Cotton is the world’s most important apparel fiber, making up over 50% of the fabric sold throughout the world. This isn’t by accident. With a long history, it has endured because of its unique properties that make it ideal for much of the clothing we wear. It is attractive, durable, comfortable, and proven.
Cotton is divided into various groups depending on its physical characteristics; we will focus on two of the most important, the length of the fiber and its fineness. Cotton fibers vary in length, from half an inch to 2 inches. Higher quality is associated with longer length, and achieving this is more expensive. Longer fibers make up only 3% of the worldwide output, and are reserved for high end shirt fabrics and other like uses. Shirt fabric varieties of this long fiber cotton include American Pima, Egyptian, and Sea Island Cottons. Cotton fineness (the fiber’s diameter) is another quality characteristic; immature fibers tend to be 20% thinner than mature fibers, and therefore are less strong. Very high end fabric producers seek to separate the mature from the immature fibers, ensuring high durability.
This is what makes cotton so comfortable in hot weather. It absorbs the moisture from your skin allowing it to evaporate by passing through the fabric, thus allowing your body to regulate your temperature. This combined with the spun yarns ability to hold the fabric slightly off the skin allows greater comfort than other fabrics in hot conditions.
Heat passes freely through cotton; combining this property along with the absorbency characteristic above, you have an unbeatable fiber for making hot weather wearing fabric. However, in cold weather, this strength is a weakness. Cotton jackets are not good a retaining the body’s heat, and only if very tightly woven and pressed using special techniques will you see an improvement here.
Cotton does not retain its shape well. Fabrics made from cotton tend to wrinkle and do not hold their shape well. This problem can be addressed by specially treating the fabric or blending it with a man made fiber, but you lose a bit of its other properties such as durability and heat conduction by doing so.
Cotton is tough. In fact, when wet it increases in strength by 30%; thus throwing 100% cotton shirts in the washing machine may mean a lot of ironing, but you can be sure the fabric will remain intact. It can be washed with strong detergents, and the only thing you may want to watch out for is it losing some of its color (thus the case for hand washing). Cotton molecular structure resists high heat, so ironing is a great way to get the fabric looking crisp; a quick tip though is that shirts respond best to ironing when they come immediately out of the dryer a bit damp still. And to top it all off, cotton is resistant to moths!
Cotton does have some durability issues. You should use bleach sparingly, as that it weakens the cellulosic fibers of cotton. It should be stored clean and dry to protect from mildew, which digests cellulose and can cause holes if too much time elapses. Cotton is also sensitive to acids, thus fruit and fruit juice stains should be treated immediately.
The Bad –
Mainstream farms use chemical pesticides and bioengineering to get the highest quality and highest yield per acre. The unintended consequences of chemical runoff and more resistant pest insects are well documented. Cotton is water intensive, and the tilling necessary can lead to soil erosion.
Cotton is a renewable resource that has successfully clothed man for centuries. In part to the Green movement, Organic Cotton has risen in importance and economic viability. Organic cotton uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and therefore leaves a smaller footprint on the environment. However, because of lower yield per acre and a lack of economies of scale in the industry, the cost to get this to the consumer often doubles the price. Another niche being filled is the re-emergence of naturally colored cottons. Cultivated for thousands of years, naturally colored cotton can be grown in red, brown, beige, and green with other colors in development.