Knitting With Cotton Tips, Pros and Cons

Strong and Smooth

Three green yarn balls
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Some people just don’t like to knit with cotton. It’s understandable; there are certainly some things about cotton that are less than appealing.

But there’s no reason to toss out a complete fiber family, unless you’re allergic or sensitive, which is really unlikely when it comes to cotton.

The important thing when working with cotton is to know its good points and its less-good points and pick your project accordingly.

Cotton Pros

  • Cotton is a relatively light-weight fiber that is good for summer clothing and accessories.
  • It is quite breathable and comfortable to wear next to the skin.
  • Cotton can easily be dyed in a dizzying array of colors, so no matter what your favorite color is, you’re bound to find a shade of cotton to match your every desire.
  • Cotton is strong, durable and machine-washable. It starts out soft and actually gets softer the more you wash it.
  • It is usually inexpensive, though you are often rewarded with better quality when you pay a little more.
  • Cotton usually holds together well and doesn’t pill.
  • Cotton shows every stitch, which can be positive or negative, depending on how you’re knitting that day!

Negatives for Cotton

  • Some colors, especially the darker reds, blues, and blacks, tend to bleed, which can be a problem when laundering or when used in a project with lighter colors.
  • Cotton holds water really well and gets heavy when wet, so it can stretch and sag when soggy.
  • Cotton yarns can be slippery.
  • Cotton is inelastic, which can make it difficult for some knitters to keep an even tension, and it can cause hand strain.
  • Conventionally grown cotton is very pesticide-heavy.

Tips for Working With Cotton

  • It’s a good idea to work to a firm gauge with cotton because the weight of the fiber can cause the work to sag, especially when it's wet. You may want to work with a smaller needle than the ball band suggests so that you can get a firmer, more solid knitted fabric.
  • Try wooden or bamboo needles if your yarn is splitting or you find it too slippery.
  • Always swatch and wash your swatch. This will tell you a lot about how the particular cotton yarn you are working with will act, and whether it is going to bleed. If you’re planning a project with stripes, knit your swatch with all the colors you are planning to use so you’ll know if one bleeds on the others.
  • Because cotton can be somewhat bulky, try to start a new ball at the edge of the work rather than the middle.
  • Take frequent breaks if you find that knitting with cotton is hard on your hands.
  • Adding a tablespoon or so of vinegar to the water when you wash your project the first time can help keep the colors from running.
  • Never hang a cotton item to dry, as it will sag. Machine washing and drying are fine, though you might want to take items out of the dryer before they are completely dry. Reshape as needed, and allow to finish drying flat.
  • If you’re worried about the amount of pesticide used on your cotton yarn, try organic cotton.
  • If you like yarn with a shine, go for mercerized cotton.

Want to knit any of the projects shown above? From the big picture clockwise, they are:

  • Intarsia Apron
  • Knit Mop Cover
  • Garter Stitch Bib