A selection of cotton fabrics.

Fabric focus: cotton

Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre for fabric manufacture worldwide.

It is made from the soft and fluffy staple fibres that grow in a boll (protective case), around the seeds of the cotton plant. The fibre is mainly comprised of cellulose. Cotton plants are grown in tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, and India. The cotton fibres are spun into yarn and then woven or knitted to create a soft, breathable, absorbent, strong and washable fabric. Depending on the type of cotton fibre used and the method of production, cotton can be used for anything from fine velvets for eveningwear to sturdy work wear.

The world production of cotton is about 25 million tonnes or 110 million bales annually, which accounts for 2.5% of the world's arable land. China is the world's largest producer of cotton, but America has been the largest exporter of cotton for many years.

Types of cotton fabric

Cotton thread can be used to make either knitted or woven fabrics. Many fabrics are made of 100% cotton while some fabrics are made from a blend of cotton with other fibres such as polyester. Cotton can also be successfully blended with elastane to make a stretchy thread for knitted fabrics and for stretch denim jeans.

Cambric: One of the finest and most dense kinds of cloth, historically used in the manufacture of blue work shirts. Also used for pillows/cushions as it contains feathers effectively.

Corduroy: A ridged velvet fabric that has distinctive parallel ‘cords’. It is made by weaving extra sets of fibre into the base fabric to form vertical ridges (called wales). The number of wales per inch of fabric ranges from a very wide 1.5 wales to a very fine 21 wales per inch. The standard size is usually 11 wales per inch. Used for trousers, jackets, etc.

Denim: A sturdy cotton fabric that is woven with the weft threads (horizontal) passing under two or more of the warp threads (vertical). This produces a diagonal rib effect. Only the warp threads are dyed (usually with indigo), while the weft threads are left white. Used for jeans, jackets etc.

Drill: A strong ‘twilled’ fabric, used in men’s and women’s trousers.

Egyptian: A very good quality soft and absorbent cotton, often used for towels and bed sheets.

Flannel: A plain or twill weave fabric with a nap on one or both sides. Generally used for trousers.

Flannelette: A soft fabric with a nap on one side. Often used for nightwear and bedding.

Jersey: A fine knitted fabric that is stretchy. Used for underwear, T-shirts etc.

Knitted: Cotton yarn of varying thicknesses is used to knit socks, jumpers etc.

Lawn: A good quality, finely woven fabric. It originates from Laon in France. It has a silky feel and is often used to make women’s summer clothes.

Mercerized: A process developed in 1844 by John Mercer to give a shiny, smooth finish to cotton fabric. The fabric is singed, then passed through a solution of caustic soda and then rinsed. The process makes the fibres of the fabric swell, giving them increased strength and an increased ability to hold dye. Often used for shirts/blouses/skirts and soft furnishings.

Muslin: A sheer plain woven fabric. Can be natural colour or dyed. Used for window dressing and some ladies clothes such as. scarfs.

Organdy: Very thin and transparent with a crisp finish. Used for eveningwear and window dressing.

Oxford: Has a lustrous, soft finish and is woven in plain or basket weave. Used for shirts.

Percale: A soft, smooth plain weave fabric made from carded and combed cotton yarns. Often found in summer wear and light bedding.

Pima cotton: Also called extra-long staple (ELS), it is a type of cotton grown primarily in Peru, SW USA and Australia. It is considered to be one of the superior blends of cotton and is extremely durable and absorbent. Used for towels and bed sheets.

Sateen: A silky, lustrous satin weave fabric. Sateen often has an increased thread count for extra softness and durability. Often used for women’s shirts, dresses and skirts.

Seersucker: A fabric distinguished by its crinkled stripes, which are made by weaving some of the warp threads loosely and others tightly. Often used for tablecloths, but is also used for women’s summer clothes.

Terry: Manufactured on special looms, the fabric structure has loops of cotton that can absorb large amounts of water. It is used mainly for towels.

Twill: Distinguishable by diagonal ribs on its face, and a soft, smooth finish. Gabardine, serge, and denim are all examples of twill fabrics. Often used for trousers or coats.

Velvet: A soft luxury fabric with a short pile that reflects light, making the colour change depending on the angle you look at it from. It is made by weaving two thicknesses of the fabric at the same time, which are cut apart and rolled onto separate fabric rolls.

Environmental issues in cotton production

Cotton production can be unsustainable due to the massive amounts of water, pesticides and chemical dyes that are used in its production. The quality of life for many cotton growers/workers is also very poor.

Cotton is produced in low-wage areas of the developing world, eg China, India, Africa, Bangladesh and Latin America. It accounts for about 40% of global textile production, supporting the livelihoods of 300 million people (or nearly 7% of all labour) in the developing world.
Irrigation supports 70% of global cotton production and, according to estimates by the Environmental Justice Foundation, 15 to 35% of those water withdrawals are considered unsustainable.

According to the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) the cotton industry accounts for about 10% of all agricultural chemicals used worldwide.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes about 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton, which is roughly the amount required to produce one T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

Organic cotton

This is a natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre. It benefits cotton producers and the environment in developing countries by avoiding the harmful effects of toxic pesticides, and the reduced cost of production improves social conditions. Consumers in the UK also benefit from garments that are manufactured without the use of thousands of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.
More information on organic cotton.

Fairtrade Cotton Programme

This connects farmers with the growing number of businesses seeking to make sustainable cotton a core part of their business. The aim is to use more Fairtrade cotton in the manufacturing of clothing and textiles, rather than create a specific Fairtrade cotton range. This means more Fairtrade sales for farmers and more ways to support Fairtrade through consumer purchasing. More information on Fairtrade cotton.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)

This began in 2005 when a group of commodity experts met in a WWF-hosted roundtable discussion to consider solutions for global agriculture. The goal of the BCI is that by 2020, one-third of global cotton production will be Better Cotton, produced by farmers who:

  • Minimise the harmful impact of crop protection practices.
  • Use water efficiently and care for the availability of water.
  • Care for the health of the soil.
  • Conserve natural habitats.
  • Care for and preserve the quality of the fibre.
  • Promote decent work.

More information on the Better Cotton Initiative.

How to care for cotton