The Trouble With Cotton

April 22, 2015

This post is part of my Costume Changes project, a considered wardrobe revitalising project.

Of the aims of this project was to wean myself off the cotton tshirt. I like cotton tshirts because they are easy. They don’t need ironing or hanging up. You can wear them in bed at the end of the day. They go with skirts and jeans and shorts without great thought being required.

IMG_0396I want to wean off them for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they require washing after every wear.  Designed originally as underwear and breaking free into mainstream fashion, at least for men in the 50s youth culture, they do a great job of protecting overclothes from sweat but consequently need daily washing and sometimes changes within the day too.  Laundry equals energy and water use and lots of it. Obviously, you can reduce the environmental impact of laundry by line drying, efficient washing machines, tank water and solar energy but nevertheless, tshirts need a lot of washing.

Secondly, they are cotton. Cotton, whilst biodegradable and a renewable resource uses large quantities of water and pesticides to grow. Tshirt cotton is often poor quality and I find it wears really badly, getting holey and shapeless very quickly.

I figure any one of the following approaches improves my materials or energy resources burden.

  • Buy second hand Tshirts
  • Make a top out of better quality, more hard wearing cotton
  • Make a style of top, not quite so fitted under the arms, requiring less laundering
  • Use organic cotton as an alternative
  • Use non-cotton, biodegradable fabrics as an alternative

IMG_0397One of the approaches I was keen to try in Costume Changes, was a materials diversity approach to sustainability as described in Sustainable Fashion and Textiles Design Journeys (2008) by Kate Fletcher.

Conventional cotton and polyester make up 80% of all global textile production. Whilst polyester uses minimal water its production, it is made from finite fossil fuels, uses high energy inputs in processing and is not biodegradable. The materials diversity approach suggests that the more diverse the materials we use in textiles, the more spread out are the ecological impacts of production and manufacture.  The simple act of choosing other fibres such as wool, hemp, flax, organic cotton and cellulose disrupts the concentration of impacts from conventional (non-organic) cotton and polyester.  Anytime we buy fabrics or fibres from these other sources, we are helping alternative industries to flourish and create a broader base for textile manufacture to rest upon.

IMG_0255So I thought I would try making a silk tshirt. I drafted a simple shape off the pattern I used for my Floating World Dress. It does have darts, vital to accommodate those breasticles in non-stretchy fabrics, but no zips or buttons.

IMG_0257I think I did all the right things, changed my needle to a new, fine ball point and used French seams and rolled hems. But it was VERY awkward and frustrating. The silk slipped this way and that. It was hard to know how to cut a straight line as the fabric distorted so easily.

IMG_0241The result is OK but certainly not easy.

And that is the trouble with cotton. It is easy. It cuts easily. Sews easily. Irons well, launders well. It comes in so many very pretty patterns. It is attractive, enticing and very cheap in monetary terms.

IMG_0245This next top, was cut from fine, quilters’ cotton. Fine enough for a little drape but still requiring a little more structure so I shaped the back and sides. Ideally, this needs a zip and more shaping. But this one can easily pull on over my head and was quick to make with a very small amount of fabric, barely 70cm.

IMG_0263The sleeves are bound in bias cut scraps. This will still last longer than a Tshirt and will need less washing. I can use all the scraps for other things. But, it still has a substantial environmental cost really. I have some organic double gauze from The Drapery cut out and ready for sewing. That might be the happy medium between silk and conventional cotton if using new fabrics.

With autumn upon us, I would like to try this pattern in a woollen fabric, something from an old tweedy skirt perhaps, with a zip.