with Di Kendall

Working together with Janome - Red Block

Cotton is a fibre not a fabric!


What is Cotton?

Cotton is a plant that grows in tropical and sub tropical areas of the world. The plant's flower creates a seed pod that dries and open's to create a cotton boll, it's multi headed and densely packed with fibres. If left, the wind will disperse the seeds  on the end of the fibres just like a dandelion. The cotton bolls are harvested, the fibres are cleaned, combed and spun into thread to make fabric.













Cotton is almost pure cellulose and is a natural plant fibre.


History of Cotton

No one is sure when cotton was first used for textiles. Bits of cotton bolls and pieces of cotton cloth known to be at least 5,000yrs BC have been found in Mexico. Cotton was being spun and woven into cloth in Pakistan 3,000 yrs BC and the Egyptian's were also making and wearing cotton clothing at this time. Cotton cloth was brought into Europe about 800 AD.


By the early 1700s The British East India Company was importing so much cotton cloth from India and China it threatened domestic textile businesses and parliament passed the Calico Acts banning the import of cotton cloth and later the selling of cotton cloth. However the import of raw cotton was exempt and a new industry to process it developed. The acts were repealed which created massive investment in British cotton spinning and weaving and an increase in demand for raw cotton. This demand fed the use of slave produced cotton from America.


Cotton was an important part of the industrial revolution. John Kay's Flying Shuttle, James Hargreaves' Spinning Jenny, Richard Arkwright's Water Frame and Samuel Crompton's Mule all contributed to improved quality and quantity of spun yarn and cloth. Large purpose built factories like Arkwright's Mill at Cromford were built. The mill at Cromford has been restored and includes some small independent retail outlets (including a quilting supplies selling a good range of cotton cloth), also Masson Mill just up the A6 at Matlock Bath has a working museum as well as being a retail outlet.


In the 19th Century Manchester was nicknamed Cottonopolis. It's position on the west of the Pennines means it has a slightly damp climate that provides the area with the optimum conditions for the processing of cotton. Cotton is stronger when damp so the moist conditions, caused when the prevailing weather systems drop rain as the atmosphere rises over the Pennines, prevented the cotton fibres from splitting. The many streams and rivers powered the water mills that ran the factories. The raw cotton was imported, mainly from America, via Liverpool docks and transported to Manchester by rail and canal. Which led to the opening of the  Manchester Ship Canal 1894.


Cotton production gradually declined in the UK, however there is one great news story in recent years. English Fine Cottons has established itself as a major manufacturer of cotton yarn in the UK. Take a look at their website to see the process of turning raw cotton into yarn.


Does Cotton Make an Environmentally Friendly Fabric?

Cotton has long been thought to be better for the environment than fabrics made from oil.  Stacey Dooley’s TV programme raised awareness of the massive amount of chemicals used in both the cultivation and production of cotton and the impact on the work force and environment.  This is a subject worth an article in its own right. Take a look at this article from Fashion Reunited It's an interesting read and points out that genuine organic cotton must be supported by the Global Organic Textile Standard Mark (pic 1 GOTS)


Where Does Cotton Come From?

80% of the worlds cotton is grown in the United States, Brazil, Egypt, India, Pakistan and China with most of the remainder coming from Uzbekistan, Mexico and Turkey. The quality differs due to the soil, climate, fertiliser and pest control methods.


Cotton is a natural coloured, not white, staple (short)fibre. The quality is determined by how light the colour is, fibre length, fineness and strength. Longer fibres can be spun into stronger, smoother yarn.

Cotton grown in Asia is usually lower quality, brown and with fibres often less than 2.5cm long.

99% of the worlds production is Uplands cotton grown in the southern states of the USA. The fibres are fairly white with a staple length of between 2 and 3.6 cm.


Egyptian cotton is mainly used for bedding and just occasionally for shirting. It’s high quality, fine and strong with a staple length between 2.8 and 4.2 cm.


Pima cotton is the best quality and used to be called South Sea Island Cotton. it’s now grown mainly in the United States, Australia and Peru. The fibres are 3.5 to 3.8 cm long and is mainly found in the high end market, like Liberty of London, and for sewing threads.



Cotton fibres are naturally twisted and flat, rather like an uneven ribbon. (pic 2) Yarn and fabric made from cotton in its natural state is soft and lacks lustre. Treating the yarn with caustic soda causes it to swell making it smoother, shinier, and more receptive to dye. Mercerised yarn makes a smoother cloth and is also used for sewing threads.




• It’s stronger when wet.

• Soft, but strong

• Conducts heat well making it warm in winter and cool in summer

• Absorbs moisture easily making it great for towels. It also wicks moisture away from the skin allowing it to evaporate, making it comfortable in hot climates

• Dries relatively easily

• Sustainable and biodegradable


• It shrinks, so it’s best to prewash

• Sunlight weakens the fibres and colours also fade

• Highly flammable

• Goes mouldy if left damp


Cotton Count is explained here


Bi Products of Cotton


Parts of the plant are used in a wide variety of application including, fertiliser and animal feed. The fibres that are too short for spinning into yarn are called linters and are used to create viscose and acetate as well as wicks for candles, twine and paper.


Cotton can be made into many different woven, knitted and lace fabrics from delicate cotton voiles to very heavy cotton canvas.


cotton fields

Images courtesy of

cotton boll