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.

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  1. Enjoyed your posting this morning regarding the tee shirt. I love tee shirts and most of mine I do purchase from the second hand store which at supports the recycling of that which others discard. I understand the frustration of sewing with silk. I might suggest something a little different for you that utilizes wool and silk that creates beautiful cloth. I have seen very thinly felted wool that has been sewn to recycled silk or linen clothing and molded into new garments while wet…including hats. So artistic, beautiful and strong. With your hand-dyed wool I can see a whole new world of clothing waiting for you to create! Joanie

  2. So much food for thought!! I am currently looking for a “good” t-shirt pattern. My sewing is so-so. It seems I have quite a lot of cotton yarns and should probably knit some t-shirts. I feel like you with all the energy used in making cotton fibers and I’m sure cotton yarn is no better but at least I have enough to knit a few. I really like the colors in your cotton T.

  3. Sustainability in fashion is such a complicated thing I find … I want to support fair trade and local, I try to buy silk worm friendly silk, I avoid superwash wools and non-organic cottons … finding something that ticks all the boxes seems nigh on impossible. I guess we can only do what we can do.

    I’m loving the silk top 🙂

  4. This is such a thought-provoking blogpost, Rebecca (as so many of your’s are). I have been reviewing my wardrobe, thinking (ashamedly) how seldom I make a point of buying organic cotton – it’s not always easy to find in the UK, Perhaps that’s because we aren’t making enough of a noise about wanting it. I take comfort in reminding myself that I’m good at charity and thrift shopping! Your silk and quilters’ cotton tops look just great!

  5. Nice silk shirt! and can be just hand washed quickly. Am sure you checked the net for sewing with silk . I liked this one: and some suggest spraying with spray starch to stabilize the fabric. Back to your original premise……I agree and that book looks very interesting. My T’s are OLD or 2nd hand. I have a friend who goes to thrift shops, finds things, takes them apart and remakes them. She claims men’s shirts have the best fabric 🙂 I looked at the Drapery’s offerings and liked that tartan……..haha, I would! Happy fabric hunting!

  6. Love them both. But I have a tip for you. I used to heavily starch rayon and other very lightweight slippy fabrics but you would have to try it on a scrap first as silk can mark. I use Crisp spray starch from the supermarket and I think Coles still stocks it. Been a long while since I have bought it. So spray it on a scrap, iron it and then give it a quick handwash and dry to make sure it hasn’t marked the silk permanently like a watermark or similar.

  7. Replacing the classic T in a wardrobe almost sounds impossible at first. Both your tops look great and a tweedy version would be just the thing for the cooler weather. I think double guaze would be like wearing a dream, it’s so soft and floaty. I just bought some long sleeve tshirts for winter and opted for a couple made with bamboo and one made with hemp, they have a bit of spandex but not as much as a glam rock band.

  8. Just this past summer I’ve rediscovered again the joy of neat little shirts, or dare I say it…the ‘blouse’. I’ve been digging into my vintage fabric stash (always rewarding!) and whipping up some sweet styles. Despite the speed and practicality of running off a tee-shirt, sewing gathers, tucks, tabs, etc. is an incredibly satisfying and ultimately yummy experience!

  9. What lovely fabrics and a provocative post, too. One thing that can be done is to purchase vintage cotton. I have done that, although I haven’t been giving sufficient thought in general to the environmental impact of my sewing. I have tended to focus on making things I will love and wear for a long time, therefore lessening the need for replacement. PS I’m quite interested in Joan’s suggestion of the mixture of fibres and molding of garments. Very interesting…

  10. Very interesting point of view, thank you! Are you familiar with the Fashion Revolution? It is an worldwide campaing for ethical fashion industry. The big revolution day is 24th of April (tomorrow , or it might be already today in Australia) You are already part of the revolution, I see.

  11. Good point, lovely silk top. I got a couple of wool t-shirts for their wash less advantage. One day I hope to sew as much and as well as you do!

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