I’ve noticed that if a pattern calls for cotton yarn most weavers tend to dig into their stash and pull out whatever cotton they have on hand. All cotton yarns are not the same. Depending on their type they can behave differently in the finished cloth. Here is a brief rundown of the kinds of cottons that you are most likely to come across when shopping for yarn.
Mercerized Cotton (cone at right) is soaked in a sodium hydroxide bath. This increases the surface area of the yarn and gives it a shiny appearance. Mercerization increases the fiber’s ability to take dye and increases its strength. It also slightly decreases its ability to absorb water compared to unmercerized cotton. Mercerized cotton is the go-to for household linens such as table runners, placemats, pillows, and curtains. It also works for towels, but I prefer unmercerized cotton.
Unmercerized Cotton (spool at right) is just that, cotton that hasn’t been mercerized. It has a nubby appearance that imparts a handspun look to the finished fabric, and it is highly absorbent. Much of the unmercerized cotton you see on cones is a 2-ply yarn with a tight singles twist and a low ply twist that imparts a softness to the yarn.
Cotton Carpet Warp (at left) is a tightly-twisted 4-ply unmercerized cotton that is used by rug weavers. It is externally strong and comes in a variety of colors. It is not known for its ability to impart drape. If you use this yarn in a towel or scarf pattern you are likely to get something that feels like a carpet.
Organic Cotton (at right on cone) in addition to avoiding the use of petrochemicals for its production, organic cotton is grown in a way that it retains much of the yarn’s natural wax. This gives the yarn a lovely buttery feel. You may notice that in its unmercerized form it is shinier than you might expect an unmercerized cotton to be. (The organic cotton on the cone is dyed.)
Naturally Colored Cotton (at right on spool). Cotton—like sheep—used to grow in a range of natural colors from rich browns to lovely greens and reds. The industrial revolution and its need for uniformity almost drove these plants to extinction. Sally Fox rescued it and created a strain appropriate for mill spinning. You can’t always judge its color by what you see on the cone, spool, or skein. Depending on how you finish this cotton it often deepens when washed producing richer more intense hues.
Crochet Cotton (at right) is easy to find in big box craft stores. It is designed for crocheters and it is often used by tatters for its unique construction. To get straight on this, I consulted my friend Andrea Schroer (see below) who is a big tatter and yarn dissector. Crochet cotton is mercerized with tight singles and ply twist. It is spun opposite to most conventional yarns—spun S (left) and plied Z (right). This keeps the yarn from raveling when used for crochet and tatting and the tight twist and ply allows small delicate crochet stitches to pop out of the cloth. (Andrea warns that some of the cheaper “crochet” cotton skips this step and is spun conventionally so crochet and tatters beware!)
The twist and ply direction doesn’t really make a difference to weavers. In my experience what does matter is that it doesn’t bloom as much as other cottons (same as with carpet warp). It may look like the same size as say a 3/2 or 5/2 cotton, but do a wraps-per-inch test to be sure that it will match the sett that you need. (What do those funny numbers mean? Check out this video from The Woolery.)
“Peaches & Creme” (at left) is my catch-all for a 4-ply, unmercerized yarn with moderate twist. It tends toward the light worsted weight. Depending on the quality of the cotton it can be an excellent choice for absorbent soft towels, other household items, and garments. It isn’t going to create heirloom quality fabrics, but it will hold up quite well to daily use. Sometimes the colors fade over time, but it just depends on the quality of the yarn. Lion Brand has a Kitchen Cotton that falls into this category, and it is a step above the rest.
Novelty Cottons (at left) is a pretty broad category. I’m thinking of yarns that are softly spun, textured, and have a larger than expected grist for cotton. They can be used to create lively textured fabric perfect for light-weight, breathable garments, accessories, and decorative household items. They aren’t a great choice for towels or fabrics that are rubbed and wetted continuously. Cotton is an extremely short-stapled fiber and it likes to be spun fine with tight twist. These yarns will tend to pill and shred with vigorous use. (Shaft loom weavers should avoid them as the metal or nylon heddles and reed will rip the to shreds, but rigid-heddle weavers have at it!) There are novelty cottons that are finer and more tightly spun. With these yarns you have to look at what kind of cotton they are made from, the construction, and degree of twist to determine if they are suitable for your needs.
There you have the Yarnworker’s guide to the cotton yarn universe.
Speaking of cotton, I want to give a shout out to Andrea Mielke Schroer of Mielke’s Fiber Arts, who first taught me to spin cotton on a chakra. She volunteered to proof my blog posts before they go live after I wrote about my stepmother’s shameful sewing. I meant to reference the beautiful “sham” she sewed for me! (I am the queen of the well-placed typo or for that matter just regular old typos. Any typos in the final product are utterly and completely my fault-I can’t stop tinkering with text!)
I also can’t talk about cotton without mentioning my friend Irene form Cotton Clouds who has a wealth of resources on her site about cotton and other cellulose fibers.