Taking Out the Mystery
Fortunately, knitters are blessed with a wide array of fibers to choose from, both natural and manmade. While each has its advantages and disadvantages, cotton is a fiber every knitter can feel confident about.
It's comfortable to wear, pleasant to work with and easy to care for. Its colors are vibrant and it can stand on its own or add softness to other fibers in interresting blends or novelties.
These qualities may explain why cotton is the most widely used fiber in the world. Yet many knitters are afraid of cotton because of many myths which evolved from knitters' experiences with poor quality cotton yarn. Today, good quality cotton yarn is readily available and its use will explode these myths.
MYTH 1: COTTON SHRINKS; Actually cotton stretches. As you knit and wear it, it grows. When you wash and dry it, it returns to its original size. To understand this, think of your favorite all cotton jeans. They may be tight straight off the hanger, but are much looser at the end of the day. This is not because you have gotten thinner (drat!), but because of "relaxation shrinkage", the tendency of cotton to stretch and then return to original size after washing.
Cotton is a curly fiber. As cotton is knit, its own weight pulls out some of its curl and straightens it out. Washing puts the curl back in and returns it to its original size. A newly washed sweater will be wider and shorter than the same sweater worn for a few hours. You can test this by knitting tow identical swatches. Wash one, then measure both. The difference is how much stretch to allow for in your knitting. It is extremely important to measure gauge on a washed swatch.
MYTH 2: COTTON IS HARD TO KNIT; Cotton is a lovely soft fiber which feels good both while knitting it and wearing it. Since it conducts heat away from the skin, it can be knit in the hottest weather comfortably, unlike wool and synthetics. Since it washes beautifully, it can be knit or worn anywhere without the fear of permanently staining it.
Cotton is a very smooth, soft fiber and it has no scales on its surfaces to catch and hold strands together. Because of this, knitting in the ends can be tricky. Try not to join ends anywhere but at seams. On jacquard or intarsia patterns, leave long tails and weave over and under a number of strands on the wrong side of the work until you get to a seam, then knot the yarn to the seam edge securely. Ends at seams can be sewn over and will usually stay in place.
MYTH 3: RIBBING STRETCHES IN COTTON; Cotton is not as elastic as some fibers so you need to work within its tendencies. Thinner, softer cotton will hold ribbing better than thicker cotton. When you use a thick cotton, make sure it is soft. Soft yarn is curlier and made of longer fibers than rough yarn. Usually a K1, P1 ribbing is the best for cotton because it is the most elastic of all ribbings. Experiment with different cast on methods to get the most desirable edge. A firm edge holds in the ribbing while an elastic one gives when worn.
Ribbing can be knit with transpartent elastic thread held together with the yarn. This completely compensates for cotton's inelasticity and is no more trouble than knitting without it. You simply hold it along with the cotton yarn, taking care not to stretch it as you work. It will disappear into the fabric.
Another technique would be to cast on and bind off using one size smaller needle than recommended size to hold in the edges. Some knitters use this smaller needle for the entire ribbing. If you are adapting a pattern written for wool, work 10% fewer stitches in the ribbing than the number given in the pattern, then increase these stitches on the first row of the pattern stitch. A good quality mercerized cotton will hold ribbing better than an unmercerized cotton. If you absolutely can't live without springy ribbing, but you love the look and feel of cotton, try a cotton which has been blended with acrylic.
MYTH 4: COTTON PILLS; "Pills" are actually fiber ends gathering together on the surface. All yarn is made of fibers and all fibers have ends, so all knitted material will pill. Good quality cotton yarn is made of long fibers so there are fewer ends to pill.
MYTH 5: MERCERIZED COTTON IS BETTER THAN UNMERCERIZED COTTON; Mercerization is an alkali treatment that takes the natural curl out of the fiber. Mercerized cotton is stronger and shinier than unmercerized, but it is not as soft. You can mercerize any cotton, good quality or poor, so all mercerized cotton is not alike. In general, mercerized cotton is best for tableclothes or any fabric which you want to be lustrous and highly resistant to stains and wear and which will not stretch or shrink.
MYTH 6: COTTON GARMENTS MUST BE HAND WASHED; Cotton, unlike many synthetic fibers, doesn't stain easily and easily releases dirt in washing. Machine washing of good quality cotton yarn is perfectly acceptable and has some advantages to hand washing. Machine washing in warm water with a mild detergent on a gentle cycle can be easier on a sweater than hand washing. Cotton is very absorbant and gets very heavy and hard to handle when hand washing. Getting all the suds out of the sweater is one of the most important steps and a washing machine completely drains and uses centrifugal action to get the soapy water out of the sweater and then rinses it completely and spins most of the water out. This makes the sweater drier than in hand washing.
It is also good to put your garment in the dryer on low heat for about 10 minutes to get most of the moisture out. After the sweater feels almost dry, grab it by the shoulders, snap it in the air a couple of times and lay it out on a towel, shaping it a little. This snapping action stretches each stitch lengthwise, bringing the sweater back close to its relaxed size, the size the sweater was right after you knit it. Cotton will absorb any moisture in the air so plan on washing your sweaters on a dry day.
Because cotton absorbs moisture so well, it also absorbs dye well. Good quality cotton is naturally very white and therefore colors will be very true and clear. Even a jacquard pattern with the darkest and lightest colors together will not seep into each other in a good quality cotton. Of course, you should make a swatch and test the fabric before you make an entire garment. Wash a small piece in warm water and detergent to see if the water changes color. If you follow the washing directions given here, machine washing will not be a problem with quality yarn.
MYTH 7: COTTON IS A HOT WEATHER FIBER ONLY; In the olden days, cotton was a summer fiber. Nobody knit with cotton in the winter. Today cotton is worn all year round. Cotton conducts heat away from the body so it is extremely comfortable in the summer. Wearing soft cotton against the skin, adding warmer outer garments as the indoor and outdoor temperature changes, makes more sense than wearing rough, scaly fibers against the skin which may irritate or cause allergic reactions.
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