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Fabric Friday: The origin and characteristics of cotton

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Workshops - specialty vintage topics' started by denisebrain, Sep 3, 2021.

  1. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG Vice President Staff Member VFG Past President

    Cotton is a fiber obtained from the cotton plant, a bushy plant of the genus Gossypium. The cotton fiber grows from the seeds of the plant in the seed pods, called bolls. The fiber, which is 90% cellulose, is naturally fine, soft, fluffy and absorbent. The length of a cotton fiber can vary from under 1/2” to over 2” with the longest fibers being the most desirable for fabric production. Cotton fiber is usually cream-colored, but also may be grown in green or brown. The cotton plant grows best in tropical and sub-tropical environments. U.S., China, India, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Brazil, and Turkey.​

    Under a microscope, cotton fibers looks like a ribbons, with twists and bends—

    The history of cotton literally parallels the history of civilization. Evidence of isolated civilizations growing cotton and creating fabric from its fiber dates its domestication to at least 6000 B.C.E. in both the Americas and South Asia. The word cotton comes from the Arabic word word قطن (qutn or qutun). In all the places cotton fabric was developed, the same basic tools were devised for processing the fluff, combing, spinning, and weaving. ​
    Early denim? Don't look for the Levi's label.
    This 6,200-year old textile of indigo-dyed cotton was discovered at Huaca, Peru in 2009. The cotton is even of the same class as Egyptian cotton, gossypium barbadense.


    The gin
    The first cotton gin, a handheld tool that separated cotton fluff from the plant seeds was made in India around AD 500. Eli Whitney’s 1793 mechanical cotton gin lead to greatly increased production in the US and Europe.

    Have a look at a handheld gin vs. a mechanical gin and you can see why that new gin made such a tremendous difference:

    Then there was the BIG growth spurt.
    Textiles were the leading industry of the Industrial Revolution, and fabric mills ran mechanized ginning, carding, spinning and weaving, powered by central water wheel or steam engine.

    Here are some of the terms related to cotton production:

    The process by which short fibers are removed from longer staple fibers, creating a finer, smoother raw material for fabric. This process is used for all worsted wool and for combed cotton.

    Brushed fabric has a raised nap created in a finishing process in which brushes are used to raise fiber ends. The term usually refers to the finishing process used on cotton, while napping is the term used for wool.
    Brushed denim​

    The process of cleaning, untangling and straightening wool, silk and cotton fibers.

    Mercerizing involves the saturation of yarns or fabric in a caustic alkali solution which permanently swells the fibers. The process makes the yarn/fabric more lustrous, strong, dyeable, and mildew-resistant. A Lancashire, England calico printer named John Mercer patented the process in 1844.

    Although mercerizing is used on linen too, it is most effective on combed cotton.

    A method, mainly applied to cotton, of pre-shrinking cloth before cutting and producing, to reduce the shrinkage which would otherwise occur after washing to less than one percent.

    This 1949 Life Blouse has it all—combed, mercerized, sanforized... No wonder it is America's Greatest Blouse Value!


    Here are some of the highest-quality cotton types. The best have certain qualities in common: Softness, durability, absorbency, holds dye well, breathability, non-static and insect resistant.

    Named for Pima County, Arizona, pima is a select strain of Egyptian cotton grown in the United States since 1910. It is a long-staple cotton with the average staple averaging 1 9/16” (4 cm), making it among the best quality varieties for strength and softness.

    Very similar to pima cotton. The two are even in the same scientific class: gossypium barbadense. It has many of the same qualities, but it is grown in the Nile River Valley in Egypt.

    Sea Island
    Sea Island cotton’s fineness comes from its long staples (1 3/8”-2 1/2”), along with the fineness of its fibres, its strength and softness. It is always destined for the best finished goods.

    The cotton gets its name from the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, where it has been grown since the late 18th century. It was probably brought from the West Indies, through the Bahamas.

    There are many fabrics characteristically made of cotton, and you can see some of them here:

    Questions? Comments?
  2. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG Vice President Staff Member VFG Past President

    Last week Marian made a great point about the feel of a fabric as a way to know it. Hand is the tactile quality of a fabric, which can be perceived by feeling it. The words used to describe a fabric’s hand can help give a sense of how it feels and looks like to wear and how it will behave while sewing: Bumpy, smooth, crisp, drapable, firm, limp and fuzzy are a few examples.

    I'm sure many of us know a plain-weave cotton by feel, and maybe even can tell when the cotton is blended with polyester. Obviously the type of fabric will give cotton various hands, but it is generally soft and dry.
    Vinclothes likes this.
  3. Vinclothes

    Vinclothes Alumni +

    I have hesitated to post this tip for identifying fabric. Touch it with your tongue. I know, gross! But try it on a garment of your own that you know the fabric of, just before they go into the washing machine. I used this method infrequently at the museum, only when I was completely stumped. There, I touched the inside of a hem, for example, and immediately wiped it with a disposable wipey.

    To me, if there is polyester blended with the cotton fabric, it has an oily feel on my tongue. Another clue about poly. If a rack is outdoors, like outside a thrift store or at a yard sale, garments with poly will have a shine to them. 100% cotton and linen have no luster in the sun. Yes, you use all your senses in identifying fabric.
    Vintagiality and denisebrain like this.
  4. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG Vice President Staff Member VFG Past President

    I have never tried that Marian—so you literally do use all your senses for identifying fabric!

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