by Meg McIntyre

My company, Summit Trading, is a small, home based cottage industry. I specialize in machine knit cotton sweaters. My knitters and I currently use Passap and Brother standard gauge machines. In the past we have also used Brother bulky and Singer standard machines. I have knit and sold many thousand cotton sweaters and have tested almost every cotton yarn I can find. I hope I can help those of you who have had difficulty with cotton yarn, and those of you who have yet to try it. The main reason's people choose to wear cottons are that it's not too hot and it's not itchy. In this "fast-food" age, people also want easy care garments. Easy care these days means washer and dryer, and I have discovered that such treatment of cotton knits is actually best. In fact, the more delicately you treat cotton knits, the more problems you are likely to have. My philosophy is that you can't fight nature, so work with it.
Whether you are knitting for yourself, family, friends, or customers, don't you want to know that the size and shape of the finished garment will remain the same? Once a garment leaves you, you can never count on the washing instructions being followed. If you follow my knitting and laundry advice, you can be confident that the garment will endure any punishment it might receive.

Cotton shrinks. If you don't do the shrinking, someone else invariably will. Most people believe that shrinkage takes place only in the dryer, not true. I have found that samples washed in cold water and laid flat to dry shrunk up to 12%. Other samples washed in cold water and dried in hot dryer shrunk up to 17%. I boiled some samples and discovered that they shrank only 2% more that in cold water. Mercerized (shiny) cotton shrinks less that untreated cotton. Close to 100% of the shrinkage in the length. Knitting the garment a size larger will not result in an accurate fit.

Cotton is generally more difficult to work with than more elastic animal and man-made fibres. It is stiffer and less forgiving. Waxing can be very helpful in allowing the yarn to flow more easily through the tension mast and carriage. Because most knitters do not take into account the amount of shrinkage there will be, the knitting tends to be much too tight. The gauge may look all right when you take it off the machine, but after washing and drying it will be very stiff. Knitting any yarn, especially cotton, too tightly, can be hard on, and possible damaging to your machine. Since cotton yarn is generally stronger than other yarns, it may not break if the carriage jams. Don't force it. Try starting off with a much looser knit than you think you will need, then adjust from there.

Knitting a proper tension swatch is the key to a successful project, the bigger the swatch the better for accurate measuring. I believe that any swatch should be washed and dried in the same manner as the finished garment will be before any measurements are taken. The goal is to find a gauge that, after washing and drying, is firm but not stiff. Only experimentation will give you the gauge that's right for your project. Because cotton has no natural elasticity, a firm gauge is needed to help the garment keep its shape, especially in areas such as a ribbed sleeve cuff. The heavier the yarn, the more likely you are to have a droopy garment if the knitting is too loose. With a fine yarn, or when knitting lace or openwork designs, you may be able to get away with looser knitting.
You can never eliminate stretching and drooping of cotton knits, but you can keep it to an absolute minimum. Many times I've heard knitters say that they don't mind how huge their cotton sweaters get because they can be brought back to size in the dryer. I know that I would prefer a sweater that stays the same size and shape in the first place, wouldn't you? My customers often complain about cotton sweaters they've had that droop, but love the fact that the sweaters I knit stay the same size. Proper gauge will result in a garment that never looks sloppy.
Cotton has no "memory", so blocking in order to set the size and shape is not helpful. The larger your tension swatch and the more accurate your measurements, the better the fit you will achieve. Blocking can be useful in flattening the edges of pieces in order to make seam stitching easier. The effect of any blocking or pressing you do to the finished garment will only last until the next time the garment is washed.

I recommend using warm water. Although cold water tends to keep colours brighter, warm is more effective in cleaning away wax, oils and excess dye. Because a cotton garment is often worn next to the skin, it also needs a more intensive cleaning. Use as much water as possible to help disperse excess dye, if any. As for detergents, Ultra Tide has given me excellent results and I recommend it to my customers. Do not use bleach, as it can cause some dyes to run. Always add the detergent before the garment. The choice of the delicate or regular cycle is up to you. I use the regular cycle because if it can't take the wash, it can't take the wear! Give the garment a second rinse if the water is stilled coloured. A second spin is good too, since cotton absorbs so much water. Never leave the garment wet in the machine. Especially a multi coloured one, since the dye will eventually seep from one colour to the next. I do not recommend hand washing for several reasons; the soaps made for hand washing are better suited for wool and silk than they are for cotton: not enough water is used to disperse excess dye: and garments are often left soaking that gives dye a chance to seep. Dry cleaning is not recommended either because the chemicals used can make some dyes run.

I like knowing that a customer cannot shrink one of my sweaters. In order to ensure that the garment is fully shrunk, I use high heat and do not remove it until is "hot dry". The dryer does not cause fading. Dye is removed only in the wash. I always dry things inside out and with buttons undone to ensure that even bulky seams get thoroughly dry. When the garment is worn, it will "give" a little. After washing, drying in the dryer will return it to shape. One tip I give my customers is to put the item in the dryer for a few minutes to freshen it up between wearings. If the item is laid flat to dry, dye can still seep from one colour to the next because it is still holding so much water. Never hang a cotton knit to dry because the weight of the water in the cotton will cause the garment to stretch. Using the dryer also results in a garment that is softer and fluffier.

Pilling occurs when the shortest cotton fibres work their way to the surface through washing and wearing. I have never encountered a cotton yarn that did not pill. If the first wash of the garment is a vigorous one, and there is only one garment in the machine, most of the short fibres will be removed. Keep the lint filter clean and use a fabric softener sheet for the best results. Most cotton yarns actually become smoother the more they are washed and worn.
I hope this will help you knit quality cotton garments. Getting used to working with cotton may take some time, but in the end you'll be pleased with the results.

DISCLAIMER: The information on this page is a personal opinion of Meg Mcintyre and she is not associated with Curl Bros. Textiles Ltd.