Tips, Yarn

Know your yarn: Cotton

When you look back through old knitting books, you can see that for a long time they were written for yarn made from wool because it was readily available and cheap to knit. This is why for some people “knitting yarn” and “wool” mean the same thing. As you look back through patterns of the last 60 years you see more and more different fibres being introduced whether natural(with different levels of processing) or manmade, until today when a read of yarn labels shows a wide range of fibres and yarn sources. Can you imagine yarn made from crab shell? Well it is now a possibility.

With this in mind we thought it would be useful to take a regular look at different yarn fibres to help you navigate your yarn choices – starting with that summer staple, cotton.

Where does the yarn come from?

Cotton fibre grows as a protective layer for the seed of the cotton plant forming fluffy “bolls” which are picked and spun into thread. The fibre is cellulose and although most bolls are off-white, plants that produce brown or red fibres also exist.

gossypium cotton
You can see the cotton “bolls” in this picture of Erika Knight Gossypium Cotton

 Cotton has been spun into yarn and woven into fabric for at least 8,000 years so it is one of our most traditional fibres. These days it is a mainly industrial process where bales of the picked fibre are carded and then drawn into fine threads which are spun together to create yarns.

Mercerised cotton

This cotton has more lustre or sheen than ordinary cotton yarn. This is achieved by the yarn undergoing a chemical process while held a high tension, this causes the fibres to swell and straighten which in turn means that reflect more light and therefore have more lustre. You can read a technical description here.


  • A cool, breathable fabric
  • A machine washable fabric
  • Durable
  • Takes dye well giving range of colours
  • Your cotton knits will soften with wear increasing drape
  • Cotton’s firm, inelastic yarn gives you clear stitch definition making it very suitable for working with knit and purl texture patterns.
  • This is an inelastic yarn that doesn’t spring back in the same way as wool which gives you a flatter fabric with more drape. This also means that a cotton piece stretch on blocking like wool.
  • Crochets into a firm fabric that is great for bags, toys and homewares


cotton yarn
Cotton is a fibre that can be spun and combined in a wide variety of ways, clockwise from left: James C Brett Craft Cotton; Lolli a cotton chainette yarn from C&B; Sirdar Beachcomber; Rico Essentials Crochet Cotton; Stylecraft Malabar DK a cotton silk blend.

Combination with other fibres

Cotton and wool yarn – cooler and more drape than wool on its own but the wool has more spring so a rib in cotton/wool would have more give and be less flat than in cotton only

Cotton and silk – silk add more sheen and helps create an even more draped fabric. Silk also adds strength to the fabric.

Tips for working with cotton yarn

Because cotton softens over time and can be heavier than wool it is a good idea to choose patterns with firm tension to avoid sagging – some people go down a needle size when working in cotton.

Swatch and then wash your swatch to get a good idea about how a particular cotton yarn behaves

Cotton yarn can split, you may find wooden or bamboo needles a better choice than very point metal ones

What is your favourite pattern for cotton yarn – please tell us in the comments below.

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