All about cotton – A miracle material

Whether it's crisp or soft, colourful or plain, thick or thin, beautifully simple or embroidered to within an inch of its life, cotton sits at the heart of so many of our gorgeous, unique Pagan clothes, indie fashion and alternative clothing. It's a miracle material, used by humankind for millennia to weave the fabrics we needed for clothes, bedding, decoration and furnishing. Cotton seeds dating back to 450BC have been discovered in Peru, signalling its long human heritage. Here's what you need to know about cotton.

The cotton plant

Cotton is made from a soft, fluffy fibre that grows safely inside its own little boll or case, which protects the seeds. We love the fact that the genus cotton belongs to is Gossypium! The 40cm high plant actually belongs to the mallow family, which also includes lavatera and hollyhocks.

The fibres produced by the cotton plant are made from almost 100% pure cellulose, and they're harvested after the bolls have matured. After picking, the cotton has to be husked to remove the outer shell of the boll and separate the fibres from the seeds. Then the fibres are carefully combed to remove any impurities.

The average cotton boll contains 4000 fibres, and the resulting yarns, cottons and wools come in standard lengths. As a rule the longer the fibre, the more expensive the fabric made from it. The usual length for making yarns is 0.32cm to 6.35cm and for fabrics it has to be longer, 2.22cm – 3.18cm long.

What is the world's most expensive cotton?

Egyptian cotton has really long fibres, which create thinner thread than other cottons. When woven, the resulting fabric is incredibly fine. If you've ever slept between Egyptian cotton sheets you'll know how gorgeous they feel. Pima or Supima is another high quality cotton with long fibres much like Egyptian cotton. The only difference is where it's grown, this time in the south west of the USA. Like Egyptian cotton it's really popular for bedding because it's so soft and smooth. But the most expensive and exclusive is probably Sea Island Cotton, the cotton with the longest fibre of all, measuring an impressive 5.2cm or more.

Only 70-80 tons of Sea Island cotton are grown each year, in the Caribbean islands, and the material created from it is the world's most valuable. The amazing Gossypium Barbadense is a native of South America and has been grown domestically for thousands of years. It has only been grown in the West Indies since the 1400s and has been cultivated in the South Sea islands since 1786.

Why is cotton so popular?

Cotton is brilliant at absorbing liquid, sucking up as much as 27 times its own weight in water. It's comfy and soft, but can equally be wonderfully crisp and fresh. It's easy to wash and keep in good condition. It takes dye easily and hangs onto the colour without too much fading. It's tough and strong. It's entirely possible to add stretch to the fabric, thanks to Lycra, for an excellent fit. And because the fabric is strongest when wet, it retains its shape well.

An environmentally friendlier fabric - No oil included!

We like cotton so much more than non-renewable fabrics made from fossil fuels, petrochemical textiles like polyester, acrylic and nylon, which remains the second most popular manufactured fabric in the USA.  Cotton isn't perfect but at least it's more sustainable, renewable, and biodegradable, than its oily relatives even though cotton growers still tend to be heavy on pesticide use.

Every scrap of the cotton plant is used, nothing is wasted. The seeds are used for animal feed and to make delicious cottonseed oil, and the stalks are ploughed back into the earth to help fertilise the soil for the next crop. The fabric itself is 100% biodegradable and composts perfectly.  

The USA's cotton scene has become a lot more environmentally friendly in the last couple of decades. Soil conservation has benefited, with 68% less soil loss. 64% of the cotton grown in the US uses rainfall, which means the use of irrigation water use has plummeted by 75%. The plant has a neutral carbon footprint, and the world's entire crop is responsible for removing as much CO2 as taking 7 million cars off the road. Best of all, US growers' pesticide use has halved over the past 25 years.

Love our cotton clothing

Much of our cotton clothing has added stretch for a great fit and plenty of comfort. Many of our cotton clothes are beautifully embellished, ripped, over-printed, embroidered and appliqued. Give the cotton boll a nod of respect next time to wear cotton – what a remarkable plant!

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