Cotton Fabric and Society
Cotton is the world’s most commonly used fabric. Unlike many of the synthetic fabrics on the market today, cotton has a very long history. It’s is even described, by many, as the driving force behind the industrial revolution. That’s because one of the first factories was a cotton factory in England (of course before England opened their factories, cotton was already a large industry in India).
The reasons are obvious- its so versatile. It can be used in both fitted applications and more flowy garments with lots of drape. It can be worn in hot and cold climates (thanks for its absorbent quality) . It can be used for casual or formal attire. Because of this versatility, and because it’s so soft and comfortable, we use cotton for just about everything from jeans to t-shirts to underwear and pajamas – it’s safe to say that cotton is the staple fabric. It also just happens to be an ideal fabric for beginner sewists (most of the time).
For sewing tips, care instructions and a list of descriptions of light-weight cottons, scroll on down (I will be adding separate posts for medium and heavy weights to keep this post short-ish). For my post on medium-weight cottons, click here
Sewing With Cotton: Tips
- Cotton shrinks- a lot. I recommend machine washing and drying all cotton fabrics before cutting out pattern pieces (If the fabric is dry-clean only, steam shrink it before cutting).
- Because cotton fabrics vary so much, you may need to switch your sewing machine needle. For thin and delicate cottons (such as voile) try using Microtex or other sharp needles. For denim or other heavier fabrics, try using denim needles. It’s also recommended to use a topstitching needle if you chose to use a thicker thread for any topstitching.
- Cotton also wrinkles a lot. It’s a good idea to iron your fabric before cutting (something, out of laziness, I’d rather not to do but try my best to do anyway!).
- Sew with a test scrap before you start sewing your garment. If the tension is too tight, your fabric will pucker.
- Most cotton fabrics can go in the washer. However, it’s recommended that garments are laid out flat to dry or tumble dried on low. For dry-clean only fabrics, you can try gently hand-washing but make sure to test a scrap first.
Types of Cotton
Top weight fabrics are very light and often sheer (and, so, may require a lining or double layers). They are suitable for blouses, skirts, lingerie, sleepwear, shirts, and full dresses. Below is a list of top-weight fabrics with descriptions.
This fabric has tighter weaves and a great drape. It’s also cool to the touch. Perfect for simple tops and lightweight shirts. If you’re making a dress or skirt, try using double layers.
Voile is similar to batiste but tends to be more translucent. This fabric is also soft and smooth in texture. It works well for blouses, skirts (with lining), over-layers, and nighties.
Poplin is a shirting fabric that has a crisp feel and is slightly sheen. It has a cross-grain rib texture created by weaving thicker weft yarns than warp yarns. Some poplin varieties are actually marked with a thread count. It’s also available in heavier weights. Poplin is ideal for warmer months and is great for fine dress shirts, structured tops, sportswear and men’s suits (Another added bonus is that it doesn’t stain easily).
Broadcloth is also tightly woven. It has a smooth texture and is a lightweight shirting fabric. It works well for dressy shirts. It does tend to be a little more translucent, so, it may require a lining or under layer (like a camisole, etc).
This is another shirting material but it’s more sturdy. It has textured basket weave which is made using fine warp yarns and thick weft yarns. Sometimes this is done using two different colors- creating a chambray-like effect. It works well for casual shirts. Depending on the weight, it could also be used for casual skirts and shorts.
The name dobby comes from a type of loom or loom attachment. It also refers to any weave that has small geometric shapes that are incorporated into the material. These weaves are tiny, simple, and textural- not like jacquard weaves. This fabric is versatile and can be used is a vast array of projects- casual shirts, skirts, summer wear or sheets!
Pique fabric is made using a type of dobby weave. Pique weaves can come in a variety of textures- honeycomb, waffle, or bird’s-eye. Bird’s-eye pique has a tiny raised diamond pattern. Woven pique’s are suitable for shirting, ties, waistcoats, and bow-ties. Heavier weight piques can be used for shift dresses or structured skirts.
This cotton is, obviously, intended for quilting. It can also be used for summer blouses, crisp tops, and dresses. However, it wrinkles easily and is generally more stiff than other garment-intended cottons.
This cotton has a looser weave and a unique criss-crossing structure that helps stabilize it. Gauze also comes in wool, silk and synthetic fabrics. Sometimes, it also comes with a crinkled finish. Gauze gathers and drapes very well but is completely translucent. It can be used for sheer shirting, over layers for dresses, skirts, or tops. It can also be used for swimming cover-ups; Anything that isn’t structured.
Some extra tips for sewing with gauze:
- It’s recommended that you wash gauze and let it dry before cutting and sewing.
- You should also use a steamer and your hands to pull it back into its original state if it crinkle.
- Gauze also tends to stretch out during sewing. For this reason, using paper or seam-stabilizer tape could be useful.
- These fabrics fray a lot. Make sure to finish seams with bias tape or french seams.
Organdy was, historically, the choice fabric for petticoats and Victorian sundresses. Organdy is produced by treating plain-weave cotton with acid. This gives the fabric sheer and crisp qualities (similar to ogranza- which is the silk version of organdy). Organdy is often used in embroidery and lace. It’s suitable for interfacing, summer dresses, and sheer tops. It also creates beautiful ruffles, flounces, and volume.
Some extra tips for working with organdy:
- use a smaller needle (60/8 or 70/10).
- Because organdy can be slippery, hand basting the seam allowances can help keep seam allowances aligned.
Dotted Swiss (named for its place of origin) is also lightweight and often sheer fabric with a napped dot design (like a french knot). This fabric works well for blouses, ruffle trims, dresses, or home decor accents. TIP: the dots of this fabric have a nap with a direction. Make sure that nap is facing the same way when you cut your pattern pieces.
Thanks for reading and happy sewing!
The Mood Guide to Fabric and Fashion (2015) New York, New York. Stewart, Tabori & Chang an Imprint of ABRAMS.
Riello, G. (2013). Cotton : The Fabric That Made the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=539304&site=eds-live
Jonella. What is poplin fabric? The legendary origins, benefits, and how it’s made. Retrieved from: https://www.contrado.co.uk/blog/what-is-poplin-fabric-guide/