Fabric Science: Focus on Fibers - Cotton
As quilters, we are told by anyone who knows anything that we should use “100% cotton”.
What’s so great about cotton?
Last time I talked about wovens, knitted and nonwoven fabrics. Today’s lesson is going to be on types of FIBERS that are used to make up those fabrics that I mentioned last time.
There are two main categories of fibers - natural and manmade.
While there are several, if not many, in each of these categories, the first one I want to address is the natural fiber category.
The “big 4” of the natural fibers are cotton, flax - from which we get linen, silk and wool.
Today’s focus is on cotton.
Well, these are what make cotton so good for quilters - exactly why is that?
First of all, you may have heard of “long staple” or “short staple” cotton. That just means the length of the fiber itself. The length of the fiber itself depends on the type of cotton grown. Long is better than short because a longer staple fiber is stronger, has a more luster (sheen), and has a silkier hand (feel) to it than a short staple cotton.
Cotton is grown around the world and because it is a plant - is subject to the whims of weather. This can cause a supply shortage or surplus, which directly influences the price. A few years ago we saw the price of quilting cotton or cotton goods in general go up dramatically as we heard about weather issues in the part of the world where most cotton is grown.
Most cotton is produced in China, India, the USA, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Austrlia, Turkey and parts of Africa (like Egypt). Most of the cotton grown in the USA is short staple cotton.
According to my text, only 1% of the cotton grown worldwide is grown organically. I really don’t want this series to get sidetracked into that area, though. It is a growing area of modern cotton growing industry.
So how long is a long fiber? The fibers are generally between 1/2” and 2 1/2” long. Most of what is used is about 1 1/2” in length. The longer fiber is better because it is stronger and looks nicer - has a nicer sheen and a nicer feel once made into fabric. Extra long fibers start at 1 3/4” in length.
Here’a a video showing what long staple cotton is:
Cotton has many characteristics - let me mention them here - (taken from Fabric Science, pg. 37)
Cotton fiber is strong and resists abrasion
Cotton fibers are hydrophilic which means it can absorb water easily and when it dries it helps you feel cooler.
It can be both washed or dry cleaned - so it isn’t a “picky” or hard to launder fiber.
It doesn’t pill (form little balls of fibers on the outside of the fabric).
It drapes fairly well - meaning it isn’t stiff (like flax/linen).
It feels soft and is is relatively inexpensive as fibers go.
It lacks a lost of luster (sheen), and isn’t elastic. (For quilting purposes, this is just fine but for clothing, not as comfortable.)
It also can get silverfish and be attacked by mildew.
It can be weakened by the finishing processes put on fabrics/goods.
A few interesting things to note - before the Industrial Revolution (late 1700s) cotton wasn’t used very much in the USA because the short length of fibers made it hard to hand card (similar to combing to get out the seeds) and spin into fibers - so wool, flax (linen) and hemp (jute/burlap) were the fibers usually used by the colonists as they are longer.
I’ve also noticed when visiting one of the Renaissance type fairs that I’ve seen here in Poland at castles, that the fabric they they sell for reenactments is very coarse and thick. I suspect they are mostly linen/wool.
In the USA, most cotton is actually grown in California, TX and New Mexico.
I did find a nice You Tube video showing from cotton boll to a bale of fiber. Check it out here!
When my sis and I went on our “Epic Buying Trip” last fall, we drove past some cotton fields. I asked my brother in law to stop and we got some pictures of the plants up close.
I will keep this series focused on quilting cotton. While at times we may wander off into a field that seems a bit far from the main topic at hand, I will do my best to reign it in back to where I’m going - quilting cottons and what makes a good fabric/poor quality fabric as well as various stages and steps in the production of the cotton yardage that lands in your local stores.
I know this is far from complete - and I may add to it later, but I think it’s enough of an introduction to this amazing fiber we all use and love - COTTON!
I want to stop here and mention that while I do use cotton primarily, I also have used poly/cotton, cotton mixed with linen and cotton with a little spandex type of product to give it a little elasticity - in my upcycled projects mainly.
My mom did clean out her fabric a while ago and I brought it back to Poland with me a few pieces at a time and I’ve used most of it up - and a lot of it was poly/cotton.
I have noticed that when using a cotton/linen blend, the fabric is thicker and harder to use in small pieces. If I do want to use it, I try not to use them in very small pieces like 2.5” or smaller half square triangles, for instance.
Until next time with the Fabric Science series!
Have a great day day wherever you are reading this!
Be sure to check out what my sis has for you in the store!