Of all the textiles that surround us in our lives, cotton has to be the most predominant – from a baby’s first onesie to our bed linen and a fair proportion of our wardrobe, including that favourite pair of denim jeans! Cotton plays a huge role in our lives and yet, how much do we know about this much–loved fabric? Have you ever wondered where it comes from and how it turns from a fluffy white ball into your denims? Let us tell you more!
What Is Cotton?
Cotton is a soft, fluffy fibre that grows in a ball (called a ‘boll’) on the cotton plant, surrounding and protecting the cotton seeds inside. These cotton fibres look like fine hairs but have a rough surface, which help the fibres to interlock and bond when they are spun together. The process of spinning cotton fibres creates a strong yarn that is ready to be woven into cotton fabric.
There is evidence of cotton fibres being used in textiles in India as far back as 5000 BC, proving that cotton fabric has been cultivated, woven and worn for millenia. The enduring popularity of cotton fabric is due to its many qualities as well as its relatively low cost. It is thought that today up to 75% of clothing around the world contain cotton fibres, making it the most widely used material fibre. Cotton fabric is breathable, comfortable, absorbent and drapes well and with mass production making it highly available, cotton fabric is an ideal choice for all kinds of clothing, soft furnishings and other textile projects.
What Is Polycotton?
Polycotton is light–weight fabric that blends natural cotton and synthetic polyester yarns. Polycotton benefits from the qualities of cotton and polyester, making it both breathable and durable. With printed and plain polycotton fabrics to choose from, there is plenty of choice for all kinds of projects including clothing, bed linen and craft projects.
Where Does Cotton Come From?
The cotton plant is a shrub that is native to countries with a tropical or sub–tropical climate, providing the perfect conditions for cotton growing – plenty of frost–free, sunny weather together with good rainfall. Cotton is therefore a crop that can grow in many countries around the world and currently India, China and the USA are the largest producers of cotton.
Cotton has been cultivated in India, China, Pakistan, the Americas, Persia and Egypt for thousands of years, however it wasn’t until the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711 A.D that cotton manufacture was introduced to Europe. The technique of weaving cotton yarns into cotton fabric together with the invention of the spinning wheel made cotton manufacture an important industry in Europe. By the 15th century, the cotton trade had become highly profitable and cotton was arriving at ports in large quantities around the continent.
How is Cotton Picked?
Up until the industrial revolution, cotton fibres were entirely harvested by hand – a lengthy, labour-intensive process. As cotton ‘bolls’ ripen at different times, picking by hand could take months. However, in 1794 American entrepreneur Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a device that mechanised the process of separating the cotton fibres from the seeds and helped to increase cotton production. Meanwhile, the industrial revolution in Britain developed a number of new ‘spinning’ machines enabling British spinners to produce cotton yarn at much higher rates. With new, mechanised technology, Britain was producing large–scale quantities of cotton fabric by importing raw cotton fibres, spinning and weaving the yarns in mills across Lancashire and then exporting the cotton fabric to West Africa, India and China.
How Is Cotton Made Into Fabric?
Once the cotton fibres have been separated from the boll, they are cleaned to remove any stalks, leaves and dirt captured during the harvesting process. Cotton fibres are then processed through a carding machine to make long strands ready to be spun into cotton yarn. Cotton yarn will often be dyed at this stage, prior to weaving, if being used for fabrics such as denim and chambray.
To make cotton fabric, the cotton yarns need to be woven on a mechanical loom. The loom will weave horizontal (weft) yarns across the vertical (warp) yarns. Different weights and types of cotton fabrics require different weaves, so a sturdy fabric like denim will likely have weft yarns run under 2 or more of the warp yarns whereas as a plain weave cotton fabric will use one over and one under weave.
How Is Cotton Finished?
Once the cotton fabric has been made there are still a number of finishing techniques to complete the process. Depending on the final use of the cotton fabric, the fabric may go through some or all of the finishing processes so that it’s ready to be used. The finishing techniques include dyeing or printing, a cleaning process called scouring and other processes to create a soft, smooth hand feel and improved appearance.
What Can I Make with Cotton Fabric?
The world is your oyster with cotton fabric – it is a truly versatile fabric to suit all kinds of clothing, accessories and soft furnishings projects. Our 100% cotton fabrics are ideal for dressmaking, bag making, bed linens, cushions, curtains and much more!
Make A Stylish New Outfit
Making your own outfits gives you the opportunity to be truly creative with your style – choosing your own look and print to create a bespoke piece that is uniquely your own. Thinking about making a new item for your wardrobe? Why not browse our extensive range of cotton fabrics and sewing patterns to match your favourite print with a cool new outfit. Our Tilly & the Buttons sewing patterns are award-winning and a go-to pattern choice for their clear instructions, broad range of sizes and stylish designs.
Create The Perfect New Bag
Sometimes finding the perfect bag can be a task in itself – just the right size to carry your essentials but in a style that you love. Which is why making your own can be so rewarding – the chance to design a beautiful bag with all the functions you need and with your choice of fabric! If bag making is your next project, check out our range of cool webbing designs and bag making accessories to complete your piece. Head to our 'top 5 easy bags to make' to give you some inspiration and ideas for your bag making project.
Curtain Making & Soft Furnishings
Our 100% cotton fabrics are also ideal for curtains, bed linens and other soft furnishings. Our range also includes curtain lining fabrics and curtain accessories, as well as cushion pads so you can find all you need in one place. We also have some useful blog posts to help you measure your curtain fabric order and choose the right curtain lining for your project.
How Do I Care For Cotton Fabric?
Clothing and soft furnishings made from 100% cotton are washable, but we recommend to double–check the manufacturer’s instructions or care label first. A clothing item might have an additional textile or interlining that cannot be washed for example.
With so many beautiful projects to be made from cotton, we hope you'll enjoy browsing our extensive cotton fabric collection and planning your next creation! We're always inspired to see our customers' work so please share with us on our Instagram and Facebook pages.