Cotton is one of the most popular fabrics for a variety of uses. Not only is it perfect for clothing, but it’s widely used for bedding, linens, towels, pillowcases, and even inner linings in travel bags or purses.
There are tons of reasons why cotton is such a great fabric. It’s soft, it takes color well, and it’s a renewable resource. People can grow cotton over and over again to create this fabric for all the years to come.
One thing about cotton that many people debate about is if cotton is stretchy. Depending on the type of fabric purchased, there can be multiple answers to this question.
So, is cotton stretchy? Cotton can be stretchy if the fibers are woven in a knit weave, such as Jersey knit or Jersey cotton. Cotton that’s been woven in more of a broadcloth style is not as stretchy, though it can be stretched minimally over time.
There are a lot of different factors that determine the stretchiness of cotton fabric. In this article, we’ll dive in and explore all of these factors to help you understand the stretch potential of your cotton fabrics.
How Stretchy Is Cotton?
When it comes down to it, the level of stretch that cotton fabric has depends entirely on the weave of the fabric.
There are many different types of weaves used by manufacturers to turn fibers into fabric. Some are intended to create more structure, while some are created to give the garment a loose, flowy, stretchy feel.
Cotton fibers are naturally quite rigid because they come from cotton plants. Natural plant-based fibers are generally rigid by default because that’s how plants are by nature.
When woven into a knit-style weave rather than a tight or close weave, the rigid nature of cotton fibers gives way and allows for a stretchier fabric. It all comes down to the weave.
Jersey knit, for example, is widely known as one of the most stretchy cotton fabrics. Jersey knit is commonly used for bedding, but you can also find t-shirts and loungewear in a Jersey knit style.
Broadcloth is a type of weave that’s close and tight, preventing the fabric from having too much stretch. This is a common weave for cotton clothing, especially cotton clothing that’s sold at a lower price.
While you generally can’t tell the different weaves just by looking at the fabric, you can tell by how it feels. Grab a section of the cotton fabric and pull to gauge the stretch. This gives you a good indication of whether it’s knit or woven, and how stretchy it will be.
Are Different Cotton Clothing Items Stretchier Than Others?
This is another question that has more of a “yes and no” answer. While a t-shirt is no more or less stretchy than a pair of shorts, a Jersey knit t-shirt will be stretchier than a pair of denim jeans. Again, it all comes down to the weave.
Most people know that denim is the type of fabric used in blue jeans, but many people don’t realize that denim fabric is actually made with 100% cotton.
Occasionally, you may find jeans that use a small percentage of spandex, like 2-3%, to add some stretch, but generally it’s 100% cotton.
Denim fabric is made using cotton fibers that are woven in a twill weave style. The twill weave creates the ribbing pattern, usually in a diagonal direction, that many people are familiar with when it comes to jeans.
The twill weave used for denim fabric makes for a less stretchy feel. Although jeans can stretch over time through use, they are not inherently stretchy in a way that you can pull the fabric and watch it stretch.
Cotton pajamas and other loungewear are often made with a weave that leaves more room for stretch. Sweatpants, for example, are going to have more stretch than a pair of casual cotton shorts.
Does Cotton Stretch When You Wear It?
Over time, cotton will stretch as you wear it. The more you wear it, the more it will stretch. If you keep your cotton shirt stuffed in the back of your drawer for years, it won’t stretch just sitting back there. It has to have frequent use to stretch.
This stretch won’t be significant. Your shirt won’t suddenly become baggy after wearing it for a couple years.
Rather, the cotton will stretch to naturally conform better to the shape of your body. This will allow for more freedom in movement and a softer feel of the fabric.
It’s important to note that if you wear your cotton clothing frequently at a certain weight, then lose a significant amount of weight, your shirt will stay stretched.
Elasticity refers to a type of stretch that returns to its normal shape after it’s been stretched out. Cotton doesn’t have elasticity. Rather, it has flexibility. It will stretch out over time, but it will not return to its original shape.
Keep this in mind when stretching your cotton clothes. If your goal is to stretch them, go ahead and work on stretching the fabric, but remember that it will not go back to the original shape it once had. It will remain stretched for the life of the garment.
Are Cotton Blends Stretchy?
While 100% cotton fabric may not have much stretch, cotton blends can offer a much more stretchy feel.
For example, a cotton blend that’s 97% cotton and 3% spandex offers much more stretch. You may notice this in a pair of jeans, as we noted above.
Jeans mixed with spandex, or any other cotton/spandex blend, have a stretchier feel when compared to 100% cotton.
The stretch that spandex provides, however, is an elastic stretch. It helps the fabric expand temporarily, but will return to its original shape once the fabric is laid flat again.
A cotton/polyester blend, however, usually won’t have anymore stretch than 100% cotton. Polyester is a synthetic fiber that doesn’t stretch anymore than cotton does. Both of these fibers are strong and don’t have a natural elasticity.
However, remember that it’s all about the weave. If a cotton/polyester blend fabric has been woven in a knit weave, it will have more stretch than regular cotton/polyester fabric with a close weave.
Ways To Make Cotton More Or Less Stretchy
While you can’t change the natural stretchability of the fibers, you can help your cotton fabric stretch into a slightly larger piece of fabric.
To help stretch a cotton shirt, slip both arms into the body of the shirt through the bottom. Put your hands just through the sleeves so you have the ability to use your hands.
Grab onto a doorway and pull both arms apart from each other, stretching the shirt. This will pull on the fabric and stretch it out to make it slightly larger than before. You may have to repeat this process after every wash. This is because cotton shrinks in the dryer.
While cotton doesn’t stretch or shrink in the washing machine, it does shrink in the dryer. The hot air causes the cotton fibers to shrivel and become smaller.
If you want to make the fabric less stretchy, this is an idea of how to do it. Simply run it through the dryer on a hot setting and let the fabric naturally react to the heat.
If you want to make the fabric more stretchy, avoid using the dryer. Instead, we recommend laying your cotton garments flat to air dry.
You can try hanging them up to dry, but the weight and gravity of the water will pull the fabric down and may warp and stretch it in a way that you didn’t intend.
Does Cotton Stretch When Wet?
Yes, in fact, cotton stretches more when it’s wet than it does when it’s dry.
Cotton fibers are harvested from cotton plants, as we mentioned above. When plants absorb water, they soak it up into their fibers and roots, causing them to expand.
Once those fibers have expanded with water, they’re actually stronger. So cotton fibers become stronger when wet and can stretch further without breaking.
This is why if you’re trying to avoid stretch in your cotton, you shouldn’t hang it up to dry. The wet fabric will be pulled down by the weight of the water and gravity, which will cause the fibers to stretch downward.
And as we mentioned, cotton fabric does not return to its original shape once it’s been stretched. It will stay stretched in this manner unless you try to shrink it again in the dryer.
Is Cotton Stronger Wet Or Dry?
We already established that cotton has more stretch when it’s wet than when it’s dry. When we reviewed the reason behind this, we established that cotton is stronger wet than it is dry.
This is because cotton is a plant-based fiber that grows stronger through absorption of water.
Plants need water to survive. When you water a plant, everything about it gets stronger. The roots grow longer and thicker, the stalk or stem gets thicker, and the overall structure of the plant is stronger.
Fully and consistently watered plants are strong enough to withstand high winds. They remain standing in rain, snow, and windy weather.
Knowing this about how plants are created, it makes sense that cotton fibers would be stronger when wet than dry. Cotton is a plant, and the fibers react the same way to water as other plants would.
There’s science behind this, of course. Without getting too into the minute details, plants have cellulose, and when you add water, it strengthens the cellulose. Hydrogen creates extra hydrogen that bonds with the cellulose, giving it more strength.
What Fabric Stretches The Most?
By far the stretchiest fabric on the market is spandex. While spandex is mainly used in a blend with other fibers, a piece of fabric that’s 100% spandex has the ability to stretch up to 400% its size. This is an insane amount of stretch!
Even when you blend spandex fibers with other fibers, you still achieve a significant increase in elasticity.
Just think of the increase of flexibility you get by adding 3% spandex to 97% cotton. Just that small 3% of spandex fibers increases the stretch ability of the fabric and allows for a softer stretch than 100% cotton.
Because of its incredibly stretchy quality, spandex is most often used in garments that need to be tightly fitted to the body.
A piece of spandex clothing may look too small when you hold it up to your body, but once you put it on, you’ll notice it stretches to conform to the exact shape and size of your body.
This is evidenced in spandex clothing such as leggings, body-shaping undergarments, and accessories like headbands.
Is Cotton Cheap Or Expensive?
Cotton is by far one of the cheapest fibers in the world. When you think about how many fibers there are that create all the different types of fabrics available today, it makes you wonder, why is cotton so cheap?
Cotton is inexpensive because it’s easy to get. Just as with every other business sector, the economics of the textile industry rely on supply and demand.
Because cotton can be grown in large quantities virtually anywhere in the world, it’s extremely easy to obtain.
When you compare cotton to another type of fiber like silk that has to go through an extreme harvesting process made only by silkworms, cotton is incredibly simple to get and weave into fabric.
Cotton also doesn’t require synthetic manufacturing like polyester, which is another way that it’s easier to make than other fabrics.
Is Cotton Breathable?
Yes! Cotton is one of the most breathable types of fabric. It has a soft and lightweight feel that allows for optimal breathability.
The level of breathability will of course depend on the weave of the fabric. Some tight weaves don’t let any heat escape and can be insulating instead, but overall cotton is a breathable fabric.
This is why cotton is a go-to fabric for many summer garments. You’ll often find cotton shirts and shorts being sold for summer outfits.
Why Is Cotton The Most Popular Fabric?
Cotton is popular for all the reasons we’ve listed in this article. It’s easy to obtain, cheap to make and purchase, takes dye well to create many different colors and styles, and has a comfortable, soft, breathable feel.
This makes cotton one of the best fabrics when it comes to clothing. If you want to be as comfortable as possible without compromising on style and price, then cotton is the right fabric for you.
If you plan to make your own clothing, cotton is also incredibly easy to work with. Cotton fabric is a breeze to pin, cut, and sew. It lays flat nicely and comes together without much headache.
When you compare a solid fabric like cotton to a stretchier fabric like spandex, it’s much easier to sew.
Keep in mind that Jersey knit cotton will be stretchier and therefore a little harder to work with than plain woven cotton. Read through the different types of cotton your local fabric store has in stock to find the right fabric for your next project.
One thing is for sure – you won’t struggle to find a pattern you like. As you peruse the aisles, you’ll quickly learn that there are more pattern and color options in cotton than almost any other fabric!
Up Next: Is Silk Stretchy? – The Ultimate Guide