In the world of natural fibers, there are two that stand out as being the most common and the most reliable: cotton and wool. While silk does have a stronger reputation and is certainly the most luxurious of the natural fibers, when we think of textiles in our daily lives, it's not likely to come to mind. No, for everyday fabrics, it's cotton and wool that most people will picture and actually have around.
Of course, this prevalence lends itself to constant comparisons. In what areas is cotton better than wool? What applications favor the properties of wool over cotton? When choosing between these two for a project, it pays dividends to understand where they're similar and where they differ.
Cotton is harvested from plants, with a raw form of soft, fluffy balls. It has been a cash crop for centuries, being one of the most profitable non-food items on the planet. It is also versatile enough that about 50% of textile-based products use cotton, whether as a blend or pure. The processing required to turn the little puffs into a thread is more involved, requiring several steps.
Wool is a protein-based fiber, usually coming from sheep. However, types of wool like cashmere and mohair can be acquired from other animals, such as goats. The material is sheared away and trimmed, so there is a greasy feel to it pre-processing. The animal itself is rarely harmed if the shearing is done by a professional, allowing for future harvests once it has grown back.
In terms of fabric "weight," wool is heavier. It's thicker and retains heat better, making it ideal for cardigans, sweaters, and the like. This thickness also lends itself well to even small items like socks. Cotton is much lighter and thinner, making it comfortable to wear in the warmer months of the year. It is also much softer, more comfortable on the skin in general.
Wool is stronger than cotton, able to take much more punishment and damage. It's more resistant to wear and tear than cotton. As a material, the lightness and thinness of cotton lead it to have a few structural issues and making it prone to being pulled apart with enough force applied. However, this can be alleviated by knitting it or by using a blend to add durability.
Wool also has greater elasticity than cotton. If you need a garment to be able to stretch a little or to drape over the wearer, wool is a better choice. While you can knit cotton through a Sintelli machine in an attempt to alleviate some of it, the natural lack of elasticity limits it. Cotton just doesn't stretch very much on its own, though it can be woven with other, more elastic fabrics to provide a limited degree of stretch.
In terms of what you can make out of it, cotton wins the game. Apart from clothing, you can also make upholstery, bedding, and more out of cotton. It is a flexible fiber that lends itself well to multiple functions, rather than being limited to certain applications. In contrast, wool is more closely associated with clothing, specifically attire worn during colder times of the year. Its uses outside of this are limited.
Washing and drying are also important points of distinction between cotton and wool. Cotton is easier to wash, easier to clean. It also has slightly more resistance to staining. However, wool has the advantage when it comes to drying. Cotton takes more time to dry out, even in the open air or in heated conditions. Wool dries faster.
Cotton has better dimensional stability. This means that in general, you are less likely to warp it due to wear and tear. It retains its structure and shape. Wool doesn't have as much, so it's possible to warp it or to make it lose its shape. This is difficult due to elasticity, but it is possible. This is also why certain wool articles shrink in the wash, while cotton ones largely don't have this happen as often.
Bleaching isn't that much of an issue for cotton apparel. It can withstand that with greater resistance than wool. It also has a similar degree of resiliency when exposed to heat and detergent. In contrast, wool is vulnerable to all of these, though it still handles heat better than polyester, vinyl, or other synthetic fibers.
Cotton overall is cheaper. Yes, processing the raw materials is more expensive and involved, but growing cotton costs less than the farming of the animals that wool is sheared from. In terms of overall cost, wool costs more.
Cotton and wool are the two most dominant natural fibers. Cotton has strengths in terms of ease of cleaning and cost, along with being lighter and thinner. However, wool has better stretchability, dries faster, and is more comfortable in the colder parts of the world. Neither one is truly better than the other.
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