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Working with cotton yarn

As we head into the summer, a lot of fiber crafters, especially in warmer climates like here in Texas, will turn to something like cotton to make “summer knits.” Cotton can be a great fiber to work with, but cotton has very different qualities from wool, so it’s important to understand the strengths and limitations with cotton and choose projects accordingly. 

First, the obvious: cotton is a plant fiber as opposed to wool which is an animal (protein) fiber. Specifically, cotton is a seed fiber, which means the fiber is found in the pod in which cotton seeds are covered with hairs: those are the cotton fibers. These fiber are hollow tubes, which helps with the “breathability” factor.

When thinking about cotton compared to other fibers, it is stronger than wool but not as strong as silk. It has almost the least elasticity of any fiber (linen is less elastic than cotton) and is also the heaviest of the fibers. But it doesn’t retain heat as much as many other fibers; in fact, it pulls heat away from the body (hence the “summer” use of it).

So what does all of that mean for using cotton in your projects? Let’s first look at the limitations of cotton. Cotton has very little elasticity or stretch. So if you’re working on a project that needs stretch, cotton is not a very good candidate. For example, let’s say you want to make a ribbed hat that fits close to the head. If you make that out of cotton, your ribbing is not going to have stretch to it (or rather, it will stretch out of shape and won’t bounce back like wool), and the hat is not going to cling to your head. If you have a project that uses functional ribbing, that ribbing is not going to be functional in cotton.

Another issue with the inelasticity of cotton is that it can hurt your hands to work with it, especially for longer periods of time. I personally don’t enjoy knitting with cotton for this reason as my hands just ache whenever I work with it. So I’d recommend that you take breaks in your crafting sessions to rest your hands if you’re working with cotton. You could also try working with a yarn that blends cotton and wool to add in a little more stretch.

Cotton can also be very heavy, so if you’re wanting to make a cabled aran sweater, please do yourself a favor and don’t make that out of cotton! First, the cables themselves need a yarn with some stretch, but cables use a lot of yarn. And if you’re using a yarn that is heavy by its nature, there’s going to be a lot of yarn in a cabled sweater and that sweater is going to feel like an anchor while you’re working on it and while you’re wearing it. (If you have your heart set on this, once again, a blend of cotton with another fiber could make it work.)

What about cotton’s strengths? Well, strength itself is one of those, so overall cotton is a fairly durable fiber. (Note: there are several different types of cotton and the way the yarn is created, such as how much twist is used, can affect durability.) Cotton can absorb up to twenty times its weight in water—and that water can evaporate pretty quickly, which creates a cooling effect. (However, in humid climates, it might take cotton a while to dry, which can cause mildew and mold to form, so that’s something to watch out for.) Cotton yarn also can provide crisp stitch definition.

One of the other really great things about cotton is its washability. In general, cotton can be tossed into the washing machine and can be washed with hot water. It can even go into the dryer. Honestly, if you’re making blankets or clothing for babies or kids (where washability needs are a factor), I’d recommend going with cotton rather than acrylic.

Side note: I sometimes get asked if I dye cotton yarns. No, I don’t. The main reason for that is the dye processes for protein (wool) fibers and plant (cotton) fibers are completely different. The dyes themselves are different and the chemical process is different. I don’t have the space or desire to set up a completely different dye process for cotton. (Cotton also requires a ton of rinsing after dyeing and I don’t want to use that much water.) But there are some great dyers who work with cotton or even specialize in cotton.

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