For millennia, cotton has been one of the major textiles of the world. The first known use of cotton dates back nearly 7000 years to present day India, and the Indus Valley region. Meanwhile, around the same time, cotton was being grown, harvested, spun, dyed, knit, and worn in the ancient civilizations of Central and South America, by the Aztecs and Inca. In fact, the Aztecs gave cotton as tribute to their rulers, in the realm of tens of millions of pounds of cotton. And in Peru, evidence of cotton textiles has been dated to 6000 BC. So, is cotton sustainable? In this day and age, cotton is one of the best alternatives to fast fashion and is the leading natural fiber around the world.
What Is Cotton?
Does cotton come from a plant? Yes! Cotton is an agricultural crop just like corn, soy, or wheat. But where does cotton come from? Cotton is a staple fiber that grows inside a cotton boll, or a protective case around the seed. The cotton fibers act as insulators and protectors of the seeds ,and help the cotton seeds to carry in the wind and spread.
Cotton has been admired for many of it’s qualities over the centuries. Cotton is wonderfully comfortable, flexible, warm, and breathable. Cotton itself is simply a fiber, which is then spun into yarn. Unlike synthetic textiles like polyester, cotton has a natural and organic feel to it. The strands aren’t perfectly shaped, so the knit cotton fabric has millions of tiny pockets of air throughout it making cotton breathable and also insulating. Depending on how it is knit, cotton can have many different feels and textures. So a cotton t-shirt can be heavy enough on its own, or light enough to be worn under a jacket. Cotton can be knit thicker and tighter to create duck canvas and terry cloth, denim and oxford.
Cotton is also very happily dyed. We dye our shirts two different ways, by dyeing the yarn before knitting (piece dyeing) and also garment dyeing our finished white shirts. When you buy a Goodwear shirt, be sure to look at the hang tag to see if it’s garment dyed or not. Especially in heavyweight t-shirts like Goodwear’s, dyes take particularly well to the fabric. For example, can you tie dye a polyester cotton blend? Sure, but it will never look as rich and beautiful as a 100% heavyweight cotton t shirt.
Where does cotton come from?
Cotton is grown around the world, but is native to subtropical and tropical environments like those found in Central America and India, as well as the United States’ South East. Today, most of the world’s cotton farms are cultivated in China, then India, with U.S. cotton farms producing the third most in the world. At Goodwear, we only use cotton from US cotton farms and are a licensee of Cotton USA, certifying that fact. We source from a variety of regions, utilizing Texas cotton, Carolina Cotton, and also from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.
What can be really tricky is knowing where the cotton in your shirts comes from. Be sure to check the label: if the cotton is from China or India but cut and sewn in the USA, the label will say “of imported fabric”. At Goodwear, we start with the yarn, so we formulate and control the knitting of our fabric for our Heavyweight T-shirts, rather than relying on a producer overseas to knit the fabric for us. The end result is a T-shirt you can’t find anywhere else.
Types of Cotton Fabric
There are many types of cotton fabric, and we use a variety at Goodwear. Some of the most common types of cotton fabric are detailed below:
Cotton jersey is one of the most common types of cotton fabric, and is often used for T-shirts and heavyweight T-shirts (see image above). It can be single or double layer, though double is the most common. Cotton jersey has an outside texture that is flat and with visible lines from knitting, while the inside is soft and uniform. Depending on the weight or gauge of the cotton yarn, the finished fabric weight can vary from super light (like slub cotton) or very heavy (like our Classic Pocket Tee) which uses one of the thickest yarns, 12 singles.
Like a towel? What is French Terry? Towels and bathmats are often made of terrycloth, but that is different. French Terry is a great in-between fabric, light than fleece but heavier than even a heavyweight T-shirt, though it is a thick fabric. It has a flat outside knit, with an inside of loose loops of cotton. All the gaps and pockets in the loops create air pockets of insulation, moisture wicking, and a soft plush feel. You can find it in our best selling French Terry Pullover and in our French Terry Shorts.
Thermal fabric is another beautiful fabric we use. Thermals are characterized by a “waffle” texture. This texture not only creates air pockets of warmth, it also allows the fabric to stretch and hug the body, perfect for layering in the winter. Waffles come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s no surprise thermal fabric does too. We use a unique and classic 90’s style weave called Raschel, to give a different look to our thermals.
So Is Cotton Sustainable?
Cotton is a natural fiber, like wool, linen, or hemp. This means, above all, cotton is biodegradable. Even at home, using proper composting technique, your tattered old heavyweight cotton t-shirt can be composted in under one year. It can also be recycled and used again and again, with some cool new companies producing 100% recycled jeans, flannels, and bags.
Compare this to polyester, which was discovered in a lab in the mid-century, and soon became the backbone of the fast fashion industry.
Synthesized from crude oil, polyester is no different (really) than any other plastic. When polyester degrades over time (pilling), it sheds microplastics into the air, soil, and water. It goes without saying, but these are permanent. This is exacerbated by washing clothes. Every time a polyester shirt is washed, microplastics are sent into the water system and end up in our aquifers and oceans.
There are all sorts of alternatives to fast fashion, and choosing cotton is just one. So is cotton sustainable? We’d say so! Read more about why it’s important to invest in High-Quality T-Shirts here in our blog: Top Benefits of Sustainable Clothing
For so much more information on the dozens more varieties of cotton fabrics, check out the definitive guide from our friends at The Fabric of Our Lives