What You Need to Know about Cotton Yarn

Learn pros and cons of cotton yarn, and find free knitting patterns you can use for cotton yarn

Have you ever used cotton yarn for a knitting project, only to discover that it didn’t turn out quite as you had hoped?

I have! I’ve tried using cotton yarn for a beanie, as well as for fingerless mitts. Though both projects looked lovely at first, they stretched out of shape so quickly that became almost useless.

Since then, I’ve learned as much as I could about the qualities of 100% cotton yarn, and the best sorts of projects to use it for. (Hint: these do not include beanies, mitts, or any project that requires a snug fit!)

If you have cotton yarn in your stash and aren’t sure how best to use it, read on!

About Cotton Yarn

Cotton yarn is one of the most common and popular yarns in the world. However, it is very different from acrylic or wool, two other popular yarn fibers. You won’t want to substitute cotton for one of those two yarns, at least not without knowing what you’re doing.

Cotton yarn is a plant-based fiber with a natural color ranging from a light to a dark cream. Most cotton yarn is spun with a minimum of processing. It is simply harvested from the plant, ginned (that is, the seeds are separated from the fiber), cleaned, and carded (i.e., the fibers are smoothed into one direction and separated further for optimal fluff).

However, with a particular kind of cotton called “mercerized cotton,” there’s an additional step of processing: the fibers are treated with sodium hydroxide, also called caustic soda or lye. This process gives cotton yarn more durability and a greater capacity for dye retention. Mercerization also gives cotton yarn a sheen.

Pros and Cons of Cotton Yarn

Cotton yarn has many qualities that make it fabulous. To wit:

  1. Machine washability. You can take anything knitted with cotton yarn and toss it into the washing machine, then the dryer. No need to worry about shrinkage, like with wool.
  2. Durability. While cotton may fade a bit over time, it takes a beating like few other fibers. It is hard-wearing and resists breakage.
  3. Breathability. Unlike many other fibers, cotton doesn’t hold in heat. It breathes nicely, making it a great warm-weather fiber.
  4. Absorbency. Cotton’s ability to hold water makes it a perfect choice for projects like dishcloths, towels, and coasters.
  5. Veganness. (Probably not a word.) If you’re vegan and prefer not to knit with any yarn that’s animal-related? Cotton is the perfect yarn for you.
Knit Picks Comfy Sport - for a limited time!

But you should know a couple of caveats about cotton yarn.

  1. Weight. Cotton is one of the heaviest fibers. That makes it unsuitable for large projects like blankets or sweaters.
  2. Stretchiness. Cotton stretches like no one’s business. You won’t want to use it for anything that requires a close fit, like socks or a snug beanie. (This is why my cotton beanie and fingerless mitts stretched out of shape.)

These caveats don’t mean you shouldn’t use cotton, of course. In the right projects, cotton is the perfect choice.

Perfect Projects for Cotton Yarn

Mitered Hanging Towels

1. Dishcloths/Washcloths/Towels

Because of cotton yarn’s absorbency, there’s no better fiber for these projects. In addition, using a textured pattern will give your project scrubbing power.

Patterns to try:

2. Stuffed Toys 

Because cotton is largely hypoallergenic, and because you can disinfect it in the washing machine and dryer, it’s the perfect choice for knitting stuffed toys. Especially for babies and very young children!

Pattern to try:

Gnome Nuggets (honestly, check out all of Rebecca Danger’s amazing knitted cutie patterns!)

3. Baby Items

Again, the machine-washable quality of cotton makes it perfect for baby-almost-anything. Hats, booties, clothing, and blankets make great cotton yarn projects. (Cotton is too heavy for full-sized blankets, but baby blankets are the perfect size for cotton yarn.)

Patterns to try:

4. Market Bags

The durability and washability of cotton make it a great choice for market bags.

Grrlfriend Market Bag
Photo: Laura Spradlin

Pattern to try:

Grrlfriend Market Bag

5. Any Warm Weather Clothing

Light shawls, T-shirts, even thin lacy scarves are all wonderful cotton projects. Cotton’s breathability makes it ideal for wearing when the weather is warm.

summer shirts
Knit Eyelet Crop
Photo: Kate Smalley

Patterns to try:

6. Knitted Knockers

Cotton isn’t merely ideal for knitted breast prosthetics (Read these posts to find out more about the charities that take these items!). It’s actually required, because it’s soft and breathable and absorbent.

Pattern to try:

Knitted Knockers

7. Bonus idea: Bonding hearts!

Read my post about the Mighty Miracles Foundation and learn how you can make bonding hearts for preemies and their families!

bonding hearts
Textured bonding hearts

Patterns to try:

3 in 1 Free Knitting Patterns for Bonding Hearts

So if you have cotton yarn in your stash, or you’re eyeing it eagerly in your local yarn shop or craft store? Use it with confidence!

Cotton Yarn - what you need to know

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