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What is cotton?

Published: 2019-07-11

Cotton is a natural fiber that comes from the seedpod of the cotton plant and is used to make many fabric types at every price point. The fiber is hollow in the center and, under the microscope, resembles a twisted ribbon. Cotton fiber has been cultivated for 7,000 years, and it seems to increase in popularity as modern technology blends it with other fibers and gives it special performance finishes.



Cotton fibre can be woven or knitted into fabrics such as velvet, corduroy, chambray, velour, jersey and flannel.  In addition to textile products like underwear, socks and t-shirts, cotton is also used in fishnets, coffee filters, book binding and archival paper.


The two most common weaves for cotton are the plain and twill weave. A plain weave produces fabrics like gingham, percale, chambray and broadcloth. A twill weave is more durable and is found in denim, khaki and gabardine. Satin weave is less common with cotton fibers because it’s a little dressier, but it is found in high-sheen cottons like sateen. Fabric Characteristics Cotton fabric is popular because it’s easy to care for and comfortable year-round. In hot, humid weather, cotton “breathes.”


As the body perspires, cotton fibers absorb the moisture and release it on the surface of the fabric, so it evaporates. In cold weather, if the fabric remains dry, the fibers retain body heat, especially napped fabrics. Cotton is easy to clean; it can be laundered or dry-cleaned. It withstands high water temperatures, so it can be boiled and thus sterilized. It does wrinkle easily and is prone to shrinkage; however, blending cotton with other fibers and permanent fabric finishes reduces wrinkles and shrinkage. Functional finishes, such as durable press and mildew-, flame- and stain-resistance, have added to cotton’s appeal.


Even with shrinkage control, most cotton fabrics shrink during the first wash, so it’s imperative to prewash them before sewing. When polyester is added to cotton, it doesn’t breathe well and tends to pill, so many consumers prefer the comfort of 100% cotton. Selecting Fabric A pure, 100%-cotton fabric is the best fabric for beginning sewers; it’s easy to cut and to sew. Almost every type of fabric available can be made with cotton fibers. The challenge is selecting the right fabric for the project. Lightweight cottons are best for shirts and dresses; medium-weight fabrics are suitable.