Cotton Fabric & Men’s Clothing – Understanding the World’s Most Popular Apparel Fiber

Cotton is King of the men’s clothing world.

The world’s most important apparel fiber makes up over 50% of the fabric sold throughout the world to including men’s cotton suits, cotton dress shirts, hosiery, underwear, and just about every piece of casual wear to include jeans and sweatshirts.

The popularity of cotton is no accident. Cotton fiber has a long history with man, and it has endured because its unique properties make it ideal for clothing.

Cotton fabric is attractive, durable, comfortable, takes to dyes, and most importantly has proven itself to be a superior fiber for men’s clothing manufacturing.

cotton fabrics men shirt

Physical Characteristics of Cotton Fiber

Cotton is divided into various groups depending on its physical characteristics; we will focus on two of the most important characteristics, the length of the cotton fiber and its fineness.

Cotton Fiber Length in Menswear

Cotton fibers vary in length considerably, from half an inch to 2 inches. Higher quality is often associated with longer length, and achieving this desired state is more expensive due the risk of a longer growth cycle and an increased demand on resources.

Long fibers make up only 3% of the worldwide output, and their use is typically reserved for high end shirt fabrics and other luxury.

A few varieties of this long fiber cotton used in shirt fabrics are American Pima, Egyptian, and Sea Island Cottons.

Cotton Fiber Fineness in Menswear

Cotton fiber fineness (the fiber’s diameter) is the second important quality of this king of fabrics.

High end fabric producers look to weed out irregularities and immature cotton fibers – these latter tend to be 20% thinner than mature fibers and can lead to early wear in shirtings fabrics due tot he fact they are less durable.

Between length and fineness, even a bale of quality cotton can lose a large percentage of it’s fibers to QC. Thus the cost of high end cotton used in quality mens clothing can rises substantially.

Cotton Fiber Properties

Absorbency and Cotton Fabric

Moisture absorbency is what makes cotton so comfortable in hot weather.

It absorbs the moisture from your skin allowing it to evaporate by passing through the fabric, thus allowing your body to regulate your temperature. This combined with the spun yarns ability to hold the fabric slightly off the skin allows greater comfort than other fabrics in hot conditions.

Heat Conduction and Cotton Fabric

Heat passes freely through cotton; combining this property along with the absorbency characteristic above, you have an unbeatable fiber for making hot weather wearing fabric. However, in cold weather, this strength is a weakness; typicallycotton jackets are not good at retaining the body’s heat.

Resiliency and Cotton Fabric

Fabrics made from cotton tend to wrinkle and do not hold their shape well. This problem can be addressed by specially treating the fabric or blending it with a man made fiber, but you lose a bit of its other properties such as durability and heat conduction by doing so.

Durability and Cotton Fabric

Cotton is very durable, especially when compared with other clothing fibers such as wool or mohair.

In fact, when wet it increases in strength by 30%; thus throwing 100% cotton shirts in the washing machine may mean a lot of ironing, but you can be sure the fabric will remain intact. It can be washed with strong detergents, and the only thing you may want to watch out for is it losing some of its color (thus the case for hand washing).

Cotton’s molecular structure resists heat damage, so ironing is a great way to get the fabric looking crisp; a quick tip – shirts respond best to ironing when they come immediately out of the dryer still a bit damp and warm.

Cotton does have some durability issues though, especially when exposed to acids and bases. Use bleach sparingly as that it weakens the cellulosic fibers of cotton. Cotton fabric should be stored clean and dry to protect from mildew, which digests cellulose and can cause holes if too much time elapses.

Cotton fabric is also sensitive to acids, thus a fruit juice stain on your dress shirt should be treated immediately and not left to sit for days.


Green Considerations – Cotton Fabric’s Impact on the Environment

Negative Impacts of Cotton

Mainstream cotton farms use chemical pesticides and bio-engineering to get the highest quality and yield per acre. I won’t elaborate on the damage here, as the unintended consequences of chemical runoff and the creation of more resistant pest insects are well documented.

Another environmental problem with cotton is how water and mineral intensive it is; improper growing can lead to heavy soil mineral depletion and erosion.

Positives of Cotton

Cotton is a renewable resource that has successfully clothed man for centuries. In part to the Green movement, Organic Cotton has risen in importance and economic viability. Organic cotton uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and therefore leaves a smaller footprint on the environment.

However it has a lower yield per acre and a lack of economies of scale in the industry – the cost to get organic cotton to the consumer often doubles the price of this fiber.

Over the last 20 years we have also seen the re-emergence of naturally colored cottons. Cultivated for thousands of years, although now just receiving more attention from fashion houses, naturally colored cotton fiber can be grown in red, brown, beige, and green. Other naturally grown colors are in development.

cotton blue stripe on white

Conclusion – Cotton Fabric is here to stay in Menswear 

Cotton fabric’s properties have made it a staple in menswear for thousands of years. Despite it having drawbacks and losing ground to less expensive synthetic fibers, cotton will continue to be a large part of a man’s wardrobe.

Cotton fabric is here to stay in menswear – make sure you understand this fabric as proper care will ensure a longer life for your cotton clothing.