Material stories: what is cotton?
Cotton is such a ubiquitous fabric, you probably haven’t given much thought to where it comes from. But aside from picturing fields of fluffy cotton-ball plants, how much do you know about this natural fiber?
Cotton is the world’s largest non-food crop - globally, we produce about 25 million tonnes of it a year. From fluffy towels to tough denim, it’s made into an enormous variety of fabrics. But even within these categories, cotton quality varies hugely - and it can be hard to tell what you’re getting.
For the latest installment of our ‘Material Stories’ series, we’re taking a deep dive into this brilliant everyday textile. We’ll be exploring the ways in which you can identify quality cotton, its unique properties and the intricacies of its sustainable credentials.
Cotton is a completely natural fabric, spun from the fluffy fibers produced by these cotton plants.
Where does cotton come from?
First, a quick rundown on how cotton gets from field to T-shirt. The cotton plant needs a warm climate, so it’s usually grown in tropical and subtropical parts of the world (primarily China, India, the Southern United States, Brazil and Pakistan).
Cotton fibers come from the fluffy white part of those iconic shrubs, which is actually a protective case that grows around the seeds. Under natural conditions, the fluff would blow away with the tiny seeds to help them spread.
To make cotton fabric, the cotton is harvested (either by machine or by hand) and the seeds are separated out. Then, the fibers are spun into yarn, and woven into a soft, durable fabric. Humans have been making cotton textile this way for thousands of years - since at least 6000 BC, in fact.
Properties of cotton fabric
The tiny individual fibers of cotton are fine and hollow, made almost entirely of pure cellulose. These characteristics give the resulting cloth a whole host of properties that make it ideal for wearing and living in:
These Turkish tea towels are woven in Turkey from 100% OEKO-TEX certified cotton. They’re soft, absorbent and long-lasting.
What to look for in cotton
The specific properties you want from a cotton fabric will vary according to what your needs are. You won’t want a towel made of denim, for example. But because we’re sticklers for quality, we want to talk about the things you can look out for to help identify quality cotton fabric:
The front side of these Paper Project T-shirts is 100% cotton. The back side is an innovative blend of 53% cotton, 28% paper yarn (to prevent sweat and clamminess) and 19% polyester (for strength).
As a baseline, if you’re buying something that seems like cotton, always check the label to make sure it isn’t a synthetic blend. Blending cotton with synthetic fibers makes the fabric cheaper, but the fabric won’t be as breathable or soft. It’s also usually more prone to pilling.
However, other fibers can give cotton extra benefits - for instance, a small amount of elastane provides stretch. A linen-cotton blend is extra light and breathable to wear, and a cotton-wool blend is warm and luxurious. As a general rule, look for fabrics made mostly from natural fibers.
But how to tell one 100% cotton fabric from another? Here are a few simple tests you can carry out.
- Hold it up to the light - even very lightweight cotton fabrics shouldn’t show gaps through the fabric. If it’s very transparent, this is a sign it hasn’t been knitted or woven very densely, which may lead to quick misshaping and wearing out.
- Uniformity - if you look closely at cotton fabric, you should be able to inspect the individual threads. They should look uniform, in smooth, even rows - unless irregularities are a part of the fabric design.
- Smooth appearance - good quality cotton is spun from long, smooth fibers, instead of short, fluffy ones. This makes it stronger and less prone to pilling. Look for a smooth, almost silky appearance.
Bear in mind that cotton is a relatively cheap fabric to produce, so it isn’t difficult to find 100% cotton products that are both affordable and long-lasting. Very poor quality cotton is usually only found at budget price points.
These plush bath towels are made of 100% organic West Texas cotton. They’re highly durable and more absorbent thanks to a hefty 700gsm weight.
Conventional cotton growing is a very chemical-intensive process. It makes heavy use of a variety of toxic pesticides and fertilizers - as well as a huge amount of water. Organic cotton is grown in a much more sustainable way, benefiting not only the environment, but the people who work in and live near cotton growing areas.
As well as being grown more naturally, organic cotton fabrics are treated and dyed with low-impact, non-toxic substances. Plus, organic cotton farmers are paid a living wage. We always recommend looking for organic cotton over non-organic cotton - look out for GOTS certification (Global Organic Textile Standard).
Extra-long staple, Pima or Supima cotton
Looma sheets are made of silky long-staple cotton sourced from the Himalayan basin. This cotton is also GOTS certified organic and Fairtrade.
These are all names for cotton made from a different species to the norm. These cotton plants produce particularly long, silky fibers (the ‘staple’). When these long fibers are spun into yarn and woven, the resultant fabric is very smooth, strong and durable. Extra-long-staple cotton is thus considered the highest quality cotton in the world, and accounts for around 10% of cotton grown worldwide.
Supima is a trademark that stands for ‘superior Pima’, and is grown exclusively in the United States. The quality and origin requirements of Supima are very strict, so it’s an extra assurance of a quality product (though generally much more expensive).
Egyptian cotton is made from this same extra-long-staple cotton species, but is exclusively grown in the Nile Delta. Be careful about buying products marketed as ‘Egyptian cotton’ - often, they’ll only contain a small amount of genuine Egyptian cotton, or even none at all.
For genuine extra-long-staple Egyptian cotton, look for the symbol of the Egyptian Cotton Association:
The thread count myth
Our American Blossom Linens bedding is made from top-quality 100% GOTS organic West Texas cotton. Because these sheets are made of quality single-ply yarns, they have a thread count of just 180 - but will last a lifetime.
If you’re looking into cotton bedding, you’ve probably been thinking a lot about thread count. Put simply, thread count refers to how tightly woven fabric is - it’s the total number of threads woven into a square inch of fabric. Most people assume that the higher the thread count is, the better the bedding.
However, the reality is that there’s no perfect thread count - and once thread count gets very high, bedsheets can even become stiflingly heavy. Cotton quality is a far more important factor, and if you want light, breathable sheets, a lower thread count may suit you better.
How sustainable is cotton?
This waffle weave throw is made of cotton sourced from the Better Cotton Initiative, a non-profit that promotes better standards in cotton farming for communities and the environment.
Because cotton is a natural fiber that comes from plants, it should be a sustainable product - in theory. However, the realities of modern cotton growing mean most cotton isn’t sustainable at all.
Although cotton accounts for only around 2.3% of the world's arable land, it uses over 16% of global insecticides - many of which are known to cause cancer. To make enough cotton for a single T-shirt requires about 2500 liters of water. The intensive farming practices used to grow this crop permanently degrade soil and pollute waterways, harming both the environment and the people who work on and live near farmed land.
Organic cotton, however, is different. By not using toxic pesticides or fertilizers and using more natural systems to maintain soil, this way of farming cotton is much gentler on people and the planet. Even though just 1% of cotton is organic, it’s becoming much more accessible - so we’d always recommend choosing it if you can.
Cotton versus linen
Our linen bed sheets by Piglet in Bed are less soft than cotton, with a cozy textured feel. They benefit from linen's extra strength and breathability.
Here at Buy Me Once, we talk a lot about the benefits of linen. Like cotton, linen is a natural fiber that’s ideal for making clothing, bedding and other homewares. However, there are a few differences to consider.
Both cotton and linen are soft, breathable fabrics. Linen has the benefit of being extra moisture-wicking, feeling dry even after absorbing a lot of water. Once you start sweating in cotton, it has a tendency to feel damp. However, cotton has a softer feel than linen, which has thicker fibers.
Generally speaking, linen is a more sustainable crop than cotton. It requires much less water to grow, fewer pesticides and the fibers can be processed without chemical treatment. Even non-organic linen is a very low-impact crop.
However, linen is expensive - usually even more expensive than the best quality cotton. Linen is very long-lasting (it’s about 30% stronger than cotton), but quality cotton can last just as long. They’re both great materials to have against your skin - it’s down to personal preference.
Want to learn more about linen? Read our Material Stories article here.