Cotton 101: A Guide to the Science Behind Your Fabrics

Cotton 101: A Guide to the Science Behind Your Fabrics

Cotton is widespread enough that you’ll encounter it everywhere. There’s a reason this evergreen fabric is used the way it is, and we’ll lay out a few of the particulars that make cotton one of, if not the, most significant fabric in the world. 

Origins of Cotton

Cotton is a fabric whose use has been widespread since antiquity, with some of the earliest samples dating back thousands of years to the Middle East and Latin America. 

Cultural expansion through both trade and war throughout the ancient world and into the middle ages led to the spread of cotton as both a crop and popular material, due to the comfort and desirability of cotton garments. Cotton primarily grew in Asia and the Americas, making trade routes to these countries highly desired. 

Cotton (as a material for fabric) first appeared in the aforementioned areas as early as the fifth millennium BCE. 7000 years on, it’s become an intensely prevalent material in all sorts of items.

Raw cotton is grown from the plant of the same name in soft, fluffy patches that originally had to be manipulated by hand. The invention of the spinning loom in the 14th century, the mechanical cotton gin in the late 18th century, and dozens of inventions in between these two made harvesting cotton and manufacturing products from cotton easy. 

Cotton products were well-regarded not only for their comfort but also their durability, longevity, and the ease with which the plant could be dyed. The early conditions under which cotton was produced were notoriously grueling, though new developments both mechanically and socially have reduced the impact cotton production has on human life.

Cotton Manufacturing Process

Cotton production has evolved throughout history, but in current techniques, there are four key steps in the manufacturing process of cotton:

Gathering: Whether by hand or by machine, cotton is gathered, and the white, fluffy part of the plant (which is what is most commonly referred to, and afterward will be referred to as “cotton”) is separated from other parts of the plants.

Cleaning: After being gathered and stored, a machine separates the cotton from dirt, seeds, and other material impurities to help create a pure product.

Storage: The raw cotton material is highly compressed and stored, ready to be shipped to mills for further production.

Carding: The cotton is put through a carding machine, which turns the cotton fibers into a long, thin product ready to be turned into a variety of materials including clothing and linens.

The effort and centuries of usage of this fabric are for a good reason: cotton has unique properties which have made it invaluable throughout history and gives it staying power in a modern context.

Physical and Chemical Properties of Cotton 

Cotton, for starters, is a highly durable, highly breathable fabric with high tensile strength. The strong fibers of cotton make the material resistant to breakage and fraying, especially when those fibers are long or when short fibers are braided together, though when stretched beyond the comfort level of the material, garments may lose shape over time. 

Cotton is also, uniquely, one of the few materials which becomes stronger the wetter it gets, meaning that when you’re deep into a workout, your cotton clothes will be operating at their strongest. Another benefit of cotton, especially important in its early history, is the ease with which it can be cleaned and the extent to which the material holds dye. This made it both a stylish and clean choice in an era when cleanliness was a real concern, 

When it comes to exposure, cotton is excellent at surviving heat, cold, harsh soaps, and cleaning solvents, as well as moisture, all of which helped it achieve its prominence and popularity. However, while moisture does not damage the material, cotton does retain moisture extremely well. 

This means the material might get soaked when using it as an outer layer in inclement weather or as a bottom layer during intense, long-duration exercise routines. Cotton also tends to retain odor, though a good wash is a safeguard against this. 

Another downside of cotton is that, as a plant-based organic material, it is susceptible to bacteria and fungus when exposed to consistent conditions which are receptive to fungal growth, such as moist and dark conditions.

Changing out of your cotton workout gear after exposure to water and washing/drying soon after wearing them is a great way to protect them and keep them lasting long, as well as making sure that you keep them in a dry place when looking for long-term storage. 

A Side Note: Dyeing and Fashion

The ease of cotton when it comes to absorbing dye meant that from the very start, it was destined for use in fashion. While contemporary dyes are primarily synthetic, dye in antiquity was made from the natural world, including animals, insects, and plants. Rare dyes, for example, Tyrian purple, were highly sought, and wearing such colors became status symbols. 

Cotton as a Workout Material

Cotton is a popular material, and as one of the most common clothing fabrics, it should be no surprise that it’s also a commonly used fabric in workout gear. Some of the benefits cotton provides are: 

Lightweight: When working out, every extra ounce in your clothes that you have to lift matters. Cotton is known for being a lightweight, breathable material, making it ideal as a mid or outer layer.  

Comfort: Cotton is a highly comfortable material, whether in the context of working out or going about your other activities of daily living.

Easy Maintenance: Cotton is easy to clean and easy to maintain, and strong resistance to acids, alkali, and all sorts of environments means that it serves as a great all-terrain material no matter what you encounter.

Cotton does have some drawbacks when it comes to general use as well as its use as workout gear as a bottom layer, where it adheres directly to the body: 

Absorbency: Cotton, unless it is incorporated as part of a blend, is not moisture-wicking, meaning that all the sweat coming off you goes right into the material. While this may not be an issue during the length of a quick workout, if you’re going directly somewhere else to the gym or else engaging in a long-form athletic performance like a marathon, you might be in trouble. 

Odor Retention: Cotton can retain odors after a workout, which can be problematic if you have somewhere to be after the gym and don’t have a change of clothes, or if you are in other conditions where you may sweat heavily.

Shrinkage and Bleeding: Though more an issue with the maintenance of the fabric than anything else, cotton may shrink slightly or bleed color when washed initially, though many modern garments come pre-shrunk, and many soaps are made especially to prevent color leaching.

How It Compares​​ To Other Fabrics

Cotton is a competitive mid-layer fabric for athletics due to its comfort and lightweight nature. However, other materials make compelling cases for their use specifically as bottom layers, including:

Synthetic Weaves: Synthetic blends provide gear tailored towards specific needs, such as those provided by the All-Over Stretch Weave. Synthetics like this are prioritized for their specific properties. The weave mentioned is hydrophobic, wicking the moisture away from the fabric rather than absorbing it, keeping both you and your gear dry.

Merino Wool: Wool may bring to mind bulky, warm winter coats and outerwear, but it is actually a highly practical all-season design choice for workout gear. The material is thermoregulating, meaning it can help the wearer cool off or warm-up according to their needs. A high saturation point allows it to pull moisture away from your body while still keeping dry. 

Our Cotton Weave

Olivers uses cotton in a variety of products and types of weave, including our Classic French Terry designs. The Japanese Supima cotton used in each design comes with extra-long fibers, a prized trait that serves as a hallmark for high-quality cotton, making the clothing in that line extremely resistant to tearing, fraying, and wrinkling. 

While not designed to help you power through as your sole layer during a marathon, the hoodies, sweats, and crewnecks made from this material are created to be an ideal mid-layer for any other adventure you may find yourself in the middle of. 

The Future of Fabrics

Cotton is everywhere, and a bit of research explains how and why it came to be so prevalent. Cotton offers the perfect lightweight aid to sedentary and casual activities and can make a great outer layer in more active contexts. No matter how you use cotton going forward, one thing is certain: the material has been around for seven thousand years, and it won’t be going away anytime soon.


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