Cotton: How to Assess the Quality of the Fabric

Mulmul, Gossamer soft cotton voile from India

Cotton has been a favorite fabric of mankind for over 5 millennia. Their natural, skin friendly, breathable quality make it a default fabric for most garments and household items. But not all cotton is created (or even required) to be same.

We all want good quality cotton for our garments. But how do you know what is a good quality cotton? What should you look for checking the fabric quality and what questions should you ask the seller of the fabric or the garment?

Let’s figure that out. Fabric is made in two common ways: by weaving and by knitting. Weaving is the process in which the length wise yarns of cotton are interlaced with the width wise cotton yarns. See the image below.

Cotton fabric being woven on a handloom.

Knitting is the same process that we use when hand knitting our wool blankets. Only that they are done on automatic precise knitting machines and are more precise.
Today’s discussion focuses on woven fabric. So how to determine which is a good quality fabric? The factors that determine the quality of the fabric are:

  • Fabric count
  • Length of the cotton staple from which thread is made, that is then woven into fabric
  • Thread count and twist
  • Thread plies

Talking Fabric Count (Thread Count of the fabric)
We all have most probably heard of thread counts. We have heard it the most in connection of bed sheets. It is generally said that the higher the thread count, the better is the sheet. Well, there is more to it than that, and we will come to that later.
First, what is thread count of a fabric? What does it mean by 200 count or 600 count or 1000 count fabric? Simply put, fabric count is the total number of threads or yarns woven together per inch of the fabric. So for 1in x1 in of fabric, if there are 100 length wise threads (called warp) and 100 width wise threads (called weft), that is a 200 count fabric. And if the fabric has 400 warp per inch and 300 weft per inch, then it is 700 count fabric, and so on.

Fabric Thread Count

Higher thread count is generally considered good, but basically by itself, it means little. There is also the quality of yarn (the cotton staple length, yarn count, twist and plies) that are very important.

Cotton Staple Length

When you think of a cotton plant, a little white puffball probably comes to mind. That’s called the “boll” and each boll contains nearly 250,000 individual cotton fibers, or staples.  There are three different classifications of staple length –  plants with individual fibers measuring1 1/8″ are known as short staple, the most common type. Long staple cottons have individual fibers of 1 1/4″ and fibers of 2” are called extra-long staple. These length differences may seem small, but they make a big difference in the quality, strength, and softness of the cotton.

Cotton Plantation
Three Lenghts of Cotton Fiber

The longer the fiber the better it is considered because the longer the cotton fiber, the stronger, softer, and more durable the resulting fabric. Fabrics made of long-staple cottons fray less, pill less, wrinkle less, and even fade less than fabrics made with their short-staple counterparts.

Short staple fibers produce a cotton that is great for basic, everyday use. The most common short staple cotton is primarily used to make denim jeans and flannel clothing thanks to its soft, strong, and low maintenance fibers.

As staple length increases, so does cotton’s soft, silky feel. For this reason, long staple cotton is a popular choice to make sheets, towels, and other quality products. Through the spinning and weaving process, a longer fiber length results in a smoother surface with fewer exposed fiber ends. This means that items made with long staple cotton don’t pill or tear as much and can even become softer over time.

Spun yarn

Since cotton is produced as staple fibers, it is made into threads/yarn using the spinning method. So cotton is a spun yarn. Spun yarns are manufactured by interlocking staple fibers, which gives a stronger and more durable result. The yarn that is so created is measured for its quality using Cotton count (yarn count).

Yarn count

Yarn count is different from the thread count (of the fabric that we discussed earlier). Thread count is important, but yarn count is equally or more important, taken together with thread plies. Cotton Count (or yarn count for cotton) looks at one pound of the material and describes how many 840-yard lengths of spun fiber it contains. So a cotton count of 3 means:

3 x 840 yds = 2,520 yds/lb

That is a cotton count 3 yarn has 2520 yards length in pound of its weight. The higher the yarn count, the more twisted and stronger is the yarn, and therefore is a better choice. So a 100 count yarn is better than a 60 count yarn.

Thread plys

Yarn count together with thread ply are very important factors in the quality of the fabric. As depicted in the picture below, one yarn by itself used in weaving fabric is single ply yarn. When two such yarns are twisted together, and then used for weaving, they become double ply yarn, and so on. Double ply yarn is stronger than single ply yarn, and triple ply is even better. So if you have a 100 count yarn and it has been twisted together to make a double ply yarn, it is written as 100/2, 100 is the cotton count for each of the yarn plies and 2 means that 2 such plies have been twisted together to make the yarn/thread for weaving into fabric.

Yarn Plies and Strength

A good quality cotton fabric and garment is a joy to have, is long lasting and eco-friendly. It feels great on skin, is supple and soft, and grows better with each washing! From fiber to fabric to garment is a long process and each step is important in determining the quality for fabric and finished garment that you are getting. For a regular user, it is difficult to always know the quality of the fabric immediately. But now you know what questions to ask the retailers and understand what it means when they say the fabric is 120/2!

Ayurvastram Cotton Mulmul Block Print Scarf Dupatta

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