Cotton Fabric: Properties, Pricing & Sustainability (2022)

Cotton plant

Most of us are familiar with the cotton commercials that said, “Cotton, the fabric of our lives,” you may even hear the jingle in your head as you read that line.

Cotton fabric has indeed been around a long time, and especially in America, it is a fabric that is part of our everyday existence. Cotton is soft, breathable, and durable, which are just three reasons it is such a beloved textile.

Fabric Profile
Fabric Name: Cotton
Synonyms: Egyptian Cotton, Pima Cotton, Denim 
Fiber Type: Natural fiber
Breathability: Very breathable
Absorbency: Not very absorbent
Characteristics: Soft, breathable, prone to wrinkles, durable
Washing Requirements: Wash in medium or high temperatures
Common Uses: Shirts, jeans, underwear, socks, sheets, pants, skirts, blouses, t-shirts
Heat Press Temperature: Iron on high, 380 degrees

What is Cotton Fabric?

Cotton cloth is made from the soft, fluffy fibers that grow on the cotton plant. Although cotton is often blended with other fabrics, it is an all-natural fiber with no synthetic components. Cotton is believed to have originated in India, but it didn’t become a popular fabric globally until the Industrial Revolution. 

Cotton clothes became very popular in Europe in the 19th century because it was considered exotic. Cotton was a textile produced in the Americas or India and imported to Europe. It also became a popular fabric among British people living in India during British Imperialism. 

Exoticism aside, cotton is a durable, soft, and breathable fabric and is incredibly versatile. Cotton textiles can be manufactured organically and woven at various thread counts; the higher the thread count, the softer the cotton. High-quality cotton typically has a thread count; Egyptian cotton can have a thread count as high as 800. 

Cotton vs. Modal vs. Rayon

The main difference between cotton and modal and rayon is that cotton is a natural fiber, and rayon and modal have synthetic components. Modal is a type of rayon; both fabrics are made from regenerated cellulose and synthetic fibers. 

Modal and rayon are about 50% more absorbent than cotton. In addition, modal is durable, isn’t prone to pilling, and doesn’t shrink or wrinkle like cotton. Modal is also more eco-friendly than cotton because it requires less water than traditionally grown cotton.

Rayon is an incredibly versatile fabric, and it can be made to mimic the feel of cotton and linen, silk, wool, and linen. However, unlike cotton, rayon should be dry-cleaned, making it a less manageable fabric for everyday wear. 

100% cotton cloth is a natural fabric and is biodegradable; however, because rayon and modal have synthetic components, they cannot be considered organic or biodegradable. 

Types of Cotton Fabric

Cotton cloth is one of the most versatile types of fabric on the planet as a result, and there are many different types of cotton. Cotton material comes in different colors, weights, textures, and styles.

Generally, cotton can be broken down into light, medium, and heavy-weight cotton. In the following few sections, we will look at the different cotton fabric weights and the characteristics of each style. 

Lightweight Types of Cotton

Lightweight cotton is one of the most common types of cotton; the category includes Pima cotton, Supima cotton, Egyptian cotton, short stapled cotton, and long stapled cotton. Lightweight cotton is usually loosely woven and commonly used for blouses, dresses, tops, and underwear.

Lightweight cotton holds color and patterns well. Egyptian cotton is considered the softest of all the different types of lightweight cotton. Egyptian cotton is commonly used for high-end sheets and bedding. 

Pima cotton is another type of lightweight cotton, and it is considered the most durable type of cotton. Pima cotton is commonly used for clothing, bedding, robes, and nightgowns. 

Medium-Weight Types of Cotton

Medium weight cotton is typically 200-400 gsm and is a popular fabric choice for dresses, pants, lightweight jackets, upholstery, tablecloths, and curtains. In contrast, medium-weight cotton is thicker and heavier and is less prone to wrinkling than lightweight cotton. 

Medium weight cotton is the most common fabric used to make t-shirts. Mediumweight cotton cloth texture is comparable in weight and feel to linen. 

Another style of medium-weight cotton is flannel, flannelette, or brushed cotton. Flannel and flannelette are popular fabrics for pajamas and nightgowns.

Quilting cotton is another style of medium-weight cotton. Quilted cotton is usually a plain and closely woven fabric.

Heavyweight Types of Cotton

The third category of cotton fabrics is heavyweight. Heavyweight fabrics weigh more than ten ounces per square meter and are considered highly durable.

Heavyweight cotton makes excellent insulation and is a popular choice for winter bedding, coats, and upholstery. Because cotton is a thin fabric, even heavy-weight cotton isn’t bulky to wear.

Denim, knit cotton, and wool cotton are three types of heavy-weight cotton. Denim was one of the fabrics that put cotton clothing on the map when during the 19th-century blue jeans became the staple of blue-collar, working-class America. 

Cotton Fabric Characteristics

Cotton clothing and fabric have many wonderful qualities. The chief cotton fabric properties include its softness which is lightweight, breathable, and inexpensive. However, even though cotton is lightweight and breathable, it is also a fairly durable fabric. 

In addition to the already mentioned cotton fabric qualities, cotton has excellent heat retention making it an excellent choice for bedding year-round. Cotton is an easy fabric to wash and dries quickly. Cotton is prone to wrinkling but can easily be ironed and shaped at home, and it doesn’t require dry cleaning. 

Cotton also wicks moisture away and is fairly absorbent, although many fabrics are more absorbent than cotton. Cotton is a naturally hypoallergenic fiber, and cotton farmed and manufactured organically is considered very eco-friendly.

Even cotton that is manufactured traditionally is more eco-friendly than synthetics since the process doesn’t involve a lot of harsh chemicals or toxins.

Downsides of Cotton Fabric

Despite all the positive characteristics of cotton fabric, there are a few negative traits are worth mentioning. Cotton fabric comes in a range of thicknesses and styles and is considered a luxury fabric in some instances.

However, cheap cotton fabric has a tendency to rip, stretch out of shape, and pill. Good quality cotton shouldn’t stretch, which means you can’t force it, or it could tear.

Another downside to cotton fabric is that even the most luxurious and soft cotton fabric is prone to wrinkling and shrinking.

Having fabric that wrinkles and shrinks can be a real negative, especially since high-end modern cotton fabric bedding can be rather expensive; it is, however, possible to find good cotton fabric quality products at a reasonable price. 

It is possible to prolong the life of your cotton clothes and bedding by adequately caring for them; however, even with the most careful of regimens, cotton will eventually shrink. 

Common Uses of Cotton Fabric

Cotton is one of the most widely used and versatile fabrics worldwide; it is estimated that about 75% of the world’s clothing contains some amount of cotton. When most people think of cotton, they probably think of t-shirts, denim jeans, and bedding, but cotton is used for so much more! 

Another widespread use for the fabric is cotton sewing material used for quilting, insulation, and batting. Because cotton is breathable yet warm, it is an excellent material to line bedspreads, jackets, vests, and suits. Cotton is also used to make curtains, table cloths, and upholstery.

Manufacturers also use cotton to make bath towels, bathrobes, bathmats, blankets, duvets, and medical supplies like cotton balls, medical applicators, gauze, bandages, and rolls. 

Cotton fabric durability is so rugged that a final common use for the textile is industrial tarps and threads. Cotton is undoubtedly a fabric loved and used globally by people from all walks of life.

Cotton Fabric in Cloth Diapers

While it may not be the most spoken about fabric when it comes to cloth diapering, cotton fabric is commonly used to make prefolds, flats, and diaper inserts. Cotton fabric texture is soft to the touch, and it wicks moisture away, making it an excellent choice for your baby’s bottom.

The natural cotton fabric color is off-white or yellowish-white, and you can purchase unbleached cotton fabric or unbleached cotton flats and prefolds. Unbleached cotton costs slightly more than unbleached fabric, but the difference isn’t staggering. If you’re using cotton prefolds and flats, you will also need a waterproof diaper cover to prevent leaks. 

Cotton is an absorbent fabric, but not as absorbent as some other natural fabrics, so some parents choose to double cotton with another absorbent fabric like hemp, bamboo, or microfiber. Doubling layers in your cotton cloth diaper is a good idea at night or if you have a heavy wetter.

Cotton Fabric Pricing

The price of cotton fabric is incredibly reasonable, especially compared to many other high-end fabrics on the market. Cotton fabric pricing is based on quality, thread count, and weight.

On average, cotton fabric by the yard costs between $3-$12. It is even possible to find cotton as low as $1 or $2 a yard, but the cotton fabric quality may not be the greatest, and you may only be able to find limited colors and patterns. 

Higher-end cotton, like Egyptian cotton, is more expensive and costs roughly $18.99-$24.99 per yard. A set of Egyptian cotton sheets can cost anywhere from $55 to $150 per set.

Cotton cloth diapers are some of the most affordable cloth diapering options. Parents can purchase 10-packs of prefolds and flats for about $20. Unbleached and organic prefolds and flats are slightly more expensive, roughly $35-$40 for a pack of ten. 

How is Cotton Fabric Made?

Cotton is a natural fiber that requires several steps from start to finish. The first step is collecting the cotton bulbs and removing the leaves from the soft, fluffy, protective casing called the boll that covers the seeds; the casing makes cotton fabric. 

Traditionally, the separation of the boll was done by hand, primarily slave labor in the U.S., but in the late 18th century, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a mechanical device that speeds up the separation process. 

The bolls are separated, cleaned, and then carded, which turns the bolls into long strands. The strands are then spun to create yarn. 

The final processes cotton goes through will depend on the intended purpose of the fabric. For example, the virgin fabric may go through a series of chemical processes and be dyed before being woven into a specific cotton textile.

Where is Cotton Fabric Manufactured?

Cotton fabric was first produced in India and used for centuries. India is still one of the largest producers of cotton globally, producing more than six million tons annually. China is the second-largest cotton producer, typically producing just under six million tons per year.

The United States holds the third-place spot producing roughly four-and-a-half million tons a year. Other major cotton producers are Australia, Brazil, and Pakistan. Cotton grows best where it is warm and typically is planted in the spring and needs fifty-five to eighty-five days to mature. 

The interest in organic and ethically made cotton has created an opportunity for many U.S. cotton manufacturers. One such company is appropriately named American; they grow and manufacture all their products in the U.S. Another U.S. company called American Cotton also grows and sews all its products domestically. 

The cotton fabric price for U.S. products may be slightly higher than imported products because they offer fair wages and run factories following ethical and eco-friendly practices.

Cotton Fabric Environmental Impact

Cotton is considered the least environmentally friendly natural product. Traditionally grown cotton contributes to soil erosion and uses large amounts of water. Additionally, much of the cotton grown outside the U.S. is grown and manufactured in near slave-like conditions.

Organically grown cotton doesn’t use pesticides or fertilizers, no harsh chemicals which could harm the plant and wildlife are deposited into the soil and water. As a result, it also uses much less water and doesn’t contribute as drastically to soil erosion. 

Other natural textiles like bamboo, hemp, and linen grow much faster, use less water, and don’t erode the soil; in fact, hemp is believed to enrich the soil where it grows and is considered an excellent group to use in crop rotations. 

Because cotton is a natural fiber, it is biodegradable, which is a bonus over synthetic materials, which fill up landfills and add to pollution.

Cotton Fabric Certifications

As a fabric produced from natural fibers, cotton is eligible for a wide range of certifications. If the cotton is grown organically, U.S. farmers can apply for USDA Organic certification. The certification applies only to the growing of the cotton and not to the fabric. 

Supima cotton is a luxury type of cotton grown in the U.S. Supima cotton represents only 1% of cotton grown and uses extra-long staple fibers to make superior cotton in strength, durability, and softness. Any products grown with Supima cotton will bear the name on their label. To learn more about Supima cotton, you can check out the Supima Cotton Association.

Cotton that is grown outside the U.S. is eligible for the European Standards certification and, if grown organically, the Global Organic Textile Standard. 

The final certification cotton is available to receive the OEKO-TEX Standard, which is considered the gold standard for many textile manufacturers. 

History of Cotton Fabric

Being a natural fiber, cotton fabric history goes back thousands of years. The earliest archeological evidence of cotton is from India and dates back to about 5,000 B.C. It is also believed that in the Americas, people were also using cotton around the same time. 

Cotton was also widely used in China around 4,000 B.C. and throughout the middle east. However, despite being popular throughout Asia, Cotton did not make its way to Europe until the middle ages. Europeans in the middle ages thought that cotton was a mysterious plant grown in India or from sheep that grew on trees!

While immensely popular in the Americas, cotton was not the fabric of choice in England. The UK had placed heavy taxes on cotton in an effort to promote wool sales. In 1744 the government repealed the taxes on cotton. Child labor was central to the growth of the cotton industry, and many parents pushed their children to work to bring extra wages into the home. 

Because of its strength and durability, denim became the staple clothing of men working on the American railroads and mining industries. Eventually, blue jeans became one of the most prevalent pieces of clothing worldwide.

Cotton Fabric Alternatives

Cotton is an incredibly versatile fabric used for a variety of products; therefore, it has many reasonable alternatives.

Bamboo and hemp are two natural alternatives to cotton and can replace the cotton fabric in clothing, bedding, and cloth diapers. In addition, bamboo and hemp are both more absorbent than cotton and more eco-friendly than non-organic cotton. 

Bamboo and cotton are both durable and incredibly soft because of their long fibers. Bamboo is also better at wicking moisture away to keep you cooler in hot weather. In addition, Bamboo sheets and clothing are more breathable than cotton; however, they tend to cost more and cotton is usually softer.

Hemp is a reasonably new textile on the scene, especially in America, where it was illegal to grow industrialized hemp for most of the 20th century. Hemp has a lower environmental footprint than cotton, even organic cotton, and rarely requires the use of fertilizers or pesticides.

Hemp can be used to make all of the same products cotton does, even denim, and it is durable, more absorbent, and holds color better.

FAQ

What is cotton fabric?

Cotton is a natural fabric made from the cotton boll that protects the seeds. It can be grown and manufactured organically.

How to soften cotton fabric?

Repeated washings can soften cotton. You can also use fabric softener on cotton textiles.

How is cotton made into fabric?

The cotton boll is separated from the plant and is cleaned and stretched into fibers. The fibers are then woven into fabric.

How to tell if fabric is 100 cotton?

The products label should indicate the percentage of cotton. Cotton is often blended with other textiles, so always check labels first if you want 100% cotton. 

What is the difference between cotton fabric vs. polyester?

Cotton is a natural textile made from the cotton plant; polyester is a synthetic fabric made from plastic polymers. Cotton is typically softer than polyester.

What is the difference between cotton fabric vs. lyocell? 

Lyocell is made from regenerated cellulose, usually from birch trees, and cotton is made from the cotton plant’s boll. Lyocell usually costs more than cotton.

What is the difference between cotton fabric vs. bamboo?

Bamboo is usually more breathable and better than wicking moisture away than cotton. Cotton tends to be softer than bamboo; however, bamboo will get softer over time.

What is the difference between cotton fabric vs. viscose?

Viscose is made from a combination of wood pulp and chemicals, and cotton is made from the cotton plant’s boll. Both are soft and breathable, but viscose is considered semi-synthetic.

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