13 Tips for Knitting with Cotton Yarns

The cotton plant is part of the mallow family of flowering plants.  A field of cotton flowers or cotton bolls, the part we get cotton fibers from, can be very attractive, but not as attractive as a pile of colorful cotton yarn.

As knitters, and crocheters, our primary interest is in the yarn that cotton bolls can become. At first glance, you may think yarn is yarn, but wool yarn is significantly different than cotton yarn.

Knowing something about the differences ahead of time can save you from a possibly unpleasant surprise.

Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing to work with cotton yarn.

What do knitters need to know about cotton yarn?

  1. There are 2 basic types of cotton yarn:  mercerized and un-mercerized.   If a yarn doesn’t say it’s mercerized, than it’s un-mercerized.  Mercerized yarns are exposed to caustic soda, usually sodium hydroxide, usually while under tension, to create a stronger, permanently fluffier and shiny yarn at the expense of some of it’s softness.  They hold their dye better, too.  This is important if you are concerned about fading.  Finally, mercerized cotton is more resistant to mildew, which can be a real problem with cotton.
  2. Cotton fibers breathe and wick heat well.  This makes it a great fiber for warm & hot weather, but a terrible fabric for cold weather.  Outdoor enthusiasts sometimes call cotton fabrics “death cloth” because it is too cooling, which can contribute to hypothermia.
  3. Cotton yarn comes from a plant, so it is a cellulose fiber rather than a protein based fiber.  (Most allergic reactions involve reactions to proteins.)
  4. Cotton fibers get stronger when wet!  Actually, cotton in general is strong and keeps it’s strength for a long time.  Cotton fabric found in 500 year old tombs has 4/5 of the strength of new cotton fabric!  On the flip side, cotton is degraded by sunlight and heat.  Both of them together are even worse.  Store your cotton yarns where they will be cool, dark & dry.
  5. Cotton/synthetic blends will stain more easily than 100% cotton.  (Mom experience talking here.)
  6. Cotton yarns are slippery, which can make them challenging to knit.
  7. Cotton is one of the most chemically treated crops in the world.  Unless you get organic cotton yarn, you will be exposed to remnants of the agricultural chemicals used to grow it.  Try not to make things for babies out of non-organic cotton yarns.
  8. Cotton yarn is generally inelastic, even when used in ribbing.  Plan accordingly!
  9. Cotton fibers are dense and it’s yarns are heavy compared to most animal sourced yarns.  This impacts the drape of the final project.
  10. Cotton yarns tend to produce crisp looking stitches with great definition for cables, etc.  However, over time, they will tend to flatten due to cotton’s lack of elasticity.
  11. Cotton yarns come in a wide variety of weights, making them suitable for a wide variety of projects.
  12. Although cotton yarns are slippery on the needle, they make excellent washcloths, potholders and other home decorating or cleaning projects.  Projects made with cotton yarns are easier to clean than animal-sourced yarns.
  13. Cotton yarns are also great for colorwork.

When choosing a design that calls for a cotton yarn, the designers have usually taking cotton’s unique characteristics into account.  Substituting a wool yarn in a project that calls for a cotton yarn may not produce the expected results!

There you have it!  A baker’s dozen of cotton fiber and yarn facts to keep in mind when using cotton yarn. Please add any other tips, tricks or questions in the comment section below!

Happy Knitting!

Leave a Comment