The Pros And Cons of Knitting With Cotton


Spring/summer is the time we tend to think about knitting a project with cotton. As with any fiber, there are pros and cons, but there are certainly things about cotton that make it desirable if you choose your project accordingly.

Cotton Pros

  • Its high strength creates a durable fabric; perfect for such items as dish cloths, wash cloths, market bags, placemats, and coasters.
  • Cotton absorbs moisture, is stronger when wet and is easy to launder.
  • Dyes beautifully, particularly mercerized cotton. Mercerization is a chemical finish that adds a sheen to the fiber, makes cotton smoother and less fuzzy, and improves cotton’s dyeing properties.
  • Mercerized cotton is stronger and less prone to shrinkage.
  • When blended with other fibers, creates breathable garments for the warmer months. Blends well with wool, rayon, and synthetics.
  • Soft and comfortable next to the skin.
  • Cotton creates great stitch definition.
  • Relatively inexpensive, but paying more for high quality cotton like Pima or Egyptian, will reward you with better fiber properties.

Cotton Cons

  • 100% cotton has poor elasticity, so it feels stiff when knitting. This is one of the main reasons why knitters find it less than appealing.
  • It has low resiliency, so it’s not good at bouncing back to its original shape, causing it to stretch.
  • Although it absorbs water, 100% cotton can be heavy when wet, so clothes can stretch and sag. In high humidity, cotton takes a long time to dry. This quality, makes it susceptible to mildew.
  • Generally cotton has to be treated to prevent shrinkage.
  • Mercerized cotton can be slippery to knit.
  • Dark colors, like red, blue, and black tend to bleed when laundering.
  • Although stitch definition is great, using cables or other dense pattern stitches add weight, and may not be suitable for cotton yarns.
  • Over time with cleaning and wear, a cotton garment may get a worn fuzzy appearance. A wool garment will be enjoyed years longer than one made in cotton.
  • Conventionally grown cotton typically requires pesticides.

Tips For Knitting With Cotton

  • It is probably best to work with a firm not a loose gauge, because the weight of the fiber can cause the fabric to sag. This also depends on the project and yarn weight, a scarf knit in a loose gauge would work fine rather than a cardigan in a loose gauge.
  • Needle choice is a consideration, and a personal preference. Cotton does not glide easily across bamboo or other wood needles. However, with mercerized or slippery cottons, you might choose to use wood. I like metal needles with cotton, even mercerized, because of the tips; easier to insert into the stitches.
  • Wash your swatch to test for dye bleeding, particularly if you are knitting stripes or other colorwork.
  • Make sure to join a new ball of yarn at the edge of your work. Cotton can be bulky, and a join in the middle may look obvious.
  • Take breaks, if you find the cotton hard on your hands. Make sure the knitting is not too tight, or you will have difficulty inserting the needle into the stitches. This is definitely not enjoyable.
  • Approximately a couple tablespoons of vinegar added to the rinse water can stabilize the dye. (And no you won’t smell like a pickle).
  • Although a cotton item may appear stretched after laundering, it will more than likely return back to shape once completely dried. You can machine dry, but only partially; reshape and allow to finish drying flat.
  • Due to its propensity towards mildew, make sure you store cotton items dry.
  • If you are concerned about pesticide usage, organic cottons are available, as well as genetically engineered colored cottons (no dyes).

My favorite cotton to work with is a lustrous, mercerized cotton in a bright color. It wears well, and I love knitting a summer, sleeveless top or a beautiful lacy scarf. Even if you have avoided cotton, give it a whirl, and I know you can find the perfect project for this sometimes misunderstood fiber.

My favorite mercerized cotton summer top.
My favorite mercerized cotton summer top.


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