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Cotton Yarns: An Introduction to Weaving with Cotton

  • 9 min read
Weaving on a Loom using cotton yarn
Weaving on a Loom (Photographer: ALAN DE LA CRUZ)

Weaving, an age-old craft practised for centuries, continues to captivate fibre enthusiasts worldwide. Weaving with cotton is a popular choice among weavers due to its versatility, softness, and breathability. This article explores the world of cotton yarns, examining their unique qualities, advantages and providing tips for weaving with cotton.

What is Cotton Yarn?

Cotton yarnis made of fibres from cotton plants. Cotton fibre is primarily composed of cellulose, an insoluble organic compound crucial to plant structure. This natural plant-based fibre is one of the oldest known materials and remains a staple in the weaving industry today.

Archaeological evidence indicates that cotton has been cultivated, harvested, and spun for thousands of years. Finds in Mexico dating from 5000 BCE, in the Indus Valley dating from 3000 BCE, and in other regions show that cotton was harvested and spun in different parts of the globe.

Cotton yarn is known for its softness and versatility.

Cotton plants in a farm (Photographer: Trisha Downing | Source: Unsplash)
Cotton plants on a farm (Photographer: Trisha Downing)

The term "cotton" refers to many different varieties of cotton plants that are grown around the world. The most common type of cotton grown is Upland cotton which is a short to medium staple fibre. It accounts for over 90% of cotton grown in the world so unless labelled otherwise the cotton you have in your collection is probably made from upland cotton.

The less commonly grown, luxury, cottons include the Extra Long Staple (ELS) group of cottons. This group includes Egyptian, Sea Island, Pima and “other”. These are all derived from similar strains but thrive in different regions and carry slightly different properties.

How Staple Length Affects the Cotton Yarn

As mentioned cotton comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are different species of cotton plant, and a huge factor of a fabric's texture and feel comes from fibre length or a quality known as “staple."

There are significant differences between short, long-staple, and extra-long-staple cotton.

Cotton plants (Photographer: Clayton Malquist | Source: Unsplash)
Cotton plants (Photographer: Clayton Malquist | Source: Unsplash)

How is Long Staple Cotton Different?

Short-staple cotton is grown on tall stalks, while long-staple cotton grows on shorter stalks. As the cotton's staple length increases, its soft, silky feel does as well. Long-staple cotton is also known to produce more durable fabric. For this reason, long-staple cotton is a popular choice for making towels, sheets, and other quality fabrics.

Extra-long-staple cotton produces some of the most luxurious fabrics. The species of cotton that produces these fibres is a more challenging crop to grow, making them more scarce compared to plants that produce short or long-staple cotton.
The long and extra-long-staple cotton family includes:

  • Egyptian cotton, named for its origin, is authentically Egyptian if it comes from the plant Gossypium Barbadense, is grown in Egypt and is certified Egyptian cotton. The unique climate in Egypt enables the longer staples/fibres to grow, which can then be spun into extra-fine threads.
  • Sea Island cotton, one of the rarest and finest cottons, (Gossypium barbadense) was developed in the 1700’s and was common until the early 20th century, when a widespread weevil infestation across the Caribbean and USA almost wiped it out. Surviving seeds were saved and cultivated, ensuring that this precious cotton was preserved. Today, Sea Island Cotton is primarily grown in Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua.
  • Pima cotton is a long staple variety of cotton, very similar to Egyptian cotton, that grows in dry areas. It is commonly grown in the U.S., Peru and Australia.
  • Note a 4th category also exists in the ELS group and this is broadly termed “other”. This cotton is grown using Pima and Egyptian cotton seeds in areas non-native to cotton. To confuse things, many of these growers adopt the term “Pima” or claim the term “Egyptian cotton” if the cotton contains any Egyptian cotton, whether long staple or not.

Harvesting Cotton Fibres: How it's Done

Cotton must be harvested in a timely manner to ensure the crops aren’t damaged by rain, which could negatively impact yield. It’s also important that cotton isn't harvested before it’s fully mature, as this would negatively impact fibre quality.

As the crop matures, it is defoliated, the bolls burst open to reveal the fluffy white lint, and preparation for harvest can begin. Cotton fibre is harvested by handpicking cotton from the field or using large mechanical harvesters.

As cotton is harvested, it is wrapped into large round bales and sent off to a cotton gin to separate the seeds from the lint. The lint is baled and then sent off to mills to be further processed into yarn and textiles.

Mercerised vs Unmercerised cotton.

Cotton yarns are great to use for many types of knitting and weaving projects. Not only will you find different varieties, as discussed above, but you’ll also typically find it available as mercerised or unmercerised. This refers to a treatment that may or may not be applied during processing. Which of these cotton types will suit your craft project? Read on to find out.

Mercerised Cotton

Mercerisation is a chemical process applied to cellulosic fibres like cotton to improve its shine and lustre. It is often referred to as pearl or "perle cotton" in the world of fibre arts.

The mercerising treatment, a caustic solution, is applied as the cotton yarn or fibre is held under tension at room temperature. This is then neutralised with an acid bath. This whole process results in the swelling of the cell wall of the cotton fibre, causing an increase in the surface area and reflectance, which adds a lustrous appearance to the fibre. This acid bath also enables the cotton fibre/yarn to accept dye more readily resulting in more vibrant long lasting colours.

Any cotton fibre can be mercerised, but long-staple varieties respond best.

Maurice Brassard Mercerised Egyptian Cotton - Ne 20/2 (NM34/2)
Maurice Brassard Mercerised Egyptian Cotton - Ne 20/2 (NM34/2)

Gassed Cotton

Gassed cotton refers to yarns that have been exposed to a hot gas flame very rapidly, which removes any fuzz or excess lint on the thread. This process is mostly done with mercerised yarns, and the result is a smoother, brighter appearance.

Unmercerised Cotton

Cotton, in its natural state, is unmercerised. Unmercerised cotton usually has a slight fuzz and softness but has a lesser sheen than mercerised cotton. This makes knit or woven fabrics with unmercerised cotton feel nice against the skin. Unmercerised cotton is also more absorbent than mercerised cotton.

Maurice Brassard Unmercerised Cotton Weaving Yarn (Ne 16/2)
Maurice Brassard Unmercerised Cotton Weaving Yarn (Ne 16/2)

Unmercerised cotton is best to use for baby garments, face towels, cotton tees, and many more, especially because fabrics made with unmercerised cotton become softer with age.

Long staple unmercerised cotton have more of a sheen and lustre than short-staple unmercerised cotton yarn.

Which is Better: Mercerised or Unmercerised?

The answer depends on personal preference and the type of project you are working on. Neither type of cotton is definitively better than the other.

If you are creating fabric for strength and durability for constant use, then mercerised cotton will be a better option for you. However, if you create an item that relies on absorptive properties, softness and drape, you're better off with unmercerised cotton. It is important to note though that mercerised cotton will still soften over time, with wearing and washing, and will still be useable for creating garments. Mercerised cotton is also often a more popular choice for accessories such as scarves as the colours are more vibrant and reflective than those of unmercerised cotton.

What is Recycled Cotton?

Recycled cotton can be sourced from either pre-consumer waste (discarded yarns and fabrics from manufacturers/fashion houses) or post-consumption waste (used clothing and household items). However, the largest amount of recycled cotton is sourced from pre-consumer waste.

Venne Eco Jeans Recycled Cotton - Thread Collective Australia
Venne Eco Jeans Yarn

Recycled cotton fabric is transformed into cotton fibres that can be reused in new textile products like yarns.

Why Choose Recycled Cotton Yarn?

It’s easy to see why we love recycled cotton yarn! Not only do we reduce our impact on the environment, but we also create beautiful products that are good for both people and the planet.

Recycling is a growing trend across all industries, including textiles. In fact, according to the Textile Industry Association, textile recycling increased by over 20% from 2010 to 2016. Recycling is a way to conserve resources while reducing pollution. In addition to being environmentally friendly, recycling helps extra-long-staple cotton produce a softer, silkier product that is perfect for clothing, bedding, and upholstery.

The Benefits of Using Cotton Yarns for Weaving

When weaving with cotton yarn, it's important to know its advantages and disadvantages so that you will be able to pick your project accordingly. There are many benefits of using cotton fibre for fabric making.

Cloths woven in a Maurice Brassard and Venne cotton and cottolin threads.
Cloths woven in a Maurice Brassard and Venne cotton and cottolin threads. Photo: Samantha Gehrmann

The benefits of weaving with cotton yarns include:

  • Cotton is easy to work with because it doesn’t easily fray, and it holds its shape well.
  • Cotton, when woven into fabrics and garments, is durable and machine-washable.
  • Cotton is naturally absorbent, breathable, and soft. Garments made with cotton are great for hot weather.
  • Cotton is a relatively lightweight fibre, making it great for summer clothing and accessories.
  • Cotton fibre has hypoallergenic properties. It is unlikely to cause irritation to the skin when worn.
  • Cotton is easy to dye.
  • Cotton is an excellent insulator.
  • Cotton is available in a wide variety of colours and textures.
  • Cotton fibre is extremely versatile. It can be used in weaving and knitting a range of fabrics like corduroy, chambray, and lace.
  • Cotton is biodegradable.
  • Cotton absorbs moisture easily.

Disadvantages of Using Cotton Yarn

Cotton is a great material for many crafts, but it also has a small number of disadvantages that you need to be aware of so that you can have a successful and satisfying experience.

  • Dyed cotton yarns, especially those dyed with dark colours may experience colours running or bleeding. To counteract this separate fabrics when laundering into like colours and consider adding a colour catcher).
  • Non elastic which can make it hard on your hands to knit with but it can also make items prone to stretching.
  • Heavy. As cotton is a relatively heavy fibre those making garments need to be particularly aware that the end weight of the item they're making could cause it to sag. Fortunately you can choose yarns with a chainette construction or which are blended with other fibres to reduce this weight.
  • Lastly, cotton isn’t always the most ethical option available. Many crops are grown in dry areas. However, they are water-intensive crops, leading to inefficient water use. Cotton is also often treated heavily with chemicals such as pesticides and in certain areas throughout the world, forced labour and unfair working conditions still exist. We encourage you to choose yarns with traceable and transparent origins.

Weaving with Cotton Yarn: What Can You Make?

Cotton yarn has always been a staple fibre for weavers. If you want to make your own clothes, cotton yarn is a perfect choice. You can create sweaters, vests, skirts, dresses, shirts, pants, jackets, coats, scarves, hats, mittens, socks, gloves, blankets, and so much more!

It's also great for making a wide variety of household items, including pillowcases, towels, rugs, tote bags, washcloths, and potholders.

Cotton Fabric Care

Cotton fabrics have the tendency to shrink after washing. So, if you’re weaving yardage to sew, be sure to wash your fabric before cutting, and when making towels, scarves, or other woven projects, be sure to sample so that you can calculate shrinkage before embarking on a large project. Typically it is between 10 and 20% but this will vary between cotton types and woven structure. If you’re knitting with cotton yarn be sure to swatch so that you can also calculate shrinkage for your project.

How to Make Your Own Cotton Yarn

If you enjoy weaving with cotton and also love to spin yarn you might like to try making your own cotton yarn! All you need is cotton fibre and a few basic tools. Below you can find a basic overview of how to spin cotton.

Step 1: Prepare your Cotton Fibre

If your cotton fibre is not “ready to spin” you'll need to prepare it. To prepare cotton fibre for spinning, you’ll need a carding tool, such as a cotton hand carder. Card your cotton fibres together while removing vegetation and any remaining seeds as you spot them.

Step 2: Spin the Fibre

Cotton needs a lot of twist to hold the yarn together so you’ll need to use one of the following a tahkli, chakra, spinning wheel with a fast ratio (15:1 would be a good place to start) or a fast/lighter weight drop spindle. It is typically spun using a woollen draft due to its short staple length.

Step 3: Wash the yarn

There are a few ways spinners like to finish their handspun cotton. Some choose to do nothing, some wash as they would their handspun, in hot/warm soapy water, and others boil it for 30 minutes or so with a teaspoon or 2 of baking soda.

Simmering your cotton yarn is particularly useful if you're spinning natural-coloured cotton, as this process will deepen and alter the natural colours. If you’re simmering dyed yarn we recommend leaving the baking soda out to avoid altering the colour.

Step 4: Dye the Fibre (Optional)

Once you have finished spinning your fibre into yarn, you have the option to dye it or maintain its natural colour. Follow the manufacturer's instructions or a natural dying guide for best results.

Cotton Yarn Recommendations

If you are ready to try weaving with cotton, here are some high-quality cotton yarns you may want to consider.

Get Started On Your Craft: Buy Cotton Yarn Online

Cotton yarn is one of the most versatile weaving materials. It’s ideal for both home textile projects and apparel. It is durable, washable, and inexpensive, making it the perfect staple for your weaving studio.

Thread Collective offers cotton yarns and threads in a number of different styles, weights, colours, and blends. Choose from brands like Ada Fibres, DMC, Full Circle Fibres, ITO, Maurice Brassard, Suomen Lanka, Venne, and many more. Browse our broad range of cotton yarns and get started on your craft!

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