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Cotton Fabric Guide: Characteristics, Uses, Types & More

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Zilingo Editorial Team
Cotton is a natural fiber derived from the cotton plant. Cotton comes in a wide range of fabrics ranging from lightweight voile to heavyweight canvas. With properties such as strength, breathability, and comfort, it is a great choice for making garments, bedding, furnishings, and towels. In this article, we will explore what cotton fabric is, the characteristics of cotton fabric, its uses, and the different types of cotton fabrics.

What is Cotton Fabric?



Cotton is a soft and fluffy fiber that comes from the cotton plant. It grows in a boll or protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plants. It mainly consists of cellulose. The cotton fiber goes through several processes until the cotton strands are spun into yarn and woven into cotton fabric.

Cotton fabric is amongst the most commonly used fabrics in the world. Known for its comfort, absorbency, and durability, cotton makes a great choice for a range of products, including garments, bedding, towels, and curtains.

With an annual global production of 26 million tonnes in 2020,
cotton accounts for 24% of the global fiber market. It is the
second most used fabric in the world with wide usage in the garment and fashion industry around the world. Cotton blends well with other fabrics and comes in a variety of textures, qualities, and prices.


Different Types of Cotton Fabrics



Several types of cotton fabrics differ in softness, quality, and properties. The cotton fabrics differ based on their plant type, thread type, the way their cotton threads are woven, and the production methods used. Below are some different types of cotton fabrics available in the market.




Types of Cotton Based on Thread Type



1. Short-staple cotton (SS):

The short-staple is the most common variety of cotton. It is much cheaper and quicker to grow, process, and weave compared to long-staple cotton. It can be sold at a cheaper price. However, it is not that good in terms of quality.

The small fibers in the short-staple cotton are exposed on the surface of the fabric. It feels rough to touch and is prone to bobble. Short-staple cotton is commonly used for making low-maintenance garments that are suitable for everyday use, such as blue jeans.

2. Long-staple cotton (LS):

Long-staple has fibers longer than the short-staple. It is used for making durable and quality clothing. It is soft and smooth to touch and is ideal for making bedsheets and towels. Long-staple cotton creates fabrics with less exposed fiber ends and stronger threads.

3. Extra-long staple cotton (ELS):

ELS cotton refers to the cotton fiber that has an extraordinary length. The average length of the extra-long-staple cotton is around 40mm. This luxurious type of cotton is used for making garments that are smooth and soft to touch. Due to its high maintenance, it is often challenging for the farmers to grow ELS. Egyptian and Pima cotton are categorized into Extra-long-staple cotton.

According to the Textile Exchange, the length of cotton fibers
based on thread types are as follows:

Name

Length (mm)

Short-staple cotton (SS)

<25

Extra-long-staple cotton (ELS)

30-35

Extra-long-staple cotton (ELS)

>35

Types of Cotton Based on Plant Species



1. Gossypium Hirsutum (Upland)

Gossypium Hirsutum is a type of short-staple cotton that can grow in any type of climate. It is typically grown in Mexico and Central America.

According to Cotton Inc, Gossypium Hirsutum is grown for
extensive use in the United States, accounting for over 95% of the cotton grown on US soil. The length of these fibers ranges between 7/8 to 15/16 inches.

2. Gossypium Barbadense

This variety of cotton is widely grown in South America. Also known as Pima cotton or Extra-long staple, the length of Gossypium Barbadense fiber ranges between 1¼ inches to 19/16 inches. It is one of the most luxurious fabrics in the world. It is soft and smooth and resists wrinkling, fading, and pilling.

3. Gossypium Arboreum and Gossypium Herbaceum

Gossypium Arboreum and Gossypium Herbaceum are also called Asiatic cotton. Gossypium Arboreum is commonly known as tree cotton while Gossypium Herbaceum is also called Levant cotton. Gossypium Arboreum is mostly grown in Pakistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and sometimes in tropical Africa. It is used for making denim, canvas, medical, and industrial textiles. Gossypium Herbaceum is native to sub-Saharan Africa and Arabia.


Types of Cotton Based on Chemical Usage



There are three types of cotton produced based on chemical usage

1. Conventional Cotton

Conventional cotton is vulnerable to pests and relies heavily on the use of pesticides, and insecticides for pest control.

2. GM (Genetically Modified) Cotton

Genetically Modified) Cotton is produced using biotechnology. It is popular among farmers as it provides a higher yield than conventional cotton. GM cotton is an insect-resistant transgenic crop that is created by genetically altering the cotton genome. This type of cotton creates a natural insecticide and develops built-in protection against certain pests.

3. Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is produced without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It is grown using natural fertilizers, compost, and bio-pesticides. To minimize pest infestation, crop rotation is used.

Characteristics of Cotton

The following are some of the common characteristics of cotton fabric:
  • Natural and biodegradable
  • Soft
  • Breathable
  • Good heat conducting properties – keeps the body cool in summer and warm in winter
  • Non-allergenic
  • High rate of absorbency
  • Good strength
  • Easy to clean
  • Drapes well
  • Can be easily dyed
Disadvantages of Cotton Fabric
  • Wrinkles a lot
  • Doesn't hold dye well
  • Can lose color when washed
  • Tends to shrink, especially the first time it is washed


Where is Cotton Used?



Cotton has a variety of uses, including:
  • Apparel – Shirts, blouses, dresses, pants, T-shirts, sweatshirts, childrenswear, suits, skirts, undergarments.
  • Home Furnishings – Bedsheets, upholstery, curtains, rugs, comforters, table cloths, table mats, napkins.
  • Bath Linens – Towels, bathrobes.
  • Other Consumer Products – Cotton is also used in a wide range of products that we use daily, including coffee filters, paper, and bandages.
  • Cottonseed oil – Cottonseed is derived from the seeds of cotton plants. It is obtained as a byproduct of the cotton production process. The oil is used as vegetable oil and for making makeup products, soap, and candles.


Where is Cotton Produced?



According to Statista, China and India were the largest
cotton producers in the world in 2020-21. China produced 6,423,000 metric tons of cotton fiber while India produced 6,162,000 metric tons of cotton between 2020 and 2021.

With 3,181,000 metric tons of annual production, the USA is the next-largest producer of cotton in the same period. Other nations that produce cotton include Brazil, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Australia, and Benin.


How is Cotton Fabric Produced?



Cotton fabric is the product of a lengthy process that involves various steps, including planting cotton seeds picking the cotton crop, and processing it.

Today, machines are widely used to harvest cotton bolls from agricultural fields and to separate the seeds from the bolls. Automated cotton gins are also employed to remove the seeds and any dirt from the cotton bolls. After the cleaning process, the raw cotton goes to a textile production facility where it is carded, spun, and weaved.

Let’s take a look at the steps involved in producing cotton fabric:

1. Picking

Picking is done differently around the world. Some developed countries prefer to perform it using machines while it is handpicked in many developing countries.

2. Cleaning

After picking the cotton fiber, it needs to be cleaned. The cotton is dried out and the fiber is separated from the seeds using a cotton gin. This process removes any stalks, leaves, and other matter that may have caught up when being picked.

3. Carding Cotton Fiber

After cleaning, a carding machine is used to transform the short fibers into longer lengths. The machine breaks up the fiber lumps and smoothens them.

4. Spinning Cotton Fiber

This step involves creating the cotton yarn. At this stage, the cotton fiber is taken to a spinning mill to spin it into cotton yarn. Individual strands of cotton fiber are twisted tightly together to create a cotton yarn.

5. Weaving or Knitting

The next step is to turn the yarn into fabric. It may be woven into certain types of textile by interlacing strands on a loom or knitted by interlocking looped strands using needles.

6. Dyeing

At this stage, cotton yarn is dyed using a variety of chemicals. After dyeing, it is squeezed through rollers to remove any excess liquid.

7. Cutting and Sewing

The finished cotton fabrics are cut, sewed, and stitched to make clothing and other textile products.


Cotton Fabric Examples



Below are a few examples of different types of cotton fabric:


Cotton Fabric

Uses

Canvas

Bags, upholstery

Lawn

Summer clothing

Damask

Clothes, upholstery

Jacquard

Clothes, upholstery

Muslin

Garments

Plaid

Clothes, upholstery

Velvet

Upholstery, clothes

Sateen

Bedding, clothes

Poplin

Clothes, shirts

Voile

Summer clothes

Twill

Clothes

Gingham

Summer clothes

Printing on Cotton Fabrics



When it comes to printing, cotton is one of the easiest fabrics to work with. However, since not all cotton garments are produced with the same fiber composition, they may produce different results. A 100% cotton garment will be finer, softer, and produce a superior print. On the other hand, a blended cotton garment with very thick cotton may absorb the printing ink and produce a faded look. On the contrary, a tightly woven and thin cotton garment may produce a more opaque print.


Washing Cotton Garments



Cotton fabric is easier to wash and care for compared to some other fabrics. You can simply put your cotton garments into the washing machine rather than getting them dry cleaned. However, you will need to ensure that it does not shrink. Cotton fabrics often tend to shrink because their fibers are tightly woven during production. When we add water to this, the fibers relax slightly and make the cotton fabric shrink, especially at higher temperatures. It is ideal to wash cotton garments at a low temperature for the first time.


Recycling or Repurposing Cotton Fabric



Cotton fabric can be recycled or converted into cotton fiber that can be reused in textile products. Cotton recycling can be done in two stages of the cotton product life cycle.
  • Pre-consumer stage: Scraps of yarn and apparel by-products in factories can be recycled
  • Post-consumer stage: Cotton garments, furnishing, and other discarded finished products can be repurposed
Recycling cotton fabrics and finished products can reduce the number of apparel that goes into landfills every year. Another benefit of recycling cotton fabric is that it consumes less water, energy, dyes, etc. as the fabric has already been completely processed.


Cotton Fabric Environmental Impact



Cotton cultivation is associated with several environmental impacts, such as:

1. Excessive Water Consumption

Cotton is a water-intensive crop. A massive amount of water is consumed in the production of cotton and cotton products.

According to Water Footprint Network, it takes around 10,000
liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton. Around 8,000 liters of water, equivalent to 50 bathtubs of water is consumed to produce a pair of cotton jeans.

2. Water Pollution

Cotton cultivation also contributes to the contamination of water.
The cotton crop covers 2.4% of the global cultivated land
but uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides. These numbers are more than any other crop. These pesticides used in cotton cultivation contaminate soil and groundwater. These chemicals may sometimes get into waterways and harm the health of biodiversity as well as humans.

3. Soil Erosion And Degradation

Cotton cultivation also results in soil degradation as it entails extensive use of land, converting large habitats to agricultural use. When massive quantities of water are used on the soil, it results in soil salinization, due to which other crops fail to grow there.

4. Socio-economic Issues

Cotton production also involves socio-economic issues, such as child labor, low wages, forced labor, gender inequality, and health and safety concerns.

According to ILO, approximately 168 million children are
engaged in child labor across the world. Agriculture accounts for the majority of child labor with 59% (around 98 million). Cotton is one of the most common commodities produced with child labor in at least 18 countries.




Organic Cotton – An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Conventional Cotton



Conventional cotton production poses many environmental and socio-economic challenges. To address these issues, an eco-friendly alternative – organic cotton is gaining popularity. As mentioned above, organic cotton refers to the production of more sustainable cotton. It relies on natural fertilizers and bio-pesticides rather than synthetic agro-chemical fertilizers or pesticides and helps in maintaining soil fertility.

Organic cotton removes the risk of allergies as it does not involve the use of any synthetic chemicals. Farmworkers are not forced to work with toxic chemicals and are usually paid fair wages.

There are several sustainability certifications, such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) that define worldwide recognized requirements for organic textiles. These certifications lay standards for various processes involved in the production, such as harvesting of the raw materials, environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, etc. The textiles that are certified provide a credible assurance to the consumers.


Wrapping Up



We hope this article helped you gain an understanding of what cotton fabric is, its characteristics, uses, and more.

If you are looking to source cotton yarn or fabric, cotton blended
fabric, or cotton garments, then reach out to us to find exactly
what you have been looking for without hassle!

Zilingo Editorial Team
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