Do you have a type of fabric that just calls to you? You know, the type that even though you’re looking for something completely different in the fabric store you just can’t help walking over to it and reveling in its deliciousness. Yeah, me too. It’s called cotton.
I am the Cotton Girl. I LOVE cottons.
I gave myself that name in high school because everything I sewed was from cotton – dresses, shorts, tops, curtains, vanity toppers, pillows. It was actually difficult to choose a fancier fabric for my prom dress, which I made from poly moiré. But the lining was cotton!
Cotton is a versatile textile providing comfort, luxury, easy sewing ability, warmth, coolness, breathability, washability and strength. We can use it for undergarments all the way out to bonnets, trims and outerwear.
Types of Cotton Fabrics and Their 19th C. Costume Uses (not an exhaustive list)
- Batiste – chemise, drawers, corset covers, Regency day & evening dresses, undersleeves, collars & cuffs (with sturdy underlining), trims, bustle aprons, summer dresses
- Broadcloth – bustle underskirts, 1890s summer skirts, hoopskirts & bustles
- Calico – mockups, petticoats, sunbonnets 1830s to 1880s day dresses
- Chintz or Polished Cotton – bodice & skirt underlinings
- Corduroy – men’s trousers & waistcoats/vests, capes, belts, 1890s skirts & vests
- Coutil – corsets, bodice underlinings
- Damask – 1840s to 1860s ball gowns, 1880s & 90s skirts and bodice accents, waistcoats/vests
- Dotted Swiss – Regency day & evening dresses, undersleeves, bustle day dresses, 1890s blouses
- Eyelet – petticoats, undersleeves, 1850s to 1880s day dresses
- Flannel – drawers, under petticoats, coat/jacket linings
- Lawn – chemise, drawers, shirtwaists/blouses, Regency day dresses, bustle dresses
- Muslin – mockups, underlinings, chemise, drawers, petticoats, corded petticoats, hoopskirts & bustles, undersleeves, collars, cuffs
- Organdy – petticoats, corded petticoats, collars, cuffs, underlinings, 1830s to 1880s summer dresses, belt lining, bonnet/hat lining, hem facings, trim support
- Poplin – bustle underskirts, bodice underlinings, sheer skirt linings
- Sateen – waistcoats/vests and their linings, bodice linings, coat/jacket linings, late Victorian bodices depending on the weight
- Shirting – petticoats, 1870s to 1890s day dresses, shirtwaists/blouses
- Twill – hoopskirts & bustles, bodice underlinings, bustle underskirts, 1890s skirts, Regency spencer & pelisse, cape/cloak/paletot lining
- Velveteen – Regency spencer & pelisse, capes/cloaks, belts, 1870s to 1890s bodices, skirt accent fabric, trims, bonnets
- Voile – Regency day & evening dresses, summer dresses, shirtwaists/blouses, undersleeves
Regency costumes all in cotton (from left): drop-sleeve shirt in muslin, waistcoat in ivory damask (one color), breeches in corduroy, the lovely Sharon Lathan in the middle, dress in windowpane gauze, open robe in twill.
Watch out for cotton/poly blends as they are everywhere and are sweepingly sold as all cotton. Broadcloth, eyelet and voile especially. These and others can contain as much as 65% or more polyester. Although not forbidden to use, they are not historically accurate. And the poly doesn’t breathe like cotton which makes for an uncomfortable time in the many layers of costume pieces.
As mentioned in the Part 2 – Wool post, I HIGHLY recommend Julie Parker’s All About Cotton: A Fabric Dictionary & Swatchbook as a valuable tool to sewing with cotton fabrics. Your sewing bookshelf should not be without it!
(For Part 1 – Linen click here)
Treating Cotton Fabric
All cotton fabric should definitely be pre-treated before cutting and sewing. Cotton is known for its shrinkage (you know, how your jeans are tighter when they’re freshly washed). You want to avoid your tightly fitted garments shrinking to the point where you can’t get them on anymore.
Cotton can be washed in warm or cold. Warm water will shrink it a bit more. The fabric can be air dried or thrown into the clothes dryer.
As a test to see how much the textile is reduced, cut 2 exact swatches and wash one with the fabric. Compare the 2 swatches. All fabrics are varied and some will shrink both along the grain and on the cross. You may also notice the swatch shrink further in one direction or another. This could indicate a blended textile or simply the warp and weft threads were handled differently in the weaving process.
Cotton fabric usually continues to shrink after repeated washings. Make note of this when sewing certain garments. Air drying will help slow this inevitable course.
Pressing cotton requires a hot iron and steam. As with the nature of this textile, you will have wrinkles and creases. After washing, dry but leave damp then press. This will help to get most of the wrinkles out. You can also use a spray water bottle to dampen the fabric while pressing.
(Before making a garment) don’t fret if you can’t get out all the wrinkles. Press the fabric as well as you can. When you are constructing your item, pressing as you go will get more creases out.
Cotton naturally rumples. Expect it. Work with it as is and be satisfied. Remember everyone else who is wearing cotton is also thinking about the wrinkles in their dress.
Where to Buy Cotton Online
Get samples if you can. Start your own swatchbook so you can learn to identify the various cotton textiles available.
Also keep other obscure sources in mind for obtaining cotton fabric – use ready-made drapes and sheets. Tablecloths work too. Or simply wander around your local fabric or quilting store. Cottons are quite abundant.
The list here is not exhaustive, merely places I’ve found over the years that carry cotton. I have not purchased from all of the vendors listed so do proper research before buying.
Burnley & Trowbridge – Tell Angela you found her here!
Denver Fabrics – nice selection of many fabrics
Dharma Trading Co. – good quality fabrics ready for dyeing
Farmhouse Fabrics – delicious cottons of all sorts
Hancock Fabrics – a national large fabric store
JoAnn Fabrics – the usual generic fabric store
Maggie May’s Historic Clothing – 100% cotton reproduction prints
Originals by Kay – mid-century supplier, high quality
Payless Fabric – carries hard to find polished cotton
Renaissance Fabrics – Tell Diana you found her here!
Reproduction Fabrics – excellent selection of period appropriate designs
Spoonflower – make your own fabric; most offerings are in cottons
You no doubt have historical costumes made from cotton. Tell us your favorite in the comments below!