Cotton is without doubt one of the most popular fabrics that we use. It features in everything from dress shirts to bedding to towels and much more. It works well with other materials to created blended fabrics that have particular traits while on its own, cotton comes in an astounding range of types or weaves. There are even different types of the basic cotton with Egyptian and American Pima cotton being two of the best known. Here our mission to examine the world of cotton so that a shirt or pants description will never again leave you baffled.
Okay, let’s start with the basics. Cotton comes from the seeds of the cotton plant, part of a genus of plants called Gossypium. This is a shrub that comes from tropical and subtropical regions from India to Africa and the Americas. It is spun into a yarn or thread to create textiles and this process has been known as far back as prehistoric times. Currently, there are around 25 million tonnes in production around the world and growing cotton accounts for some 2.5% of the world’s arable land. China is at the top of the list for cotton producers, most of which is used domestically while the US is the biggest exporter.
Of the many cotton plant species, four are grown commercially. The hirsutum plant is known as upland cotton and comes from Central America, Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean. It accounts for 90% of the world’s production.
The barbadense version is known as extra-long staple cotton and also as sea island cotton and comes from South American. It accounts for 8% of world production. The arboretum or tree cotton comes from India and Pakistan while the herbaceum variety comes from Africa and Arabia and these two make up the remaining 4% of production. However, most of us won’t encounter these terms when looking at types of cotton.
What we will encounter when looking at clothing or other items made from cotton are terms such as Egyptian, Pima and American cotton. This refers to where the cotton plants are grown.
Egyptian cotton has gained a reputation for being the top kind of cotton, the best of the best, and is a type of extra-long staple cotton grown in Egypt. The fertile soils of the country as well as the waters of the Nile produce the very best cotton and has done for centuries. It is planted in March and allows the plants to mature enough before the hottest periods of the year so that the cotton doesn’t get scorched. The result are cotton fibres that can be made into the very finest yarns that are still very strong. What this means is when you have a dress shirt or other garment made from this cotton, it is extremely high quality, feels great against the skin and yet remains durable and easy to care for.
Sea island cotton
Sea island cotton is another version of the extra long staple cotton and has been produced in the West Indies since the early 18th century. The climate of the islands creates a cotton that is known for its staple length as well as its uniformity meaning that the resulting clothes are both soft to wear but also resistant to stains and to wrinkling. The cotton is also very bright in appearance and despite the fineness of the yards, is also very strong. It is also produced using a time-honoured method where the fibres are collected and worked by hand to avoid any pollution and to work in harmony with the environment.
American Pima cotton
This is another variety of the extra-long staple cotton plant that is grown across the US and is named for the Pima Indians who first helped with the harvesting of experimental farms growing the plant in the early 1900s. The plant itself is much older with examples of its cultivation dating back to 4400 BC in Ecuador. It also has a high thread count and a very silky feel.
Thread count and ply
The other way you can understand the quality of a cotton fabric is by looking at its thread count or its ply. Thread count refers the yarn size of the threads used in the fabric so a thread count of 140 means there are 140 hanks of yarn in one pound of the fabric with 1 hank being equivalent to 840 yard. Therefore, the higher the thread count, the more luxurious the resulting material.
When discussing dress shirts, for example, you can encounter thread counts from 50 up to 200 and the bigger the number, the silkier and more luxurious the material will feel. But it isn’t the only method of identifying the quality of the material. The other is the ply.
Ply is how many yarns care twisted together to create every thread. Most fabrics are single or two ply, the latter meaning two threads are twisted to make one thread. This makes for a stronger and better quality material than a single ply would. The ply also effects the thickness of the fabric so a higher ply may not be ideal for warmer months.
Types of cotton fabric
However, there is a way to cheat all these complicated numbers and systems to get an idea of what shirt, dress or pants would be ideal for you for any occasion. That is to look at the type of cotton fabric that has been used in the garment and here are some very familiar names.
All of these are achieved by using a difference weave that creates a different look, feel and strength of material. These weaves are created using a system dating back thousands of years and make use of warp and weft threads – warp threads are the lengthwise yarns that are held tense in a loom while the weft threads are the ones inserted over and under the warp threads to create the weave.
Twill is a type of weave that has a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs and creates a detailed and elaborate fabric. Different coloured threads can be used to create herringbone styles as well as diagonal patterns. Generally, twill fabrics are thicker than other forms of cotton weave such as broadcloth or pinpoint. They also come in a number of different variations:
- Imperial or cavalry twill – the thickest form of twill with a very bold texture to them
- Royal twill – less obvious in their pattern until you are closer to the material. These tend to be made from a high thread count in excess of 120
- Fine twills – these are tightly woven with a texture that can only been seen on close inspection
- Denim – that most familiar of materials, known around the world in jeans and jackets, is actually a type of twill. If you study your jeans or denim shirts up close, you can see the diagonal pattern to them that is the hallmark of twill
- Herringbone – another version of twill where the weave creates a chevron or a V-shaped pattern and is named for the similarity to the bones of the herring fish. It is popular for both formal and casual shirts.
Oxford weave is a popular material for clothing that is a little thicker than the very finest of fabrics but it very resistant to wrinkles and durable. It is named for the city of Oxford and is created with a basketweave structure where the threads are interlaced into a criss-cross pattern in equal numbers of weft and warp threads. The result is a checkered appearance. Like Twill, Oxford cotton comes in a number of different varieties, each with different benefits to the clothing they make.
Pinpoint Oxford makes use of the oxford weave but uses a thinner yarn and the weave is tighter than in standard Oxford. This makes for a shirt that is more formal than Oxford but less than twill or broadcloth. These are the shirts you would wear for work or for a casual occasion but not a formal one. They are a little heavier than broadcloths and are durable.
Royal Oxford is a dressier version of Oxford that has a very distinctive shine and texture. The weave is more prominent than in pinpoint so is great when you want a stylish shirt with a texture that can be seen and is often used in French cuff dress shirt as well as wide spread collar shirts.
Poplin is a strong fabric that is also called tabinet and uses crosswise ribs to create a corded surface. Originally, it was made with a silk warp thread and a weft of wool but it is now made with cotton as well as other threads. The result regardless of the thread is a plain woven surface that doesn’t have any ribbing. It is a thin, smooth and flat material that is ideal for even the most formal occasions while the lightweight nature of the fabric means it can be worn in warmer months or in warmer climates.
Pied de poule
Pied de poule, also known as Houndstooth, is a pattern that is characterised by broken checks or by a four pointed, abstract style of shape. It is often used in black and white but other colours can also feature. It originated as a wool cloth from the Scottish Lowlands and used four dark and four light threads for warp and weft. Now it is made with cotton and feature in shirts and other fine clothing.
Satin cotton, also known as sateen, is popular for bedding but also features in clothing. It is made with long fibres that are bathed in sodium hydroxide to bring out the lustre of the fibres as well as making them stronger and easier to dye. A good quality satin cotton is very soft when touched and has a great drape. It also uses a satin stitch that creates a smooth look by having the threads on one side of the fabric only.
Other types of cotton
Above we have looked at the big names in cotton that are used for dress shirts, pants and blouses but there are other types of cotton that are commonly used for different types of clothing.
Broadcloth is also sometimes called poplin confusingly but is a dense and plain weave of cloth that started out being made with wool. It was created in Flanders in the 11th century and has been used since medieval times in England to make clothes. Now it is made with cotton and creates a low sheen, professional looking fabric that has very little texture. Broadcloth is a thin, light fabric and white versions are a little transparent. Their very smooth nature can make them a little more prone to wrinkling than other weaves.
Chambray is a plain weave of cotton that is similar to broadcloth but is made with yards that are heavier to create a casual shirt or one that is often used for work wear. It often has a characteristic look to it that is created by using a white thread as the weft thread, creating a subtle variation of colour.
End on end
End on end has a distinctive contrast look due to a coloured thread being used for the warp and a white thread being used for the weft. At a distance, it appears solid but close up you can see the texture. It is also a light weight fabric and is ideal for warmer months.
Dobby is another type of cotton weave that can be compared to broadcloth and has a similar weight and thickness. It can be woven to appear like twill and often has stripes to it while even solid colours had a dotted pattern or very faint stripes in the same colour as the base cloth.
Birdseye is a weave that creates small diamond with a dot in the middle that is said to resemble the eye of a bird. It is a geometric pattern that is quite subtle and can come in a larger variety that is often known as pheasant’s eye.
Flannel tends to be either a form of twill or a form of poplin and can be made from both cotton as well as from cotton and wool blends, even cotton and cashmere to create a warmer fabric that is ideal for colder months.
Melange isn’t so much a cotton weave but rather a style of various weaves. It can be a twill, poplin, oxford or any other weave but what makes it melange is that it uses multi coloured yarns, often at least two or three colours. Another unique factor is the use of heathered style of thread that gives it an organic appearance.
Seersucker is known for its distinctive puckered appearance and can come in a wide variety of colours and even patterns. The puckered nature of the material allows air to flow and this makes it ideal to wear during the summer, when it is warm.
Whether you are looking for a dress shirt, a new blouse or even cotton sheets, understanding the cotton you are buying is key to getting the right item. Men’s dress shirts in particularly require a basic knowledge of shirt fabrics, especially for those formal occasions. By getting the perfect weave for the occasion, you will look great, feel comfortable and be eye catching in your great shirt.