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Cotton on to this fabulous fabric!

August 2011 

cottonIf you are of a certain age, you will remember the big performance of ironing when pretty well all clothes were made from cotton and other natural fibres.

When manmade fibres came in, the difference was unbelievable, not just in the abundance of new colours and prints that were available, but in the general maintenance. Being able to wash and “drip dry” an item of clothing without the worry of taking it off the line when it just still just a little damp so that it could be ironed was a major step forward.

But as with everything, the wheel goes on turning and now natural cotton is back in popularity.

Apart from the recent blip when manmade fibres came in, cotton has been the mainstay of the clothing industry for centuries - cotton fabrics have been discovered in a cave near Tehuacan in Mexico that have been dated to around 5,800 BC. In those days the ancient civilisations probably obtained their cotton from the cotton plant genus gossypium which was native to tropical and subtropical regions right across the world. In more recent history, the cotton plant has been domesticated and there are now four main commercial species of cotton now used, the main one being gossypium hirsutum, an upland cotton which is native to central America and now is used for almost 90% of world production.

Cotton probably reached its zenith in the mid 19th century; before the American civil war most of the wealth Americans were the big cotton plantation owners of the south, and of course demand for cotton grew the mills in the big industrial revolution here in the UK.

Incidentally the English name of cotton comes from the Arabic al qutn which has been noted as far back as 1,400AD.

Today many of the reasons why cotton was considered better than manmade fabrics in my childhood still exist. For a start, cotton fabric is breathable. This means is transmits moisture away from the body and helps to keep skin dry and healthy, both in everyday life and through vigorous activity. This is very important in certain areas such as underclothing – fungi can flourish in dark moist environments and synthetic clothing can create the perfect habitat for yeast to grow. Cotton underclothing allows air to circulate and also helps to disperse moisture.

In fact, cotton can absorb up to a fifth of its weight in water before it begins to feel damp, but unless you are in very wet conditions it is unlikely the cotton will ever get this damp as its moisture usually evaporates quickly into the surrounding air.

Cotton fibres are also great insulators, trapping air between individual fibres to protect a shield against excess heat or cold. Interestingly, the fibres also create a “lift” away from the skin, so that a layer of air is trapped between the skin and fabric which again helps with insulation and comfort. Cotton is also a good conductor of heat, helping to keep you cool in warmer conditions.

Today of course pure cotton is not always perfect for what we want, but here again this amazing natural fibre comes into its own. Cotton fibres blend easily with other fibres such as polyester or lycra; it is highly absorbent so is easy to dye in even the most difficult colours; and it is also offers an excellent surface to receive a special coating or finish such as extra weather proofing.

Cotton is also the choice of people who suffer allergic reactions to various materials and products; cotton is hypoallergenic and does not irritate the skin. Because of this, it is also often used in medical products such as bandages and gauze and of course is also popular for baby clothes.

As if all this isn’t enough, cotton is incredibly hardy and long lasting and is not generally affected by sunlight, so it excellent for curtains as well as outdoor items.

Finally of course cotton is natural, it is a renewable resource and it is biodegradable. Goodness, when you read all this, it is no surprise at all that good old cotton is coming back into fashion.

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