The purpose of this article is to answer ten of the most important FAQs regarding cotton, its characteristics, qualities, properties, and use. Why it is so important and who can benefit from the article? We believe that it would be especially valuable for those who’d like to know more about cotton and its properties as well as to most people, in general.
Natural fibers were once much more popular than man-made fibers. Cotton was king. Not anymore. Today, the increasing demand for highly functional fabrics for high performance gradually dethroned cotton. However, cotton is still finding applications in many industries including leisurewear and low-intensity activities such as yoga. Actually, cotton is the most popular natural fiber as its production accounts for around 90% of the overall production of natural fibers. Nowadays, it accounts for 25% of the world fiber production and is the second most popular fiber behind polyester.
Photo by fred moreno
It is time to find the answers to the 10 frequently asked questions about cotton:
Is cotton breathable?
The short answer is “Yes”. Cotton textile is breathable and non-allergenic, which makes cotton clothes and undergarments comfortable to be worn close to the skin.
Is cotton good for hot weather? (Does cotton keep you cool?)
Yes, cotton is good for hot weather. It is a good conductor of heat, making cotton clothes cool to wear. Moreover, cotton absorbs water and dries slowly making it highly suitable for walking in high temperatures. The mechanism is simple but effective: hot weather increases perspiration, sweat is then transferred to the fabric surface where it evaporates cooling the body.
Comfort is very important in hot environments. There are several factors that have marked importance on comfort. For example, the comfort ability of clothing for hot climates depends on factors like weight, thickness, breathability, moisture stability, flexibility, softness, and design of the clothing. Thus walking in hot weather requires loose-fitting clothing made from lightweight cotton fabric.
Is cotton warm enough for winter?
Cotton is a good heat conductor and can be warm enough for winter. Of course, except for the fabric, there are many other factors that make a particular garment suitable for cold weather. But let’s first mention the main principles for cold-weather clothing:
- You need to keep your clothing dry and clean. Make sure that you don’t get your clothing wet either from the outside or from the inside (don’t overheat).
- Layering your clothing is a key factor in maintaining thermal comfort.
- Still air insulates extremely well and provides more thermal insulation.
Now more about the most important factors for cold weather outfits:
It’s extremely important as breathability ensures comfort to the wearer.
- Moisture transfer properties of fibers and fabrics
The thickness and weight of the fabric affect heat and moisture transfer as fabric thickness is probably the most important factor determining thermal insulation. Thicker and multilayer fabrics provide better insulation because they could trap more air in the fabric or between the layers of the clothing respectively.
Fabric weight is another important factor as regards winter clothing. As a rule, low weight increases the comfort of the wearer. Of course, lightweight fabric won’t do its job unless it can provide the necessary thermal insulation.
- Garment design is very important for cold weather
Garments should shield you from the elements. Hence, the design of the clothing should the cold air out keeping warmth in. Potentially weakest points include the collar, cuffs, ankles, zippers, waist opening. So, typical features of cold weather clothes include adjustable high collar with chin guard, watertight zippers with Velcro storm flaps, hook-and-loop cuffs, adjustable waist hem, etc.
- Fiber fineness, structure, and shape
The fiber shape and structure can either increase or decrease the fabric thermal insulation by increasing/decreasing the amount of dead air entrapped. Hollow and crimped fibers are better at increasing the thermal insulation.
- Density of the fabric and its thermal insulation capacity
Thermal insulation differs significantly with different weaves. For instance, close-woven fabric structures with densely packed fibers have been quite popular for jackets and outerwear (Ventile), in general. In such structures, it’s important that the fiber is breathable. Tightly knitted fabrics can be even better at entrapping air than woven fabrics.
- Surface properties (such as smoothness) and chemical finishes applied to fiber and fabrics
The application of different finishes can also seriously influence the thermal insulation of a set piece of clothing. Different water-repellents are used for rain gear. They increase the ability of the garment to repel water and wind while reducing its breathability.
Keep in mind that cotton clothes are no good for high-intensity activities in cold conditions. Why? Winter performance clothes need to be wind-resistant and capable of providing thermal insulation without being too bulky. Moreover, they should allow moisture transfer from the body to the environment. Cotton clothes are slow to dry, which leads to an accumulation of moisture inside your clothing system. As a result, your clothing ceases to provide proper thermal insulation often resulting in the development of dangerous conditions such as hypothermia.
Is cotton fabric stretchy?
Compared to other fibers, the elasticity of cotton is relatively low so no, the cotton fabric is not stretchy. Actually, untreated cotton fabrics crease badly because they are not extensible.
Table 1: Tenacity/elongation for fibers
Source: High-Performance Apparel*, p.79
Cotton fiber has poor elastic recovery relatively, i.e. it is relatively inelastic. The reason for this is its crystalline nature. Generally, fibers with good elasticity (wool, polyester) maintain their shape and products made from such fibers recover from wrinkling. However, products made from partially inelastic fibers such as cotton are not easily stretchable, do not recover from wrinkling, and stretch out of shape.
Table 1 above shows the tenacity and breaking elongation of different fibers. The tenacity indicates the strength of a fiber, while the elongation is a measure for the resilience of the fiber expressed as percent elongation taken at the point of breaking. Cotton’s tenacity is somewhat average, while its typical elongation of only 3-7% is extremely low in comparison to polyester, acrylic, nylon, and wool. This means that cotton fiber is not easily stretchable and once stretched, it is prone to some permanent deformation. That’s why cotton fabric and cotton clothing do not have any elasticity. This leads to restrictions in movement, which is one of the key requirements for sports and activewear.
Why is cotton so comfortable to wear?
Cotton has some excellent properties that make it comfortable in normal wear situations. Here are the most important things that make this natural fiber so comfortable to wear:
- Absorbs a lot of water and releases it to the air without making the wearer feel uncomfortable, which makes the material cool and comfortable in hot weather as well as easy to wash and dye.
- It is soft and breathable so cotton feels good close to the skin.
- Cotton is hypoallergenic and does not irritate the skin.
- Good heat conductor – keeps the wearer of cotton clothing cool in hot conditions and warm in cold weather.
All these properties make cotton comfortable to wear for all activities that do not cause or require profuse sweating. In other words, cotton will keep the microclimate dry and comfortable in normal wear situations. This leads us to the next question:
Is cotton good for hiking?
The answer to this question is both “Yes” and “No”. Cotton clothes dry slowly so they aren’t ideal for activewear worn in cold, wet, windy, and winter conditions. However, loose-fitting cotton garments are ideal for hot weather trekking because of their excellent wicking properties and a relatively long time to dry. Keep in mind that cotton socks aren’t recommended for hiking no matter the conditions.
Cotton clothing is extremely popular for desert hiking
Photo by Nathan McBride
There are a lot of requirements for sports textiles (including those suitable for hiking). They must be comfortable, relatively elastic, breathable, light, durable, with good heat and electrical conductive properties, moisture-wicking abilities, to be able to manage sweat to keep the body dry, and to offer sufficient UV protection. It’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to achieve all of these properties in one single solution. That’s why manufacturers often use blends and new structures in addition to classic fibers such as polyester, nylon, wool, cotton, etc.
Cotton was very popular for sportswear because it’s comfortable and absorbs perspiration but the man-made textiles offer much more – quick-drying and shape-retention properties as well as low weight even when wet (synthetics retain little moisture so they don’t saturate quickly unlike cotton) and easier maintenance. Additionally, cotton loses its insulative abilities when wet and clings to the body causing discomfort. Nevertheless, some cotton blends (such as poly-cotton, cotton and nylon, cotton and Lyocell/Tencel) are still used for performance wear and can be used for hiking and backpacking-related items. In such blends, cotton is almost always at the outer side.
Why do we prefer wearing cotton undergarments?
Undergarments serve primarily as a hygiene layer as they are worn close to the wearer’s skin. Due to this, next-to-skin clothing needs to keep the skin relatively dry to ensure good hygiene. Many people have an allergic reaction to certain fibers like wool. Thus, it is best if undergarments have antimicrobial properties to reduce the chance of dermatitic skin reactions. They should also minimize the retention and emission of odors generated from the body. Another important property of good underwear is the ability to remove or dissipate moisture from the skin. Last but not least, undergarments should be easy to wash and clean preferably after each wear.
Cotton has many properties that make it preferred fiber for next-to-skin clothing. For example, it’s soft, hypoallergenic, does not retain odors (actually it does retain odors but less than man-made fabrics like polypropylene or polyester), is easy to wash and has good wicking abilities. So it’s hardly surprising that 100% cotton underwear has been popular not only among the general population but also in the military. Keep in mind that cotton is not suitable next to the skin for those practicing sports or medium-to-high-intensity pursuits. Fibers such as wool, special polyester fabrics, and other hydrophobic, wicking, and quick-drying textiles are better options.
Is cotton fabric waterproof or water-repellent?
The short answer is “No”. However, the densely woven breathable fabric called ‘Ventile’ is made of extra-long staple cotton. This cotton fabric is breathable and weatherproof. Though the fabric is advertised as weatherproof, it’s technically slightly waterproof. The swelling of the fibers when wet prevents the further passage of water. This way Ventile provides excellent protection against the wind, rain, snow, and cold. It’s used in outdoor sportswear and performance garments.
Do cotton clothes shrink?
Just like most other natural fibers, cotton is easy to clean. However, cotton clothes may shrink during laundering especially when strongly alkaline detergents are used. Always check the care instructions before washing cotton clothes to make sure that you follow the best practice.
Cotton clothes can also shrink during drying. This happens when excessive drying is applied. To avoid it, your best option is to air dry them. Another good option is to remove cotton clothes from the dryer when they are slightly damp.
To achieve improved functionality and optimized performance, cotton is often blended with other fibers. Note that clothes made from such cotton blends often do not shrink and wrinkle.
Cotton is a classic material for manufacturing high-quality shirts
Photo by Lena Kudryavtseva
What are the uses of cotton?
Cotton is a versatile fiber with many excellent properties and abilities such as the ability to absorb moisture, breathability, and strength (it’s stronger when wet so cotton goods can be washed regularly). They have made cotton widely used in various industries. It’s used in many apparel, homeware, outerwear, and industrial products. Here are the main uses of cotton:
The comfort, softness, easy laundering, and the non-itch feel have made cotton a classic fiber for making apparel. Trousers, shirts, denim jeans, dresses, tactical and military clothing, hosiery, hats, and undergarments are among the most popular garments made from cotton.
High-quality bed sheets, pillowcases, and towels as well as carpets, blankets, window shades, flannel for work clothes. Cotton is also used for home furnishings (upholstery, curtains) and a ton of other home applications.
We mentioned earlier that cotton is a good heat conductor. This makes it suitable for manufacturing tops, jackets, and coats.
- Industrial products
- High-performance products
The Ventile fabric, suitable for extreme and hostile environments, is made from 100% quality long-staple cotton fibers. Cotton and cotton blends are among the materials used for making firefighting protective clothing (both Proban-treated and Pyrovatex-treated cottons are flame-retardant), performance wear and sports garments, smart textiles.
Cotton is among the most popular and widely used fibers in the world. Its softness, breathability, hydrophilicity, good heat conductivity, versatility, and antimicrobial properties have made it a leading fiber in many industries. Cotton may not be king any more but it is still here and it will stay because of its valuable characteristics and properties.
* In J. McLoughlin, & T. Sabir (Eds.), High-Performance Apparel: Materials, Development, and Applications, 2018, Elsevier Ltd.
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