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Articles > Fabric: Cotton - Why We Love It [Diane Severin]

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Fabric: Cotton - Why We Love It  Free  (09/13/2011)

In this Article 
  • The history
  • Properties of cotton
  • Working with cotton fabric
  • Design ideas for cotton
  • Discuss this Article on the Boards
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    About the Author
    Diane Severin has had a love of fabrics since she learned to sew at 8 years old. She has been a museum teacher at the American Textile History Museum, where she continued her fabric education, learning to spin and weave. She is particularly interested in the process of making cloth and the history of fabric and fashion.

    A writer by trade, Diane has been the News Editor of PatternReview since 2009 and is busy producing much of the writing that comes from the PatternReview offices, including newsletters, news and announcements.
    Fabric: Cotton - Why We Love It

    by Diane Severin's a fabric so familiar to us that it's hardly any wonder that the Cotton Board calls it "The Fabric of Our Lives." We're used to cotton being inexpensive and readily available, but that wasn't always the case. In colonial America, cotton cloth was a luxury item, imported from India. But today, we use it not only for clothing but for all kinds of things, from dishrags to medical dressings. It's an accepted part of our everyday lives. In fact, cotton is the most widely used fabric in the world.

    Pictured: Cotton Plant. USDA

    As we all know, cotton comes from a plant, a shrub, to be exact, and it grows best in tropical or semi-tropical climates, like India, Egypt and some parts of the United States. In fact, the United States is the biggest exporter of cotton in the world. Cotton is in the mallow family, and like its family members hollyhock and hibiscus, it has pretty flowers. But we care more about the cotton flowers when they have gone to seed. The seed head, or cotton boll, produces fibers that can be spun into thread and then woven or knitted into cloth. Fibers are typically 1/2 inch to 2 inches long, but the longest fibers, those that are longer than 1 1/2 inches, are considered the most valuable for high quality cotton fabrics like Pima and Egyptian.

    Pictured: Unique sea green cotton flower. Used with permission of Sally Fox,

    One of the problems with the cotton plant is that it is attractive to lots of pests. In the past, these pests have typically been managed with pesticides. In recent times, GMO (genetically modified organism) cotton has been developed to combat pests. Herbicides too are applied to cotton fields. But many people who are concerned with our growing exposure to pesticides and herbicides have become interested in the more expensive but safer and sustainable organically grown cotton.


    Cotton takes dye well. But chemical dyes can present a problem for some cotton wearers with allergies. And the dyeing process can be hard on the environment, because the cotton has to be bleached and dyed, resulting in contaminated wastewater that pollutes. Enter Foxfibre. We have always thought of natural cotton as being white, right? Well, it turns out that cotton breeders have selected for that trait.

    Pictured: Natural cotton fiber.
    Used with permission of Sally Fox,

    In nature, cotton can grow in shades of mocha, tan, gray, rust. The Incas, for example, used colored cotton in their textiles. Sally Fox began selecting cotton plants for color and growing cotton, eventually finding two colored cottons that bred true...they didn't change when planted in the field...and FoxFibre was born. Manufacturers rushed to buy her natural cotton. Although her cotton is more expensive than white cotton, manufacturers save $2 a pound by not having to treat and dispose of the toxic waste from the cotton-dyeing process. If you're a spinner or weaver, you can purchase slivers and yarns from her website. You can also purchase fabric made from her natural dyes there. (Read Sally's story. You'll find it interesting. Sally is also a former PR member and loves our site!) We're used to cotton fading after a few washings, but according to the FoxFibre web site, the color will intensify with up to 20 washings.

    Consumers can make another environmentally-sound choice by purchasing organically dyed cotton. Eden Fabrics is one outlet that sells organic and organically-dyed cotton fabric online. Expect to pay more for this option: prices range from $13 to $16 a yard.

    Why is cotton so wonderful and why do we use it so much? First of all, it's highly absorbent and will hold about 25 times its own weight in water. It's also stronger wet than dry (other than getting wet yourself, you don't need to worry about wearing it in the rain). It's perfect for warm conditions, because it absorbs perspiration and breathes (think summer or menopause). You can boil cotton cloth to sterilize it (for bandages, for example), you can iron it at high temperatures, it doesn't mind being handled roughly (kids' clothes), and it wears well (great for just about any of us). It's also hypoallergenic and dust-mite resistant. All in all, wonderful!

    In general, cotton can be easy to care for, but there are some caveats. Fabric that is 100% cotton shrinks, so if you're planning on sewing a garment, you must wash the fabric in hot water first. Also, although cotton takes dye very well, some colors like turquoise blue, shocking pink and black always bleed, and garments or fabric with these dyes should be washed separately or with like-colored garments. These are some situations in which cotton fabric should be dry cleaned or hand-washed or line-dried. Always read the care instructions to determine the best way to clean the garment. Also, experts recommend that you don't use fabric softener; it creates a film around the fiber that prevents it from breathing. And cotton wrinkles, but a swipe with an iron on high temperature can solve that. Click here for more information on cotton care.

      Anyone who has gone shopping for cotton fabric has a dizzying array of selections. Color is only one of the decisions you need to make. There are countless types of weaves available to you, including corduroy, diaper cloth, dimity, drill, duck, flannel, flannelette, gauze, gingham, lawn, muslin, organdy, Oxford, percale, pima, polished, poplin, sailcloth, sateen, Swiss, terry cloth, velveteen, whipcord, to name a few. All these choices make it a great fabric for the sewer who loves diversity.


    Leggings are popular this fall. Sew them in cotton/lycra. Pictured: McCall's 6173

    We associate cotton with the summer, but really it's a year-round fabric. Fashion mavens tell us that cotton is a great transitional fabric for fall, especially in fall colors. Cotton leggings, sundresses with cotton cardis, shirtdresses and maxi dresses are all popular this fall. And white denim jeans? The same fashion experts tell us that it's not just for's fine to wear them after Labor Day.

    Knit cotton tops and dresses are essential for layered winter wear. Their great absorbency makes the fluctuations of indoor heating more bearable.

    And don't forget resort wear! One 2012 resort collection is showing sherbert-colored cardis and preppy cotton trenches in periwinkle blue.

    Pictured: Vogue Patterns 7009 Bridal Accents

    Getting married this year? According to a Cotton Incorporated survey, nearly 70% of women would consider purchasing a wedding gown with cotton as the primary fabric. Women between ages 18 and 24 are more likely to make this choice. Manufacturers point out that cotton fabrics are among the lightest and most luxurious available with a variety of textures.

    Last year, PatternReview held its Natural Fabric Contest at the American Sewing Expo in Novi, Michigan. Cotton was one of the 4 fabrics that was represented there. Although many great garments were entered in that category, Gengal (Jean Anne Tonge) won First Prize (and a nice prize it was too...a $500 gift certificate!) for a jacket and skirt made of 100% cotton denim. She adorned the jacket with 100% cotton appliques, embellished with machine embroidery and highlighted with Swarovski crystals. Gengal's entry is an example of taking a workhorse fabric (denim) and making elevating it to elegance.

    As it was in colonial American days, cotton could become a luxury fabric again. This year, China's demand for cotton exploded; as a result the price of cotton increased dramatically. As of March 2011, Australia had already sold 80% of its projected cotton harvest. The U.S. had already sold all its not-yet-harvested crop.

    So sew with the best cotton now and watch your investment grow!
    Bibliography: Resources:
    Buying Fabric
    "MoPR" (Merchant on PatternReview) often have specials for PatternReview members. Check the Merchant Gallery for more information on these suppliers.
    FoxFibre naturally-colored cotton fiber and fabric:
    Organic cotton fabric and/or organically-dyed cotton fabric:
    Eden Fabrics
    Fabric Indulgence & Art Supply

    Cotton fabric:
    Nature's Fabrics (MoPR)
    Girl Charlee Fabrics (MoPR)
    The Cloth Merchants (MoPR)
    Elliott Berman Textiles (MoPR)
    Fabrics and Trimmings (MoPR)
    Embroidered Seersucker Fabric (MoPR)
    Pink Hollybush Designs (MoPR)
    Sew Baby (MoPR)

    Reviews for Cotton Garments
    The following are just a few of the reviews for garments made from cotton fabric. To find more, click on Advanced Search Tags under the search box on the PR home page and select a cotton fabric.
    Cotton Reviews
    Cotton Jersey
    Cotton Sateen
    Patterns which work well with Cotton
    New Look 6557
    Colette Patterns - Crepe
    New Look 6407
    Simplicity 2365
    Simplicity 2451
    Kwik Sew 2935
    Kwik Sew 3760

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