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Now that we’re on smile and nod terms with cotton in general, let’s look at two specific cotton yarns here at Chez MDK. Both are from Rowan. Handknit Cotton is a light worsted weight and Summerlite 4ply is a fingering weight.

Even if they were the same gauge, you could tell the difference riding by on horseback.

Handknit Cotton is 100% combed cotton. It looks soft, almost fluffy.

I didn’t talk about combed cotton last time since it’s a process rather than a type of cotton.

Combed cotton is combed before it’s spun, which removes the unwanted bits, like snarled bits of cotton fiber and tiny pieces of dried stem or leaf that sometimes make cotton a bit uncomfortable.

Combed cotton is softer than regularly processed cotton. It tends to be more durable too, since the fibers are more or less the same length and are free from debris that rub against the soft cotton fibers and abrade them.

Who is with me in wanting a combing process for everyday life? We could remove those little annoyances, robo calls, nosy neighbors, exes, Mondays…

Handknit Cotton is softly spun and has a matte surface. It can be used for just about anything and comes in loads of colors.

The feel of Handknit Cotton is cushy. It’s as soft as it looks. The more open nature of this yarn makes it absorbent, which is excellent if your summer means humidity. It has very good stitch definition and is happy with most stitch patterns.

If you want to knit at a looser than ball band gauge, Handknit Cotton drapes well and makes a nice fabric. The stitches don’t look open as much as relaxed.

The looser twist and shorter fibers fill in a bit of the space a looser gauge makes, so the fabric isn’t sheer. The difference between these two swatches is three needle sizes.

Depending on the weight of the garment you make, you may need to block it after every wearing to put it back into shape.

Summerlite 4ply is 100% Egyptian Cotton.

You might remember that Egyptian Cotton (along with Pima and Sea Island) is a longer, finer, smoother type of cotton. Summerlite is spun with a tighter twist than Handknit Cotton.

It feels denser and bit stiffer than combed cotton, but it softens with wear. Egyptian Cotton is more durable than combed cotton due to the longer fibers.

It isn’t as instantly absorbent as Handknit Cotton but the smoothness makes the fabric feel cooler.

Summerlite has a crisper look and sharper stitch definition. The fabric is very smooth.

A downside: if a stitch splits, it will show. You have to decide if it will bother you or not. If I were making a garment, I would have ripped back and fixed it, but I want to show you how it looked.

It makes my eye twitch a little, because the rest of the fabric is so even.

These swatches are knit at ball-band gauge and then with a needle three sizes larger, just like my Handknit Cotton swatches. The tighter twist in Summerlite doesn’t allow for the stitches to fill in at a looser gauge, so the fabric is open and drapes more than the Handknit Cotton.

This is why I think it was genius for Ann to make a Shakerag Top out of Summerlite. The difference in an open vs a regular gauge is striking, even though the difference in fabric density in the Shakerag Top is done by using a single vs. a double strand of yarn.

Side By Side Comparison

First, I want to remind you that these yarns are not the same gauge, Handknit Cotton is a light worsted-worsted and Summerlite 4ply is fingering weight (4ply as a weight in the British yarn world equates to fingering in the U.S. yarn world).

The yarns look different as strands, even though they both have a matte surface. The Summerlite looks smoother and the Handknit Cotton looks softer.

When untwisted to look at the ply, it’s apparent that the twist in the singles and ply is softer in the Handknit Cotton. They are both 4-ply yarns (four strands twisted together), which contributes to stitch definition and durability.

Stitch Patterns

It’s easy to the see difference in stitch definition when the swatches are side-by-side and knit in stockinette.

Both have excellent stitch definition, but the Summerlite’s is razor sharp.

I did stumble and split stitches with both yarns, even though my needles are bamboo and mildly pointy. As I mentioned before, any stitch related hiccup shows in Summerlite, but with the Handknit Cotton the wonky strands are masked a bit by the softer structure of the yarn.

In lace, the YOs in Summerlite are wide open and in the Handknit Cotton the softness of the yarn fills the holes a bit. These were knit at their suggested ball band gauge. If I wanted more open holes with Handknit Cotton or more drape for either, I would work at a bigger gauge.

With texture stitches, for me, the softness of Handknit Cotton makes a more pleasing fabric.

I like how the garter stitches mush together. They look interlocked.

With the Summerlite, they seem to stand apart. This is 100% personal preference. I would never yuck your yum. Cotton in general looks amazing in textured stitches. The definition elevates the simplest knits and purls.

Both of the swatches in this two-color slip-stitch make me do a little knitter wiggle. It’s the knitter’s version of a happy tail wag.

Both styles of stitch definition (super crispy and a little softer) look fantastic in this color and texture combo. The stripes are clear and the repeated singular purl stitch puts a perfect, popping, point on the design.

Before you ask, it’s from the first Barbara Walker stitch dictionary: Dotted Ladder Stitch. I got so excited by these swatches; I’m currently trying to figure out an existing pattern that I can swap this stitch pattern into.

Handknit Cotton and Summerlite 4ply are both excellent choices for summer tops (or sweaters for any time of the year, also for dishrags, toys, and kids stuff).

They are both easy to work with and come in a bazillion colors. It’s wonderful there is a choice of fabric style: crisp and defined or softer and relaxed.

About The Author

Jillian Moreno spins, knits and weaves just so she can touch all of the fibers. She wrote the book Yarnitecture: A Knitter’s Guide to Spinning: Building Exactly the Yarn You Want so she could use all of the fiber words. Keep up with her exploits at


  • Excellent review I don’t have Rowan products nearby so having a review like this is so great! Thanks

  • Clarity! Thank you! I am currently knitting a shakerag in summerlite and loving the fabric being created.

    • I have some Summerlite and am considering using it for a Shakerag top.

      What adjustments, if any, did you make?

      Are you doubling the Summerlite? What size needles are you using.

      • Hi! I am using it doubled but with white to make a marled stripe and a single of just the color in between. I am using the needle sizes in the pattern I think 6 if I remember right.

  • This is really helpful! For this summer, I knitted up a Magic Dots Raglan by Hinterm Stein in Summerlite DK. It is a simple pattern that knits up quickly but seems to show off the features of the cotton and has an interestingly created dot/dash stripe.

  • The dotted ladder stitch would look great as a border on Nell’s Shakerag Skirt!

  • Thank you! I love Summerlite 4 ply, and have made a few tops already with it, and have 20 skeins ready to knit, on size 2 needles. It has wonderful drape, soft feel, yummy colors. The one pattern calls for 5 skeins, and 4 is all I needed. It is so lightweight!

  • Now if you could just tell me how to weave in cotton ends, I would be grateful.

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      There’s a wonderful book about intarsia knitting that illustrates how to do it. You’ll need a tapestry needle. Thread your end and on the wrong side, stitch through the purl bump going in a diagonal from your starting point. Go through at least 3 or 4 purl bumps then do a U-turn and go through 2 or 3 purl bumps parallel to your first diagonal. I have a photo of what this looks like on one of my projects (the one I like to call intarsia madness): Hope this helps.
    • Try sewing them down lightly using sewing thread. That also works with li en and blends.

    • After 40yrs of knitting, a few years ago I saw a way to weave in ends on YouTube (unfortunately don’t have the reference) that blew my mind. It’s basically duplicate stitching with the tail. That means following exactly how the stitches were made. The claim is the tail would not pull out. It’s absolutely true because the tail stretches with the fabric. With other methods when you stretch the fabric you can see the tail pulling back out. I make mostly shawls & scarves, things you see both sides of—this method works great. Try it! You can split the yarn & weave in 2 thinner tails, I try it both ways & decide.

    • Seconded!!

  • Thanks for an excellent informative article. As someone who just started working with cotton — I need to review my choices!

  • Great comparison.

    I have a large lace shawl (leaf lace variation) from Handknit cotton I made almost 20 years ago and it has been schlepped everywhere and washed and it still looks new. Keeps the chill of over a/c’d rooms away.

  • Wow! Such a helpful review of cotton. Thank you!!

  • Terrific side-by-side comparison with great photos and just enough personal YMMV commentary.

  • Brilliant! So clear, informative and beautiful presentation. Makes me want to jump in and knit with cotton again. Thank you Jillian.

  • This is fascinating. I love the comparison. And the phrase “knitter’s wiggle” will be with me for a long time!

  • This article was so helpful. Thank you!

  • I love the Yarn Detective essays. Every one is so interesting and informative. Thanks!

  • This is so helpful and informative and I love the side-by-side comparison photos. Thanks so much for this article right in time for summer knitting.

  • Another helpful review! I have used Summerlite for weaving and the finished product is lovely. Also, great baby sweaters!

  • I struggle knitting with cotton yarn. I have arthritis in my fingers and cotton and acrylic yarns do not seem to glide as easily through my fingers. I will try some of the yarns you mentioned because I have some patterns that really need cotton.

  • So helpful. I appreciate that you took the time to knit so many swatches – I was surprised by the clear differences and am glad to have the info. My next cotton garment will definitely benefit!

  • I make potholders using the Handknit cotton. And Barbara Walker’s Mosaic patterns. A great combo! I need to find that Dotted Ladder Stitch. Which volume?

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