This is the first in a series of articles looking at the origin and characteristics of different fibres in crochet- and knitting yarn. We will also discuss how to best wash and care for your specific fibre garments to keep them looking at their best for longer. In this article, we’ll explore cotton and linen fibre yarns.
Benefits of cotton and linen yarns
It’s nice to have a linen or cotton project to work on in the summer months, because it’s much cooler than wool to sit underneath as you are knitting or crocheting away. And you can also have the satisfaction of being able to wear and show off your handmade garments all year round!
Linen and cotton are also great alternatives if you have sensitive skin or find that knitting wool is too itchy for garments worn next to the skin. They both feel a bit different to wool but will soften with wear and use: Like a favourite pair of jeans, they tend to improve as they age.
Where does cotton come from?
The first evidence of cotton being used for clothing dates back to 5000-6000 B.C. Cotton fibre is actually the seed hair of plants from the Gossypium family. It forms in little clumps or bolls that look like fluffy clouds on the plant. The hairs are removed from the seeds by a process called “ginning” -sadly no tonic is involved… The fibres are then carded to straighten and may also be combed to remove any short hairs before being spun into yarn suitable for use with your crochet hooks or knitting needles.
What is mercerised cotton?
You may also come across the term mercerised cotton. “What does this mean???”, we hear you ask. In a nutshell, regular cotton has quite a dry handle and fuzzy, matt surface appearance whereas mercerised cotton is more slippery and silky.
The mercerising process was developed to make people think that cotton fabrics were actually made from silk – sneaky, eh? It was invented by John Mercer in 1844 to stabilise the cotton fibre and help reduce how much it shrinks which makes it less prone to pilling. It also supports the uptake and retaining of dye so that the fabric doesn’t bleed colour back out during washing.
KnitIQ Top Tip: If you have a garment that bleeds when you wash it, add a small capful of white vinegar into the bowl along with your delicate wash detergent. This helps to set the dye more firmly into the yarn. Only about a tablespoon amount, mind, because you don’t want your project coming out smelling like a portion of fish and chips!
What to knit or crochet with cotton yarn?
Cotton is a good choice for crochet items or textured knits because of its clean appearance and clear stitch definition. It is also useful for garments that need frequent washing such as baby knitting patterns or summer baby blankets, as it’s easy to wash and dries relatively quickly. Cotton is also fantastic for making re-useable wipes and cloths if you are trying to be more eco-conscious around the home, because it is very absorbent too. Organic and recycled cotton yarns are becoming more widely available now.
Where does linen come from?
Linen yarn is produced from the fibres of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum). It is one of the first fibres that fabrics were ever made from and has been used in apparel for thousands of years. Linen artefacts have been found in both Ancient Egyptian tombs and the remains of pre-historic European settlements dating as far back as 30 000 B.C.
Flax can be grown quite easily with little need for either fertiliser or pesticides, so it is pretty eco-friendly. The fibres are removed from the plant stalks in a process called “retting”. This is basically leaving the stalks to rot in stagnant water - eughhh! - so that the fibres can be removed from the woody bark of the stems.
Benefits of linen yarn and what to make from it
Linen has a cool, dry handle and good moisture absorption so it is a great choice when you want to keep comfortable in the summer heat - or that one day a year here in the UK! It also has natural anti-bacterial qualities. Whereas cotton can go stiff and crunchy after repeated washing, linen just gets better and softer with each wash, becomes more supple, and drapes beautifully in summer T-shirts and cardigans. In addition, its fibre is very strong and lends itself making bags and other accessories too. And to finish or freshen up your linen project, it also loves a good steam. But be careful not to press your iron directly onto the surface, as this will glaze the fabric surface and compress the stitches.
A quick note on bamboo yarns
Bamboo is becoming more widely used for yarns and is often associated with being an eco-friendly choice, because the bamboo plant grows rapidly and is seen as a sustainable crop. However, most bamboo fibre available is actually a synthetic, man-made fibre where the cellulose from the bamboo plant is extracted by dissolving it in a chemical solution and then regenerating it into a viscose/rayon fibre. This should be listed on the yarn label as “bamboo viscose” or “bamboo rayon”.
There are wide variations in how environmentally friendly the processing of the fibre is. In that regard, it is certainly worth buying from a reputable brand who have an ethical stance on production methods and transparent supply chains.
With regard to its feel and usability, bamboo fibre is soft but not very strong and is usually used blended with another fibre. We will talk about washing and caring for synthetic fibres in more detail in a future article.
Natural or raw bamboo, however, although quite coarse, is sometimes used in blends with other fibres as well, and will have similar properties to linen. This should be listed as “bamboo” or “natural bamboo” on the yarn label.
How to wash cotton and linen yarn items
Cotton and linen are generally more forgiving than wool when it comes to washing and caring for them. There are no pesky scales on the fibres to get tangled and felted during washing and they are generally less stretchy than wool and easier to handle. But keep in mind to get your gauge right, because it is harder to change the size and shape of the finished article when blocking.
Some yarns may even be…. machine washable! But proceed with caution. They will not like being put in a 60oC wash with a smelly PE kit for instance. The garment will come out feeling crisp and as stiff as a board! This is why it’s important to always check the label to see what the yarn manufacturer recommends. A reputable supplier will have tested their yarn to ensure that it doesn’t shrink, stretch or bleed colour excessively at the recommended wash temperature.
If you are going to machine wash, it is a good idea to put the item into a mesh laundry bag or even a pillowcase to give it a bit of protection. Wash on a delicate or wool cycle at no more than 40oC, and use a delicate detergent.
However, wherever possible we recommend hand washing, because it will prolong the life of your garment, especially if you use a gentle liquid detergent for delicates like Knit IQ No Rinse Delicate Wash. Our no-rinse, plant-based formula was created to keep textiles clean and fresh while preserving the moisture and softness of natural fibres for longer.
We would also recommend that you dry your item flat rather than hanging it or heaven forbid… tumble dry it. KnitIQ Blocking Mats are an ideal surface to lay out your washed item, then pat and pin it into shape for drying.
For more information on how to block your knitting, browse through our articles here.
Linen has a reputation for creasing easily when used in woven fabrics – this is not so much of a problem with knitted or crocheted items, and even less so if the linen is used in a blend with cotton. As an aside here: You may encounter cotton and linen also being used in fancy blends such as cotton/wool, kidsilk/linen, cotton/cashmere etc. etc.
KnitIQ Hot Tip: Always wash and block your finished project based on the most delicate fibre in the mix if you want to keep your items looking as good as, or better than, the day you cast them off the hook or needles. Even our experts here at KnitIQ have had personal experiences of washing disasters caused by not reading labels properly… There may be an adult cotton cashmere cardigan that now fits a 7-year old lurking in a chest of drawers not too far away from here… ahem!
Neither linen nor cotton are as elastic as wool so will have less “give” and be harder to pull out to stretch/block firmly. If making an item where the finished measurements are important then it is a good idea to make, wash and block a gauge swatch first to check that it will fit ok.
For more details on how to wash and wet block your item – see our previous article How to wash wool and care for your knitwear. The basic procedure is the same!
Cotton and linen can also be spray or steam blocked if you are impatient or just fed up with the British weather. No one wants to wait for days on end for their lovingly crafted jumper or cardigan to dry whilst the rain pours down outside. For spray blocking, simply fill a spray bottle with lukewarm water – you can mix in a pump of KnitIQ No-Rinse Delicate Wash for fibre nourishment and as a freshener – and spray the item lightly before blocking. Or simply pin it out onto your KnitIQ Blocking Mats and lightly steam with either an iron or a steamer with a delicate fabric guard attachment. Be careful not to touch the fabric’s surface directly with the iron or steamer… or to scald yourself!
And finally, please do remember to tag us in your social media posts. We love seeing your pictures of blocked items and the finished articles fledging out into the big wide world!