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After a particularly awful cotton sweater experience, I will admit that I didn’t knit with cotton for a long time.

When I learned to knit, the teacher didn’t guide us much. I chose a worsted weight 100% cotton yarn to knit an Aran sweater for my first project.

There were words, there were tears, every cable was wonky, it weighed a ton, and I couldn’t fit my head through the neck. Good times. I found a different knitting teacher, and have since been very particular about what and how I knit with cotton.

I happily knit with cotton now, but it took my learning about how cotton behaves (or doesn’t) to make me a happy cotton knitter.

Cotton fibers are short, fine, strong, dense, and so soft. It makes breathable, absorbent, and soft fabric that is delightful to wear.

In fiberspeak: cotton has no crimp (what makes wool elastic) or scales (what makes wool felt).  Cotton doesn’t felt, and it doesn’t have elasticity. Cotton fibers are smooth, in every way.

I swatched five different cotton yarns, all different and all wonderful.

Top: Urth Yarns Uneek, 100% Mercerized cotton, color 1082.

Middle left to right: Rowan Handknit Cotton, 100% cotton, color Gooseberry; Rowan Summerlite 4ply, 100% Egyptian cotton, color Langoustino; Kelbourne Woolens Skipper, 100% Tanguis cotton, color Magnolia.

Bottom: Amano Sami, 100% organic Pima cotton, color Moss.

Different types of cotton

These are a few of the types of cottons you might run into.

Upland cotton. The cotton you get when the label says 100% cotton. It’s the same cotton used to make jeans. Most cotton yarns are a variety of Upland cotton.

Pima/Egyptian/Sea Island cotton. These cotton fibers are finer and longer. They are softer and more durable than Upland cotton. These are considered luxury cottons, and may cost more.

Tanguis cotton. A cotton grown in Peru that uses much less water to grow than Upland Cotton.

Mercerized cotton. Mercerization is the process of chemically treating cotton; it’s not a type of cotton that grows. The treatment makes cotton yarn stronger and more durable, helps it to absorb dye, and gives the yarn a sheen.

Organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. If you want the most organic of cottons look for a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification.

How cotton is spun

Cotton yarns are spun with lots of twist. Those short, fine fibers need it to hold together. The yarn is spun with a worsted draft, smoothing the fibers and squeezing out the air as it’s spun into yarn.

Cotton doesn’t pill, but if it’s loosely spun and subject to friction, it can get fuzzy.

The best cotton knitting yarns are plied. Because cotton is a dense fiber, yarns can get heavy. Plying adds air to a yarn making it lighter, and it also contributes to durability.

Cotton’s personality

Like every fiber, there are delightful things and things that need to be considered before diving into a project with cotton yarn. Because cotton yarn is dense, it has great drape, but it can be heavy. Because it’s strong, and doesn’t felt or shrink much, it’s durable and machine washable, but it has no elasticity.

The smoothness of cotton gives it amazing stitch definition. But stacked or manipulated stitches—like cables, bobbles, nupps, and stranded colorwork—can be an issue. They add weight, which can cause it to stretch out. The lack of elasticity can make manipulated stitches uneven. There no spring that lets stitches snap back into each other.

I once did a ruffle on a cotton sweater. Bad choice. The *k1, k f/b, repeat from * until the end of the row, over several rows was physically hard to knit. Then the ruffle just lay there, stunned, under the weight of all of that yarn.

If, like me, you have tendency to knit unevenly, row out, or split stitches, it shows more with cotton yarns. Knit cotton yarns at a firm gauge to minimize stitches and garments stretching out.

I use blunt tipped needles to keep from splitting stitches while I knit.

My favorite thing to knit with cotton are flowy summer tops, and baby and kid gifts. Cotton absorbs water, and feels cool to wear, and is so soft, perfect for the summer swelter.

Cotton yarn, especially long stapled and mercerized cottons take dye wonderfully and come in a rainbow of vibrant colors. I particularly like bold cotton stripes.

Read the ball band for recommendations, but most cotton yarns are machine washable and dryable. Personally, I only dry my sweaters most of the way in the dryer, and lay them flat to dry after zhuzhing them into shape.

Check that cotton garments are completely dry before storing them. Cotton doesn’t attract bugs, but it can mildew, and no one likes that particular summer smell.

When I head to my LYS to choose a cotton yarn for a project, I do a quick check of my project’s features. Does the project need elasticity? What kind of stitches does it use?

Once I have a potential yarn in hand, I calculate the weight of my project for the yardage I need. I find that doing a little planning heads off knitting disappointment, and I can switch to a cotton blend yarn if weight or elasticity is an issue.

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


  • Does mercerization affect the absorbency of cotton for dishcloths? I bought a couple balls of it but I’ve been wary of trying it for washing dishes yet. I suppose I should swatch, but typically I consider the completed dishcloth as a swatch for experimentation anyway.

    • The people who know the most about cotton yarns and their absorbancy are weavers who make dish towels! I poked around and found an article by Madelyn Van Der Hoogt, long time editor of Handwoven Magazine.

      Note: Pearl cotton is mercerized cotton.

      She says,”The shinier finish on 10/2 pearl cotton caused by the chemical process of mercerization does reduce that yarn’s absorbency. Towels woven in mercerized cottons are never as absorbent as those woven in unmercerized cotton; however, with repeated washings their absorbency increases.”

    • I read an article once that concluded that mercerized cotton can actually absorb more water than non-mercerized. However, its rate of absorption is slower. So short term (like drying a dish) I think non-mercerized works better. But a wash rag? Probably either one is fine. I’m not sure if the slower absorption also means it takes longer to dry…..

      • This is the best!!! Thank you for such a deep dive into cotton!

  • Thank you, Jillian and MDK! I’ve never enjoyed knitting with cotton, though some wool/cotton blends have been great. Maybe now I’ll try some 100% cotton when I find just the right summery pattern. I do love *wearing* cotton, so it’s time to do this!

  • Does anyone have recommendations for adult sized sweater patterns that successfully use cotton? I live in North Carolina, where it rarely gets cold enough for wool, and would love to explore more knitting in cotton. Problem is…it is hard to find patterns and I’m wary of adapting wool ones. Great article. Thanks!

    • I don’t have specific recommendations, but if you have a Ravelry account, and do an advanced search, you can specify the type of yarn. Then you’ll get patterns that use cotton.

    • Please! I just moved to FL from NJ and have something like 20 bins of gorgeous wool that I just don’t see myself using until we move back. I need some good ideas for lighter weights and cotton!

    • I second your question. Maybe MDK could do a profile on long sleeved adult cotton sweater patterns? That is all I can usually wear during my not-very-cold winters in Louisiana yet I keep knitting wool sweaters because those are the amazing patterns that I see!

      • Yes! Came here to ask for pattern recs!

  • This was such an informative article. I am wondering why some of my white cotton wash cloths are turning pink? Bleach does not help to whiten them.

  • I made one cotton/bamboo/ silk top years ago and it went straight to the thrift shop. It had no shape! I am tempted to try a baby sweater because you make such great points in this article! Thank you!

  • I learned to knit on cotton, at my sister’s insistence. She wouldn’t let me knit with any other fiber until I could knit with cotton to the point that it looked good. After that, literally every other fiber was a breeze to work with.

  • The last paragraph is a pearl of wisdom. Considering the total weight of the finished product is good advice for all of the plant yarns. I’ve been unpleasantly surprised sometimes at just how heavy a little summer tee can be.

  • Swatch. Swatch. Swatch.

    I totally reknit the first sweater I made in cotton. (This is why I love MKD. Because I found out that even Patty Lyons has totally reknit sweaters. And a big thank you to the LYS owner who told me it would be best if I just started over.) It was too droopy. My tension was not tight enough. The yarn had to be tight against the needles for every stitch. There was just no forgiveness in the yarn. It was like knitting with string. Sweater 2.0 was perfect. I loved the stitch pattern and the deep red color. As a basic T-shirt style, it was perfect on its own for summer or under jackets in other seasons.

    In addition. I still have my pima cotton Perry Ellis sweater kit sweater. It was a big investment at the time. But the style is so classic I still wear it. That cotton was lovely to work with. Softer and more forgiving.

    • I’m slowly ripping down a perfectly completed, blocked cardigan, a perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience… two sizes too large, and it was such a pleasure to read your post!

  • Perfect timing for this really helpful piece thank you, as yarn for my first ever cotton knit tee has arrived this morning.
    I’m already rethinking my needle size!

  • What a great article! I’ve never loved store bought cotton sweaters, and this explanation about the pros/coms of the material makes my preference so much sense. I do have some cotton yarn from Blue Sky Fibers though that I impulse bought because it was so pretty and soft, so I do need to figure out something to do with it.

  • Thanks for the tutorial on cotton yarn. I think we have all done that 100% project that stretched to our knees!

    I use a cotton blend for knitting. 100% is too hard on my hands for knitting.

    I use crochet for 100% cotton. It works well together for my older hands.

  • Thank you! This was very helpful. I love the word “zhuzhing”. 🙂

    • And also “the ruffle just lay there, stunned, under the weight of all of that yarn.”

    • Me too! I immediately wondered if spell-check challenged it.

  • This was great. Who knew there was so much to cotton? I learned a lot from this article! Thank you so much!

  • Thank you for this. I have avoided knitting with cotton. But armed with this information, I may try again.

  • Thank you for article! So clear! Diane

  • I add to the chorus of thanks for this article. So timely and useful!

    What are your thoughts on joining a new ball of cotton yarn? I have not found a satisfying method for this, so I would like to you hear your advice.

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      I always knot cotton when crocheting dish scrubbies and the knots stay strong. So I wasn’t worried about knotting it in a garment, but hiding the ends was tricky. I successfully joined cotton using Norman’s technique (#10 on the page) and it was almost invisible from the public side of the garment. You could try it on a swatch and see what you think. It took extra time but was worth it!
  • I have knitted two bulky cotton yarn sweaters in my life. Are they heavy? Yes. Did I plan for this? No. However, I love wearing them – they are wearable weighted blankets.

  • Thank you. This was very informative. I’ve not had good success with any cotton blends so far. Neck opening always ends up so large…so, we’ll see if I knit anything else with any cotton.

  • Came for the information. Got a bonus laugh from the stunned ruffle. Love your writing. And thanks for all the info!

  • Thanks for such an informative article! As a Southerner, I am always looking for non-wool yarns I can use to knit pieces that I can wear more often. It would be great if you could do something similar looking at how to assess cotton blends. Thank you!

  • I knit a sweater once in cotton and it was so oversized. Should we knit a smaller size with cotton?

  • Thank you Jillian for a great article. I had the pleasure of being allowed to pick Upland cotton in Arizona, a big garbage bag full. After hand ginning and working through spinning, I hope to dye the yarn and knit a sweater. No ruffle’s though, thank you for all your advice.

  • So helpful! I have a stash of cotton that I love. I have been making potholders for years as gifts. Do mosaic knitting.
    I want to branch out and do summer shirts. This came just in time!

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