"King Cotton" - General Information on Cotton

The word 'cotton' brings back memories of my childhood. I was born and raised in Texas, where cotton was referred to as "King Cotton", because it contributed so mightily to the economy of the South.

I remember Daddy driving the family car past the cotton fields on the way to my grandparents' farm in East Texas. I was fascinated by the huge machines which chewed their way across the fields, plucking the dry plants from the earth.

As the cotton plants were picked by the machines, they were also separated - the unwanted stems and leaves being discarded - while the white fluffy bolls were kept. The bolls were then gathered into huge compacted bales.

These huge bales were then hauled off the farm, to begin the manufacturing process. The fibers in the white fluffy cotton bolls became part of many, many products. The one cotton product I want to talk about is good old cotton fabric.

Picture of man sorting cotton using cotton machinery

Worker at a Cotton Gin, circa 1940's

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As I ate my breakfast most mornings, my Mom would iron one of my little blouses - fresh from the laundry - for me to wear to school It was hard for my seven-year-old self to connect all that agricultural activity mentioned above with those little school blouses, but even today, the smell of hot steamy cotton fabric takes me back to the days of school  lunches and recess.

Where Did Cotton Come From?

Cotton has been around forever, it seems. Certainly, bits of cotton found in archaeological discoveries have been dated as far back as 7,000 years ago. And it is widespread. Ancient bits of cotton bolls and fabrics have been found in Mexico, Pakistan, India, Peru, and Egypt. We also know it was grown and used by American Indians in the 1500s.

It was later in the 1600s when cotton was introduced to the North American colonies, with colonists in Virginia planting it along the James River. In 1793 Eli Whitney received a patent for his invention of the cotton gin, which made the work of picking the cotton and processing it much, much faster. This made  the production of cotton fabric more commercially feasible.

What Do We Do With It?

Within ten years of the invention of the cotton gin, the U.S. cotton crop grew in worth from $150,000 to several million dollars annually. Today, the cotton crop is a major player in the financial world, generating billions of dollars in annual business revenue.

Cotton products are everywhere, from cotton washcloths to cotton swabs, from mattresses to cottonseed oil in the the kitchen. It's even used to make explosives and animal feed! But the use that most affects us as sewists is the making of cotton fabric.

Now We're Talking Fabric and Sewing!

Fabric can be woven or knit. Knit fabrics can be weft knit or warp knit. Woven fabrics can be plain, twill, or satin weaves.

Weft knit fabrics are made on circular knitting machines (like large sock knitters; see below.) with the yarn making loops the width of the fabric. This produces the soft fabric that is often used to make underwear and tee shirts. See the illustration above.

Warp knit fabric has the yarn forming loops the length of the fabric, which produces tricot fabrics and cotton lace.

Man sitting at sock knitter, creating knitted sock

Plain woven cotton fabric is a smooth flat fabric. It is often called broadcloth, batiste, and muslin, and is used for blouses, dresses, and sheets. See closeup image of plain weave cotton below.

Plain weave close up

Twill is a diagonal weave, often used to make denim and gabardine, as well as mattress and pillow ticking. It tends to be a closely-woven and sturdy fabric. The image below shows how twill weave is formed.

Twill weave representation

Satin weave (image below) produces a smooth fabric, used for home decoration, upholstery and clothing. It is formed by the warp yarn being taken under the weft yarn only at specified intervals so as to form a regular or irregular pattern on the surface.

Satin Weave Representation

The easiest fabric to learn to sew on is probably pure cotton plain weaves, such as cotton broadcloth. This is partially because the surface is smooth, making it easy to sew in a straight line. It is also a fabric which is very easy to press.

To prepare cotton fabric for sewing, baste the cut ends of the fabric together to avoid massive fraying of the ends, then wash in very warm water, just as you intend to clean the sewn product. After the fabric is washed, it can be dried on warm in the dryer. It may then need to be ironed to remove wrinkles. Use a hot iron with steam for easiest results.

Series of broadcloth and calico fabric bolts

Broadcloth made with cotton and polyester together is more common and can be sewn nicely also, but may require additional care in watching stitch formation and in pressing. This is because the polyester is harder to iron, springing back to its previous form if not ironed with care. Polyester also melts at a lower temperature than that at which cotton is usually ironed and should be ironed at the temperature required by polyester to avoid ruining the fabric.