by Elena TranMarch 27, 2021
Cotton fabric is the king of affordable textiles and the beloved child of fashion designers. It feels comfortable in all seasons, easy to sew, and widely available. There is some confusion about which fabric is best, which cotton can be used for shirts, dresses and even face masks. I wanted to dive into this topic and get the answers for you.
What is cotton? It’s a natural fiber collected from the cotton plant. It’s quite a miracle of nature because the fluff of raw cotton just shows up around the seeds as a natural part of plant’s growth. In Europe, Australia and the US, cotton is harvested by machine, but in other developing countries, it is still collected by hand. There is a lot of manual labor involved in cotton production.
The largest producers of cotton are China and the United States. However, cotton fabrics are also made in India, Turkey, Australia, Israel, Pakistan, Brazil, and Greece. The best cotton fabric is associated with Egypt, of course. Who haven’t heard of the Egyptian cotton sheets? But the best cotton actually comes from the US, from the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
If you want to know the specific luxury cotton brands, Pima® and Supima® cotton brands are considered better than Egyptian cotton because the cotton fibers collected are longer than those from Egyptian cotton. (Johnston) Longer fibers are better because the fabric is stronger and lustrous. These are considered elite cotton fabrics.
The main advantage of cotton fabric is comfort. Depending of the weave and the finish, cotton fabric absorbs moisture, it feels soft and smooth to the touch, it drapes very well and it’s easy to maintain. Durability of cotton fabric depends on the length of raw cotton’s filaments or staple used to make the fabric: the longer the staple, the stronger and more durable the fabric.
Cotton fabric is more affordable than linen or silk and there is high demand for comfortable cotton sheets and lovely quilt cotton. Prices for cotton depend on where the fabric is woven and printed. The Egyptian, American and European cottons are more expensive. You can see and feel the distinction in the quality of these fabrics. Basically, when it comes to cotton, you get what you pay for.
For dressmakers, cotton is the easiest fabric to work with. It doesn't slip or move during cutting as silk fabric does, it takes all the stitch types on the sewing machine well and it is quite robust if you need to pick the stitches repeatedly.
If you are comparing cotton fabric brands, there are different grades of cotton. There is standard cotton and luxury cotton. The grading depends on the length of the fiber. Pima, Sea Island and Egyptian cottons are made from longer-staple fiber cotton and therefore are considered finer quality, premium cotton fabrics with the highest yarn count. (Johnston)
It is important to note that everyone has their favorite cotton fabrics. I like cottons that feel soft and the ones with the best drape and colour. Stretch cotton fabrics are one of my favourites as well because they accomplish what plastic surgeons cannot: natural body curves.
If you recall the yellow spots around your armpits, you understand one of the biggest one: cotton reacts with acids and also with oxygen. Contrary to your grandma’s advice, don’t dry your cotton fabrics in the sun because they will turn yellow. Sunlight causes oxidation reaction in cotton and that brings physical changes in the fabric. (Johnston)
Another important disadvantage is that cotton fabrics shrink when you wash them in hot water. That’s why you always need to remember to wash the t-shirts in cold water.
You can use light-weight, medium-weight or heavy-weight fabric for your dressmaking projects. Most cotton fabrics can be used for couture depending on your idea. I often use quilting cotton on my designs and I combine cotton and linen fabric very often because cotton fabrics are available in many beautiful prints and colours. There is no rule about what cotton fabric you can and cannot use. Be original and creative and experiment with your ideas.
If you are looking for the softest cotton fabrics for your dressmaking projects then look no further than light-weight cottons like mousseline, voile, batiste and the luxury lawn cottons. Flannelette and terry are also soft and they are great for baby, sleepwear, and bath projects.
Cotton mousseline is the lightest cotton fabric. It is completely sheer because it is woven with threads so fine that they resemble the spider web. If you've never seen this fabric, cotton mousseline is similar to organza fabric but without the crispness.
If you cannot find cotton mousseline, cotton voile is the next best choice. It is also very light, but less sheer fabric. Note that these light-weight cotton fabrics are more fragile because the yarns are very thin and fine and the weave is a lot looser. This may limit your choices for finishing the raw edges.
Woven 100 percent cotton fabric cotton fabric has no stretch. Knit cotton fabric, of course, is quite stretchy. To make the woven cotton fabric stretchy, a small percentage of elastin fibers (Spandex in North America) are added, around 3 – 5% is typical.
You can achieve the best fluid drape with light-weight cotton fabrics, like cotton batiste or cotton lawn. But all cotton fabrics have good drape depending on your design. This is one of advantages of cotton fabric. Make sure that you test your ideas with a fabric sample first to make sure that the fabric weight is right for what you want to make.
Tightly-woven fabric means just that: the warp and weft threads are packed close together which makes thicker and stronger fabric. If you can see your hand through the fabric, it’s not very tightly woven. You can also tell by the weight. Very light fabrics have less thread count and they are more fragile. Tightly-woven cottons can be used for shirts, dresses and pants.
Thread count typically applies to bed sheets and it is the total number of yarns per square inch of fabric. (Sachs) According to goodhouskeeping.com, when it comes to cotton bed sheets, the best single-ply cotton fabrics have thread counts between 300 and 500 and anything above that is not necessarily better because you can imagine that the more threads you pack per inch, the heavier your fabric feels.
You don’t need to worry about thread count in couture because depending on the design, you need lighter or heavier cotton fabric. What we do care about is the quality of the cotton, of course, but also the weave, colours and texture.
It depends on the design. If you are looking for a sheer blouse, then cotton batiste or cotton voile are both wonderful. The fabric is super soft and semi-sheer. It drapes well, looks amazing and it comes in many solid colours.
For a more opaque fabric, you can choose any medium-weight cotton. These fabrics have tighter weave and, therefore, they are a bit more structured. They are still soft, comfortable and easy to maintain.
And don't forget about that friendly stretch cotton fabric for more tight fitting shirts. They are very flattering and the fabric wrinkles a lot less because of small elastane content.
Cotton fabric is made from a cotton plant. It is breathable, comfortable fabric. Polyester fabric is made from plastic. It feels like cotton, but it doesn’t absorb moisture well, the drawback I am sure you notice every time you wear polyester clothes.
A combination of cotton and polyester is better. One example is a combination of cotton and elastin. The addition of elastine fibers makes cotton stretchy, more durable and wrinkle-resistant. Should you get 100 percent cotton or polyester fabric? In short, cotton fabric is more expensive.
It really depends on your design idea and purpose, and on your sewing skill and confidence level. Cotton fabrics are very easy to sew with and easy to care for. They are widely available, economical, forgiving and straight forward. Make comfy cotton shirts and dresses for the summer, durable cotton shirts, pants and overalls. Cotton fabric absorbs moisture very well, so kitchen towels, table napkins, bedding are the projects you can add to your cotton to do list.
There is no denying that silk fabric always looks like a million bucks. It is the status symbol and the right of passage for dressmakers. Silk is a challenging-to-sew-high-maintenance snob, but, oh, so rewarding to wear. The feeling of silk against your skin is unmistakably amazing. One minor detail: silk is a poor conductor of electricity. Therefore, if you don’t want the world to see your static cling silhouette, invest in the anti-static spray. This is something you don't need to worry about when you sew with cotton fabric.
Johnston, Clive Hallett and Amanda. Fabric for Fashion: The Complete Guide. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2014.
Sachs, Lexie. Does the Thread Count of Your Sheets Matter? Bedding Experts Reveal the Truth. 17 May 2019. <https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home-products/a27494227/best-thread-counts-for-sheets/>.