this post on sewing with cotton fabric is superfluous. You may be surprised.
Cotton sewing tips
1.Buying the best cotton
If you have the best fabric your sewing job is easy already.
You will come reeling from a fabric showroom if you ask simply for “cotton” – the different names are enough to get your head in a tizzy fit. There are more than 90 types of cotton fabric available today for making clothes and other stuff.
Check out this post on the Types of cotton fabric – names.
Cotton can be woven or knit. The two common types of weaves in cotton fabrics are plain weave and twill weave.
The most important things to note when buying cotton are thread count and weight of the fabric.
Usually, when a high thread count is marked it shows that the fabric is of high quality. It will be densely woven and soft.
But there are cotton marked as of very high thread count but prove to be very rough to the touch. So very high thread count label should be taken with a pinch of salt. Just check the weave of the cloth you have. Is it closely woven with even smooth yarns? Unless your purpose requires a loosely woven cotton a closely woven cotton fabric is better and feels soft to touch.
Check for starch – just scrape your fingernails across the cotton or see if the fabric has a loose weave yet looks stiff. If there is a powdery residue, this means sizing is added to give it the look it has (crisp) and this will wash off with the first wash, leaving your fabric limp and lifeless. Most inexpensive cotton has sizing added. At first glance the starched cotton looks very good, but once it is washed it is as limp as a rag cloth.
For printed cotton in bright colours, a problem is colour bleeding. Rub a white dampened cloth across the print and see if the colour comes off. Another thing to be wary of is, will it pill?. Cotton, when blended with polyester fibers, will pill. 100% cotton does not usually pill so if you think the fabric is showing early signs of pilling, run. It will pill worse later.
There are different weights of cotton from light weight to medium to heavy weight and each weight is suitable for sewing different things. Buying the appropriate cotton depends on your purpose with the project, the drape you need etc
If you want a lightweight cotton fabric : Muslin, cotton voile, cotton organdy, cotton lawn, cotton batiste are your choices
If you want medium weight cotton fabric: Cotton gauze, cotton poplin, cotton damask, Chintz, sateen, cotton flannel, gabardine, gingham, cotton jersey are your choices
If you want a heavyweight cotton fabric: Cotton canvas, corduroy, velveteen, denim, toweling fabric are your choices.
Sometimes you may choose a cotton fabric for its appearance and special texture. Some are ribbed, some have piled construction, some come with dots woven into it, some have a puckered surface.
If you are concerned about the chemical exposure in cotton fabrics (some of the most carcinogenic chemicals are involved in the manufacturing of cotton textile) buy Organic cotton which is certified to be pure.
Medium weight printed fabrics are slightly crisp and is not drapey on the body – so if you want a flowy fabric this is not for you. But a trick to make it drapey enough is to use a silky lining.
2.Pretreatment of cotton fabric
Cotton fabric is usually finished with a lot of starch /sizing. Before attempting to sew with it you will have to necessarily prewash it – otherwise, after you sew and you wash it, the garment will shrink. Pre-Wash as you plan to wash later.
Remove all wrinkles by pressing the fabric before marking the fabric for cutting.
Normal sharp-point needles can be used to sew cotton fabrics.
Universal needles in sizes 80/12 can be used for medium weight cotton fabrics and 70/10 are best to sew thin cotton fabrics.
For heavier weight cotton fabrics use 90/14 or100/16 needles.
120/20 needle is used for very heavy cotton fabrics.
For cotton knits use a ball point needle for better control and smooth sewing.
4.The best thread for sewing cotton
You can use with them all – cotton, cotton/polyester, polyester, or even silk thread – all can be used to sew cotton fabric.
To be more specific and discerning – For cotton without any stretch, 100% cotton thread is usually enough. For fine cotton fabric like cotton lawn, use all cotton thread.
If the cotton fabric has lycra or if it is a cotton knit, use polyester thread or cotton/polyester thread.
If the cotton you have does not have a correct grain, it will not lay properly on the body, the prints and patterns will not align properly. As you buy the fabric this has to be checked.
Find out more about how to find the grain of the fabric here.
6. Seams and hems of cotton garments
You can sew cotton with the regular straight seams – set the stitch length at 2.0 or 2.5. 2.5 is good for medium weight fabrics but for finer cotton use a shorter stitch like 1.5 or 2.
For cotton cut on the bias ( which stretch) use a short zig-zag stitch, for its stretch.
Cotton fabric usually frays, so finishing the cut fabric edges is absolutely necessary for a neat finish inside the garment. Here are the different ways to finish the edges of fabric.
The easiest way is of course to use pinking shears. The zig-zag edges you get when you cut with pinking shears will finish the edges enough for most cotton.
The seam edges can also be perfectly finished with a serger. Edges finished with bias binding is also beautiful and regularly used by professionals.
For sheer/ almost sheer cotton fabrics use a french seam inside so that the seam edges are neatly enclosed. Check out this post on working the french seam
Hand stitched hem is best for thin drapey cotton fabrics. Rolled hem also works. For regular weight cotton, a double-folded topstitched hem is used. Cotton is crisp and looks neat however it is sewn
7. Interfacing & lining
Even cotton fabric needs interfacing (though you may not think so) especially for collars, pockets, waistbands, facings and even hems. Fusible interfacing (woven interfacing can be used for cotton woven fabrics and for cotton knits use a knit interfacing).
Sew-in interfacing can be used for thin cotton fabrics; If you want fusible use very thin interfacing. Fabrics like batiste, organza, or muslin cut on the bias are used as sew-in interfacing for thin cotton.
For medium weight cotton, a suitable weight sew-in interfacing can be used instead of fusible. Cotton organdy or batiste can be used this way.
If lycra fiber is included in your cotton fabric you will have to use interfacing that does not need to be heat set.
Learn more about the different types of interfacing used here.
8.Pressing cotton fabric
Pressing is a very important element in sewing cotton. Because of its crisp nature you have a dream fabric to sew when you press as you sew. Usually finger-pressing can be done but a hot iron near where you sew cotton is always a bonus.
See more pressing tips here
One disadvantage anyone can spot in cotton garments is that it wrinkles a lot – especially the thin and medium weight cotton.
You can steam press cotton fabric to a crisp look very fast enough, unlike linen which is a little difficult to iron.
Cotton can take a lot of heat unless it has elastic/lycra fibers. If lycra fibers are there in your cotton fabric as per the clothing label or if the fabric you have has a stretch (without it being a knit) avoid high heat.
9.Embroidery on cotton fabric
Cotton looks beautiful when embroidered. But you will have to remove all sizing by prewashing and use suitable stabilizer before embroidering especially if the fabric is thin or has lycra added to it. On garments, the regular places where embroidery is placed are hems, pockets, collars, and cuff areas.
Check out the post on embroidering on clothes
10. Storing & Maintaining cotton fabric
Cotton fabrics are usually low maintenance. They can be washed and dried in a washing machine/dryer without too much botheration unless a sewing /design consideration like embroidery and other embellishments dictate otherwise.
If lycra is added to the cotton fabric you will have to avoid the heat in the dryer. Ironing these fabrics also require more care and a cooler iron settings
Colour retention of cotton is usually good but some colored cotton fabrics bleed and some fade fast. For colour retention, many tricks like prewashing in water mixed with salt etc are vouched by many. If your cotton fabric has many bright coloured patterns one risk you take is tinting of adjacent areas with colour from the prints.
Avoid drying cotton clothes in sunlight for a long time – this will prevent colour fading. Remember that cotton needs to be fully dry especially if it has been starched – the smell of moldy cotton is horribly stinky. Avoid this if you care anything for the quality of your life.
Updated on October 31, 2022 by Sarina Tariq