Did you know that the fiber content of your fabric can affect how long it lasts, how comfortable it feels, and even how sustainable it is?
Today we're going to be discussing the king of the textile industry - cotton! Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber, but there are some facts about it that might surprise you. Let's go over its technical properties, and recommended applications for cotton fabrics before talking about sustainability concerns associated with the cotton industry.
Question: What is cotton fabric?
Let's take a moment to discuss how cotton fabric is made. Cotton fiber comes from plants that have been cultivated around the globe for thousands of years. Most people have seen a dried cotton plant before, but did you know that the fibrous part of the plant is actually a fruit? Prior to drying out and bursting into a fluffy boll, this fruit is green and full of moisture. When mature, each cotton boll contains roughly 500,000 fibers.
Technical properties of cotton fibers
Turning raw cotton into usable fiber is a complex process involving a series of steps known as ginning, carding, and spinning. The properties of cotton fabrics can be affected by the way that the fabric is processed, as well as the quality of the fiber itself.
One of the most noticeable properties when wearing a fabric is its breathability. Most natural fibers, but especially cellulose-based (plant) fibers, including cotton, are very breathable. This sets them apart from synthetic fabrics, which don't breathe and tend to hold in moisture.
Cotton fibers are also moderately durable. The durability of cotton fabrics is affected by the fiber quality, the thickness of the yarns, and other manufacturing processes. And, when compared to protein fibers like silk or wool, cotton can withstand higher temperatures and is less sensitive to chemical breakdown.
Cotton also falls in the moderate range when it comes to heat retention. This is partially due to the way cotton fibers grow, as they have a hollow center that aids in insulation. Another factor that affects insulation is moisture retention and wicking. Cotton is great at absorbing moisture but isn't quick drying, which means it has poor wicking abilities. Due to this, cotton fabric isn't the best choice in extreme cold or other situations where moisture can be introduced to the fabric.
The absorbency of cotton does come in handy though! This property makes it great for making towels and washcloths and contributes to its color retention, as it aids in thorough dye absorption.
Cotton fabrics are also somewhat prone to pilling. Cotton pills more than long filament fibers, like silk or polyester, but less so than most wools. The odds of pilling depend on the quality of your fabric.
Additionally, cotton is hypoallergenic and comfortable against the skin, which makes it a desirable material for clothing. These properties also make it a popular choice in the medical industry, where it is used for gowns, masks, and bandages.
Overall, it's pretty versatile.
The table below acts as a quick reference guide for the properties we covered:
Sustainability of the cotton industry
While cotton has its benefits, there are some concerns surrounding the sustainability of cotton cultivation and production. If you've been shopping with us for a while, you know we believe in the importance of prioritizing both environmental and social sustainability. Natural fiber fabrics are almost always going to be the more sustainable choice, but that doesn't mean they don't leave an impact on the environment.
Conventional cotton growing methods involve the use of harmful chemicals and large amounts of water. Additionally, the textile industry is responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the cotton industry being a major contributor. Plus the pressure to produce more cotton at a lower cost has led to unethical labor practices, such as as worker exploitation and child labor.
Thankfully, efforts to promote sustainable cotton production are gaining momentum. Organic fabric offers slightly less environmental concern than conventionally grown cotton, and recycled cotton fibers can be used to create new textiles and reduce waste.
It's a nuanced topic. As we explore fiber types in the coming weeks, we hope you'll keep in mind that the most sustainable choice is using fabric you already have, but we know education is a valuable tool that helps when you do need to make purchasing decisions.