What is Cotton fabric? (10 FAQ answered)

what is cotton fabric

Cotton fabric is a universally loved fabric made from the fibers that surround the cotton seed. The cotton fibers are soft and fluffy and naturally off-white in color. It takes a lot of effort to extract the fiber from inside the pod, separate it from the seeds, and turn it into yarn. And then, it is made into hundreds of different cotton fabrics, differing in colors, patterns, weaves, and textures.

According to the book Textile-pedia, the word cotton is derived from the Arabic word Kutan.

Where do we get cotton fabric from?

The book “Sewing bible” mentions that cotton was first used in “Egypt as early as 12,000 BC”. According to Wikipedia, “The oldest cotton fabric has been found in Huaca Prieta in Peru, dated to about 6000 BCE”

Man has been making fabric from cotton fibers for a long long time. I remember reading that, from prehistoric times man used clothes made from cotton fibers. There are records of cotton being made in the Indus Valley civilization, a Bronze Age civilization of the Indian subcontinent dating 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE. Cotton reached Europe by 800 AD.

It then spread to the rest of the world, and the rest is history.

Today, India, China, and Unites states account for most of the cotton production. India is the biggest producer of cotton followed by China.

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What makes cotton such a beloved fabric of all?

☝First and foremost, it is a natural fabric. According to all textile experts, natural fabrics have the most moisture absorbency and breathability. They are quite strong and durable. Cotton fabrics dye very well and quite easily.

☝Cotton muslin was once made so thin that it was supposed to pass through a small ring (Dhaka Muslin fabric of Bangladesh).

☝Chanderi cotton fabric is so fine that it is almost see-through.

☝Organdy cotton can be starched to a stiffness that it can stand on its own.

☝Cotton upholstery materials can be so thick that you can make blackout curtains that block out all light with them.

☝Batiks, Madras cotton, Guatemalan cotton and ikat cotton are very loudly colorful and patterned fabrics.

☝Cotton velvet is as glamorous as it comes.

☝And you know how many years a denim material can last and how much wear it can take.

☝Most cotton fabrics do not pill and wear well. It resists wear and tears from abrasion.

☝And to top it all, it is an inexpensive fabric when compared to linen, wool and silk.

So what is not to love?

cotton fabrics

Properties of cotton fiber

Cotton Fabric is universally acclaimed for a lot of qualities which makes it the number one choice for sewing, be it clothing or home decor or accessories.

  • Soft
  • Strong
  • Absorbs water (Many times its weight)
  • Colour retention (most of the times)
  • Moisture absorption
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Eco friendly
  • breathable
  • can be blended with other fibers for more qualities
  • Durable

Some properties of cotton are not so rosy as the ones written above. Cotton shrinks; sewing clothes with cotton fabric before prewashing it is akin to a sewing disaster. Most of the cotton clothes (unless it is labeled pre-washed) will be reduced to a size smaller or so after the first wash.

Some bright colored cotton will bleed. It is not a very beautiful sight to see red and green mixed together in your dress after spending two hours of concentrated effort in sewing it.

Another disadvantage is that cotton fabric wrinkles a lot.

When cotton is blended with other fibers like polyester and silk, many of these disadvantageous properties are taken care of.

How is cotton made?

cotton plant

The cotton plant is a shrub that is planted in spring and it is ready for harvest within 2 to 3 months. Harvesting is done when the flower of the shrub splits open to reveal the ball of cotton.

Hand labor or a machine can harvest the cotton and, when collected, make them into bales. These bales are cleaned and washed, separating the dirt and lint that come with the fibres.

The bales then go into the spinning process, where the fibers are twisted to make thread or yarn. These threads are then processed in specialized looms, where they are woven into fabric.

You can learn more about how cotton is made – in the post ” Making of cotton fabric.

What kind of dressmaking fabric is cotton?

This is not possible to be answered in one sentence or even a paragraph, as there are more than 200 types of cotton fabrics.

Some are made of long staple fibers, which makes the fabrics smoother and stronger and more suitable for dressmaking than those made with short staple fibers.

A lot of Cotton fabrics, being breathable and lightweight fabrics, are favored as summer weather dressmaking fabrics.

As it is made of staple fibers, cotton fabric is not slippery. But it can be quite drapey. All in all, cotton is a much loved dressmaking fabric.

Which is the best cotton fabric for dresses?

Cotton lawn is a very good dressmaking fabric. Cotton jersey knits and cotton-rayon blends are other suitable fabrics. 

Cotton-lycra wovens and Cotton modal knits have stretch added to them with the spandex fibers and hence have the advantages of both cotton and stretch. You can make form fitting garments with them. Denim-with lycra is suitable for making pants, fitting skirts and dresses.

Eyelet embroidered cotton fabrics can be used to make pretty summer dresses. Other cotton fabrics suitable for dressmaking are chambray, challis, gingham, chintz, cambric, seersucker, percale, poplin and batiste.

Is cotton a durable fabric? Name the most durable fabrics?

Cotton fabrics are quite strong and durable, even when wet, unlike rayon, silk, etc. Some cotton fabrics make the lightest of materials, but at the same time, some cotton fabrics form the strongest and most durable of all fabrics.

It depends on the weave too. Twill weave and basket weave cotton fabrics are quite strong and durable.

Sailcloth, Ticking, Canvas, Gabardine, Chino, Drill, and Denim are the most durable cotton fabrics.

So what makes cotton dubious?

The dubious word comes from the fact that cotton has a reputation as a very polluting product. The manufacturing of cotton fabric involves the use of a lot of chemicals that are said to be harmful to the environment and to the people. The pesticides and fertilizers used in the cultivation of the cotton plant, the chemicals used in the manufacturing process and the dyes used, and the finishes applied to make it ready for the market are all said to be dangerous. So normal cotton fabric is far from the sustainable product that we all want.

What are the other obvious disadvantages?

The benefits of cotton fabric far outweigh its inconveniences. But there are some disadvantages to its functionalities.

Cotton is deemed as an easily flammable material ( it catches fire fast), so in some countries, cotton fabric is banned from usage as kids’ sleepwear.

Cotton can shrink in the first wash. Cotton can fade in the first and subsequent washes.

When wet, cotton can stick to your skin and may refuse to dry as soon as you want it to. Not the best fabric for a vigorous bout of exercise or sports.

Cotton does not stretch along its lengthwise grain. It has some stretch along the crosswise grain.

And it can be destroyed by mildew or rot. And also by too much sunlight. You will have to be careful in storing cotton fabrics away from moisture. Even folding the fabric in one place for a long time can make the fabric weak along the fold. The fibers will disintegrate.

When compared to synthetics, cotton is not easy to care for. It does not dry as fast. Cotton fabrics wrinkle a lot unless treated with wrinkle-free finishes.

How can you be sure that you have cotton fabric? 

Fabrics are usually identified by experts with a burn test. When a piece of cotton is burnt, it burns with a yellow flame and the smell of burning paper. It can still burn even if you remove the source of flame. Learn more on Fabric identification with burn test here.

How to buy the best cotton?

cotton fabric stiff with sizing

Low quality Cotton may be heavily sized. When the sizing is washed away the loose weave of the material will be visible.

A good quality cotton fabric will not have much sizing. You can rub the cotton fabric on the surface with your nail to see if there is sizing – it might come off as white powder. And check closely that the weave is tight and not just held together by the sizing.

When buying cotton look for Mercerised cotton or combed cotton; They are stronger and smoother. Look at the weaves – is it densely made or loosely made. Densely woven fabrics are longer lasting.

Pima, Egyptian, and Peruvian cottons are the best cotton fabrics. Supima (America), Giza cotton (Egypt) are the names you should look out for when shopping for cotton without thinking about the cost.

How can cotton fabric be made sustainable?

You can buy organic cotton, which is made under conditions that are friendlier to the environment.

You can also recycle cotton fabric instead of dumbing it into waste. They can be made into useful things.

Updated on November 19, 2022 by Sarina Tariq

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