Cotton: the fabric of our lives… That’s their motto right?
Either way, it is an extremely common but amazingly versatile material used in everything from clothing to currency. When it comes to weaving, it’s actually one of my favorite materials that I use all the time in my own studio!
While most of us probably just buy our cotton yarn from the store (learn about great places to buy yarn online HERE) before it gets close to your loom it first has to be grown.
What do you really know about cotton though? What makes it good for your weaving?
I’ve talked about cotton somewhat in some other blog posts, so you can check out these posts for some more cotton information!
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The cotton that we all know and love comes from a sometimes perennial and sometimes annual plant grown all around the world. It depends on the climate where it’s grown. It is a part of the mallow family of plants – where it is distantly related to 4,225 other plants including okra, durian (the stinky fruit), and hibiscus.
Cotton actually starts out as a flower before turning into the plant we all recognize.
After flowering, the cotton plant produces its fruit – otherwise known as the distinct white fluffy pod or “boll”. As the boll matures it opens up to reveal the sections that get turned into yarn. Biologically, these fluffy sections are what cover-up and protect the seed.
There are four main species of cotton that each have unique characteristics.
The 4 main species
Pima or Egyptian Cotton
Upland or Mexican Cotton
luxurious, long fibers
most common, less expensive
rare, used for muslin and gauze
course with a short staple, seeds can be used for medicinal purposes
The two most common cotton species that you will probably come across are upland and pima.
Upland cotton accounts for about 90% of the world’s cotton usage. This means the cotton you have in your stash is probably upland cotton.
Pima cotton is the premium option you might come across in the yarn store. If you’re looking for the softest most luxurious cotton for your weaving then this is the one you want! Most of us have probably heard of Egyptian cotton sheets or similar fabrics. This is the same type of cotton! Pima and Egyptian cotton both come from the same species, but differ in where they are grown.
Gossypium barbadense originated from the Nile River Valley, but when it was brought over to the United States – agriculturalists worked alongside the Pima Tribe of Arizona to perfect the American Pima cotton.
Pros to weaving with cotton
When looking for cotton yarn to weave with there are a lot of options to choose from. Make sure to check out yarn treatments and specialty yarns to learn more about some of the different options you might come across when purchasing yarn to weave with.
Strong (stronger when wet) and 3x as strong as wool of the same diameter
Cotton’s strength is just one aspect that makes it so good for so many things. It is an excellent choice for warp because of this exceptional strength. This makes it less likely to snap while under tension on the loom.
It also makes it ideal for anything that you need to be strong like most functional weavings.
There’s a reason sheets, denim, and towels are usually made from cotton.
Due to the chemical composition of the cotton it is actually stronger when wet. Where some materials like rayon lose strength when wet and other synthetic fibers like acrylics are not affected by moisture at all. If you are creating a weaving that will be used wet (towels) then cotton makes a great choice.
Depending on what you have created, you may never even need to wash your weaving. Most of the time, you’re not going to be washing a tapestry after it’s finished.
If you are creating functional work then this might be an important thing to consider since functional work is more likely to be used and washed. Towels are a great example of a woven textile that you will probably want to dry quickly.
Moths are the bane of most fiber artist’s (and most people’s) existence. They of course have their place in the world – but they don’t have a place in your studio!
Luckily if you’re weaving primarily with cellulose fibers like cotton then they should really be an issue. Moths are attracted to the keratin found in protein fibers (animal fibers) like wool, alpaca, and silk. Since cotton is made from plants and not animal fibers the moths leave it alone!
While it’s still advisable to properly store your yarn and weavings to protect them from other things like dust and dog fur, the cotton should at least be safe from these pests. Check out how to store and protect your weavings in THIS post.
Sustainable and Biodegradable
Before cotton even comes near your loom it first has to be grown! As a crop, cotton is both drought and heat resistant and therefore is easier to grow and uses less water than growing your lawn. We have also gotten to the point where we can use the whole crop – not just the boll – so that nothing goes to waste. This makes cotton a great choice if you are looking for a sustainable fiber.
Unfortunately, there may come a time when your weaving has lived its life. Since it is a cellulose fiber (made from plants) it is compostable and biodegradable. If you’re worried about the lasting impact of your fiber art then choosing biodegradable fibers is a great option. At the very least, your yarn scraps can be disposed of responsibly if you can’t find a way to upcycle them.
Learn more about recycling/ upcycling your yarn scaps in THIS post.
As discussed earlier, cotton comes in different price points depending on the type of cotton that you are using.
Despite that, it still tends to be one of the more economical options you can choose from when it comes to deciding what yarns you want to use in your weaving. Especially if you are looking at using cotton for your tapestry warp.
The very inexpensive option of using 8/4 cotton rug warp is much less expensive than a similarly sized linen yarn. There are advantages to linen over cotton, but if the price is your primary concern then cotton works very well.
This same cotton is my favorite to use for samples due to the price, but I’ve also used it for finished weavings when they called for it. It also comes in many different colors that you can purchase or you can always dye your own since cotton takes dye well.
Cons to weaving with cotton
If you are looking for a yarn that has some stretch to it, then cotton isn’t what you want. Due to the make-up of the cotton fibers (cells that are stacked on top of each other) they have very little elasticity. With cotton you basically get what you see. If you are planning to make garments out of your woven cotton fabric then you may need some extra darts to get it more fitted.
Elasticity isn’t only determined by fiber and in fact, is also largely determined by the way you use it. Take a look at my post about the difference between weaving, knitting, and crochet to learn more about this.
Beyond it’s strength, this characteristic is actually what lends itself so well to being used as warp. (ok, so this part isn’t a con…)
Due to this lack of elasticity, cotton is prone to wrinkling. Again, depending on what you are weaving this may not even be an issue. Luckily, it is also able to withstand significant heat so it is easy to iron or straighten out.
That being said, it is also highly flammable, so just don’t keep the iron in one place for too long…
While it’s not the fiber most prone to wrinkling (this designation belongs to linen which is notorious for holding on to crimps and bends) it is still significant enough to keep it in mind.
If you’re interested in learning more about cellulose fibers then I recommend The Practical Spinner’s Guide – Cotton, Flax, Hemp. It is targeted towards spinners, but as a weaver, I still found it incredibly interesting. This easy to read book talks about the history of how cotton, flax (linen), and hemp are grown and processed. It also includes tips for spinning. If you’re interested in weaving or spinning cellulose fibers then you should check it out!
Cotton is relatively easy to work with and can be used in any manner of weavings. It’s versatile enough to be used for clothing, towels, tapestries, and anything in between. It’s also one of my favorite weaving yarns to use and start new weavers out with.