What is cotton? The characteristics and properties of cotton
It is very likely your wardrobe is filled with cotton. The characteristics of cotton make it perfect for all types of fabric, and as a result it has been used for thousands of years. But what are the characteristics of cotton, and what unique properties does it have?
Here we will uncover what makes cotton so special.
What is cotton? A short overview
The cotton that you are familiar with grows naturally in warmer climates around the globe. It belongs to the genus Gossypium, and as a natural material is primarily made from cellulose, the material which all plants are made from.
Cotton is actually referring to part of the cotton plant which grows the fluffy cotton fibres - the boll. The boll is the seedpod of the cotton plant and grows to around the size of a golf ball. After the cotton plant flowers, the boll starts to grow.
Each boll contains around 7 or 8 seeds inside, attached to each are the cotton fibres that look like seed hairs. Each seed may have as many as 20,000 fibres, which means as many as 150,000 in each boll. These bolls are harvested, cleaned and spun into the yarn before being woven into the soft durable fabric we recognise.
Cotton is grown in over 80 countries across the globe. Cotton seeds need a lot of sun, so warmer climates without frost are ideal. Wild cotton first was domesticated in Asia, Africa and South America as long ago as 6000 years, but only made its way to Europe in the later middle ages.
What are the characteristics and properties of cotton?
Cotton has a number of characteristics and properties that make it suitable for fabric, these include:
- Comfortable: Cotton is incredibly comfortable to wear
- Soft: The cotton plant is naturally soft and fluffy and cotton fabric retains that soft feel
- Natural fibre: Cotton is made from cotton fibres, a natural plant based material
- Absorbent: The space between cotton fibres means cotton is absorbent and can wick moisture from the skin
- Breathable: The gaps in the fibre also makes cotton fabric breathable
- Drapes well: Cotton hangs from the body in a naturally fitting shape
Durable: Cotton is strong, and actually gets stronger when wet. The secret to any sustainable wardrobe is helping your clothes last longer, which makes cotton perfect for fashion
- Machine washable: Cotton’s strength when wet means you can let the washing machine do the hard work and not have to worry about wear and tear
- Easy to colour/print: cotton fibres can absorb colour well, making it easy to dye
- No static: Cotton does not conduct electricity, therefore you won’t get a static shock like some synthetic fabrics
These characteristics make cotton a popular fibre within the textile industry.
So we know the characteristics of cotton make it great for fabric, but the next question on our lips, what is cotton mostly used for?
What is cotton mostly used for? 6 uses of cotton
- Textiles and fabrics: Cotton has been used for thousands of years to make a variety of woven fabrics, including clothes, denim, canvas, flannel and more
- Clothing: The properties of cotton make it perfect for clothing. It’s soft, durable, breathable and easy to mass produce, making it great for T-shirts, jeans, dresses, hoodies and any other piece of clothing you can think of
- Home textiles: Cotton is often seen in bed sheets and towels since it is so soft and absorbent
- Home decor: Cotton is also seen around the house in upholstery, curtains, rugs, table clothes, napkins etc.
- Cotton seed oil: A byproduct of the cotton production process, cotton seed oil is used for human consumption in salad dressings or margarines, as well as in makeup, soap, candles or biofuels
Money: Cotton is also a core component of some money, such as the US dollar
So far, cotton sounds like a wonder material that is suitable for almost everything. But there are some disadvantages of cotton that are worth mentioning.
Disadvantages of cotton: properties of cotton
- It wrinkles easily
- It’s slow to dry
- Can shrink unless treated
- Can be damaged by mildew and prolonged light exposure
- Regular cotton is often not sustainable or eco friendly
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