Saturday, 17 December 2016

Cotton, natural and infinately flexible

Cotton is a plant based natural fibre, it comes from the fluff that protects the cotton seed which forms part of the ‘boll’ (the fluffy white seed head that includes the seeds, fluff and casing).  Cotton has been grown to make clothes for at least 7,000 years and has been recorded in the art of Egypt, India and throughout Asia, an intriguing perspective that includes creation myths in India are on the Handy EyeMagazine website.

The vast majority of the cotton used in clothing all over the world is grown in North America and is a cultivar that is a cross of the cotton plants native to the Americas and from the Middle East. Unfortunately the American cotton growing industry was expanded largely on the back of the slave industry during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries so it has rather a chequered history, it is like most industries now highly automated. A good guide to production in America is on the Cotton Counts website.

While on holiday in Yorkshire in the summer I heard a really interestingn article on the local news about a new Cotton Mill that will be the first in 30 years to spin Cotton in England.  This is truly historical as the North West was nick named Cottonopolis in decades past, thus named because over 90% of the world’s Cotton cloth was produced there.  The company is called English Fine Cottons and as their website states they are not yet fully up and running but it is a really exciting move for those of us making in the bespoke end of the market, and for anyone who is interested in good quality, UK produced products.

The fibres themselves can be grouped into three main types:

1. Long staple fibres – these are up to 55mm in staple length and are of the highest quality comprising the Sea Island Cottons which are the best quality and Egyptian Cotton, the second best.  Such long smooth fibres create the strongest, softest and finest Cotton fabrics.  During my final year at University I once visited the Jermine Street Shirt factory in Gloucester which supplies the Jermine Street shop just off Saville Row, they use South Island Cotton exclusively and it is the most beautiful of shirting cloths I have ever used and it played a big part in my final collection.  This cloth feels more like silk than cotton and creases somewhat less than most 100% Cotton fabric – it’s gorgeous!

2. Medium staple fibres – this is the largest group which makes up over 50% of the world’s Cotton.  It is dominated by the American types and is around 25mm or just over in length and is less smooth, strong and soft than the longer staples; it is far less expensive too.  This type is often mixed with other fibres such as polyester to create hard wearing, easy care cloth for school uniforms, workwear and cheaper bedding as well as a myriad of other products.

3. Short staple fibres – at less than 25mm these fibres are courser and rougher than the longer ones, they are mostly produced in the Indian Sub-Continent and other Asiatic nations.  The cloths made with these fibres have some fashion appeal in the “Ethnic” categories of products but are of a much poorer quality.

Cotton is the most versatile of fibres, it is used to make a huge variety of fabrics from the finest of Muslins and Voiles to the most durable and heavy weight Denims and Canvases.  Some of its major characteristics include;

  • It is the least reactive fibre so is the best fibre for sensitive skin
  • Highly absorbent, conducts heat well
  • Resistant to abrasion, moths and pilling
  • Can be cleaned by washing or dry cleaning
  • Easily takes up colour and is easy to print on
  • Super fabric for learning to sew with
  • Can be mixed with a huge variety of other fibres to enhance the qualities of both; e.g. Silk for greater softness & heat conductivity, Modul (a regenerated fibre that derives from tree bark) for softness, Polyester/Acrylic for easy care and durability
  • Cotton is the only fibre that gets stronger when it is wet
  • Conducts electricity 
  • Cotton is highly flammable 
  • Creases very easily indeed
  • Can easily shrink
  • Deteriorates with prolonged exposure to sunlight

Here is a list of some (though not all) of the fabrics made with Cotton fibres;
  • Utility cloths - Calico, Canvas, Cheesecloth, Denim, Flanelette, Hopsack, Net, Sailcloth, Terry Towelling, Ticking, Whipcord
  • Heavier weight apparel cloths – Bolton Twill, Corduroy, Drill, Fleece, Gabardine, Jersey,  Sateen, Velour, Velvet, Velveteen
  • Lighter weight fabrics – Chintz, Cluny Lace, Crepe, Gauze, Gingham, Muslin, Poplin, Seersucker, Voile.

From left to right here is some plain weave Denim, Cotton Ticking, Corduroy and some jacquard woven upholstery Cotton fabric.  These are pretty heavy weight cloths that can be used for hard wearing clothes and soft furnishings, I use them for bag making too, they carry machine embroidery and all sorts of applique beautifully.

In this photo, from left to right is a lovely Herringbone shirting which is a South Island Cotton and is super soft and smooth, printed polka dot Cotton, Muslin and woven striped Cotton that is dyed with natural dyes.

The last batch in this photo are Gingham, Jersey and Seersucker, these are really great for beginners because they introduce a small amount of challenge without too much difficulty, for the Jersey the only thing you need to remember to use a ball point needle for stretch fabrics and make sure you don’t stretch it when sewing – if you have an overlocker, set it up as a four threader and you don’t even have to use your normal sewing machine for perfect seams.

Cotton is probably the most versatile in the finishes of cloth available, both as a pure cotton fibre and as a mix with something else, it is also the best fabric to start using when learning to sew, even Cotton Jersey is quite straightforward to sew with, with the correct needle.  There are a HUGE variety of printed fabrics available to buy in a number of widths, years ago you could get it in 30” or 90cm wide – although this is rare these days, now it is usually available in 115cm or 45”, 150cm/60” and for bedding 3m/120” (although not so frequently in many suppliers).

Some of my favourite suppliers are;
  •  My - this is a great online supplier of bargain fabrics and they usually have a vast array of colours, textures, patterns and weights 
  • Fabric Land – I love Fabric Land, they have lots of great fabrics at great prices, there are stores at Salisbury, Bournemouth, Ringwood, Bristol, Southampton, Basingstoke, Reading and Portsmouth; they also do a fantastic mail order service that I use all the time. 
  • Hansons Fabrics – Hansons is a bit of a textile heaven for those who sew, and especially for patchworkers, they have the largest range of printed Cottons I have ever seen, there is at least 1,000 designs at any one time on their shelves – it’s amazing!! They also stock lots of haberdashery items and are the only stockist I know that carries both Coates (my personal favourite) and Guttermann threads. They are happy to accept coach trips for larger groups and schools with some notice. It is a massive warehouse full of goodies that I can happily lose an hour or so in and the staff are lovely – especially my friend Ros. 
  • Croft Mill – This is a great company for beautiful suitings, they do have other fabrics available but I have only bought top of the range cotton suitings from them, the staff are lovely and they provide good sized sample swatches on request.
Cotton is so versatile you can make almost anything with it, from upholstery and soft furnishings, heavyweight utility items, hard wearing clothing, pretty dresses to the most intricate patchwork projects. I have had a look around lots of patchworking blogs recently and my current favourite one is Flossie tea cakes, she has a lovely site with lots of tutorials and patterns for some very sweet little projects and she has lots of beautiful patchwork projects too.

As I mentioned earlier it is the ideal starter fabric for learners of sewing, something like some nice plain cotton is best if you are a complete beginner, and when you gain some confidence try out patterns and experiment with how to change the look of projects using the pattern. Seersucker is marvellous for something with a little texture without being too challenging as it behaves itself very well indeed. I love Cotton, it is lovely and cool to wear in the summer and because it behaves so well it is easy to experiment with and the patterns of printed Cottons are pretty well unlimited if you shop around.

To show you a few examples of the kind of things I make for myself I tooksome snaps of some of my togs in the wardrobe;

On the left is a pair of jeans I made with some stretch denim from Fabric Land (that I bought years ago). Next is my brand new jacket – that I wore for the first time today – the purple corduroy was gifted to me with the proviso that I made something wonderful with it, so 1 embroidered waistcoat, and a full length skirt later, this swing jacket is the final piece of the set and sports Cotton Velour details in pink; and there is enough left to make another waistcoat in a different style. The skirt is an experiment made out old vintage printed Cotton that was part of my Aunty Vivien’s fabric library and some naturally dyed muslin and on the right is my favourite dress ever – every time I wear it, it causes a stir.

So this group starts with a godet skirt with printed fine polka dots, a great summer dress that I’ve not got round to wearing yet, my perfect denim skirt, which is the same cut as the polka dot skirt but with pockets and centre front zip (I love the printed denim) and another of my prototype jackets.  After this first one I have made lots of these jackets for clients and for my off the peg range.

I love working with Cotton, it’s wonderful to wear and versatile beyond belief so take a trip to your local stockist, or if you are in the area of Sturminster Newton call in on Hanson’s and drool over all the lovely Cottons they have there.

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