The Pros And Cons of Knitting With Cotton

scarves using different types of cotton yarns
Left: Lacy cowl made with a fine, cotton and wool blend yarn.
Right: Scarf edging made with mercerized, multi-plied, high twist cotton yarn.

Summer is usually the time knitters think about making a project with cotton. There are always pros and cons to the fibers that make up a yarn. Cotton is no exception, and there are characteristics about cotton that make it desirable to knit with, if you choose your project accordingly.

Cotton Pros

  • Tightly spun yarns combined with cotton’s high strength forms durable fabrics. These characteristics make it a good choice for items such as dish cloths, wash cloths, market bags, placemats, and coasters.
  • Cotton absorbs a lot of moisture, and is stronger when wet. These properties make cotton items easy to launder.
  • Cotton dyes beautifully, particularly when mercerized. Mercerization is a chemical finish that adds a sheen to the fiber, makes cotton smoother and less fuzzy, and improves cotton’s ability to absorb dye.
  • Mercerized cotton is stronger than regular cotton, and doesn’t shrink as much.
  • The way cotton is spun affects its elasticity; yarns with multiple plies and twisted types are more bouncy than regular cotton.
  • When cotton is blended with other fibers, the garments are more breathable for the warmer months. Blends well with wool, rayon, and synthetics, add elasticity and resilience.
  • Cotton is soft and comfortable next to the skin.
  • Smooth cotton yarn produces great stitch definition.
  • Cotton yarn is relatively inexpensive, but paying more for high quality cotton like Pima, Egyptian or Sea Island will reward you with a better properties.

Cotton Cons

  • 100% cotton has poor elasticity and is not as resilient as wool. It’s not good at bouncing back to its original shape, and may stretch over time. However, quality cotton typically goes back to shape after washing.
  • Dark colors, like red, blue, and black tend to bleed when laundered.
  • Although it absorbs moisture, 100% cotton can be heavy when wet. Cotton garments are best in warmer climates because of its high moisture absorption, and releases quickly through evaporation, but unlike wool or silk, cotton doesn’t hold heat close to the body.
  • In high humidity, cotton takes a long time to dry. This quality makes it susceptible to mildew.
  • Loosely spun cotton is softer, but more likely to pill and wear more quickly than firmer cotton yarns.
  • Depending on the manufacturing process and yarn type, cotton yarn may be heavy and sag, making it unsuitable for some projects.
  • 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.
  • Generally cotton has to be treated to prevent shrinkage.
  • Conventionally grown cotton requires pesticides. Processing cotton also requires a lot of energy and water, so it’s more desirable to work with organic cotton.

Tips For Knitting With Cotton

  • Cotton yarn works better knit in a tighter gauge than a loose one. Because of the weight of the fiber the fabric may sag. This tendency to sag also depends on the type of project, and the fineness or thickness of the yarn. A scarf knit in a loose gauge is more appropriate than a cardigan knit in a similar gauge, regardless of the yarn weight.
  • Needle choice is a consideration. Cotton does not glide easily across bamboo or other wood needles. However, with mercerized or slippery cottons, wood needles are a great option. I like metal needles with cotton, even mercerized, because  the tips are easier to insert into the stitches.
  • Although stitch definition is good, using dense pattern stitches adds more weight, and may not be suitable for chunky or bulky cotton yarns. A wrap cardigan made with bulky yarn in cables and bobbles makes the fabric too heavy. Stitch definition and colorwork is best with simple stitches. Textured stitches like seed stitch will work, but keep in mind the fabric weight.
  • Unlike knitting with wool, ribbing alone will not draw in a cotton knit fabric. Blended cotton with stretchy fibers alleviates this problem.
  • Make sure to join a new ball of yarn at the edge of your work. Bulky cotton fabric with a join in the middle may look obvious.
  • Wash test swatches to check for dye bleeding, particularly if you are knitting stripes or other colorwork.
  • Take breaks, if you find the cotton hard on your hands. Knitters often find cotton stiff to knit, due to its inelasticity. 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 when cleaning cotton 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 it’s completely dry. 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 more readily available, as well as genetically engineered colored cottons that aren’t dyed.

My favorite cotton to work with is a lustrous, mercerized cotton in a bright color. It wears well, and I love knitting a mercerized cotton summer, sleeveless top or a beautiful lacy scarf. There is no “wrong fiber or yarn”, only the “wrong choice”. Even if you have avoided cotton, give it a whirl, and I know you can find the perfect project for this misunderstood fiber.


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