It’s no surprise that cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in the world. After all, human beings have been creating clothing from cotton for over 7,000 years, and synthetic fibers weren’t created until after World War I. Chances are, your favorite t-shirt and jeans are made of cotton.

“We market cotton for its durability and for being eco-friendly, but most of all, cotton is something familiar in life, so it brings comfort,” says Ryan Giordano, web coordinator at supplier American Ad Bag (PPAI 111067). “Cotton is timeless, gentle and feels like home.”

A recent Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitoring Survey revealed that almost 80 percent of consumers prefer apparel made of cotton or cotton blends. Key reasons are these:

Compared to synthetic fibers, cotton processing is relatively simple, and no part of the cotton plant is wasted. The fiber is used to make cloth; linters, or seed fuzz, are used to make plastics, paper products and cushioning; the cottonseed is crushed to produce oil for shortening and meal for livestock; and the stalks are ground for fertilizer. In addition, cotton plants have a short renewable life cycle of nine months.

Cotton fibers are spun tightly to produce soft, breathable fabric that is ideal for clothing worn close to the body, such as undergarments.

Cotton absorbs moisture, which makes it a perfect choice for warmer temperatures. It’s also a mainstay for those with sensitive skin, because it is hypoallergenic and free of static electricity.

Cotton is natural and is inherently chemical free.

Additional advantages of cotton include its strength and affordability, not to mention its ability to be transformed into a wide array of different materials, including percale, corduroy and seersucker. 

Synthetic fibers undoubtedly have their place in both the retail and promotional markets—many provide stretchiness, colorfastness and wrinkle-free ease that all-cotton products cannot claim. Blending the strengths of cotton with those of man-made fabrics has proven to be a winning combination for some suppliers.

Bev Fields, vice president of supplier Eversole Run (PPAI 199242), is confident that the 60/40 Peruvian Pima cotton blend that is used for the supplier’s EVR-Dri Pima Performance shirts is second-to-none. 

“There is not a finer cotton to be found anywhere other than Peru, and it shows in our fabrics,” she says. “The cotton allows for breathability and durability, while the polyester provides moisture wicking, high performance, fade resistance and easy care. The hand of this fabric is soft, comfortable and requires no ironing. It doesn’t get much better than that.”


Is Cotton Cleaner Than Synthetics?

Two related studies published on indicate that cotton may be a cleaner option for athletic apparel than polyester. 

In 2014, the University of Ghent in Belgium studied the growth of Micrococci bacteria—which causes body odor—on different fibers. The researchers collected and extracted microbes from post-workout t-shirts worn by a group of participants. The study concluded that the bacteria thrives on polyester.

In a separate study from the University of Alberta in 2013, researchers studied the effectiveness of removing odors when laundering worn clothing made of different fiber types. The study established that washing the clothes eliminated the bacteria, but in knit fabrics the odor remained and continued to build up over time. Laundering was far more effective in removing odor from the cotton apparel.

The two studies suggest that cotton athletic apparel may be a more nose-friendly—or less stinky—choice than polyester athletic wear, and it may also require less energy and water consumption over the life of the product. 


Picking The Perfect Cotton

Upland cotton makes up most of the world’s cotton crop. In the U.S., it is grown throughout the cotton belt, which extends from Virginia to California. Its versatility makes it useful for a full range of materials, from apparel to heavy canvas.

Egyptian cotton is known for its fine, strong fibers. It is often made into high-end apparel and bedding. Authentic Egyptian cotton is grown in Egypt, but the term
is often loosely used to describe any long staple cotton (the industry term for cotton with long fibers).

Asiatic cotton is produced primarily in China, India, Pakistan and Russia. Due to
its short, tough fibers, Asiatic cotton is best for non-apparel items such as blankets.

Pima cotton is a hybrid product predominantly grown in the western U.S. Created to resemble Egyptian cotton and named after the Pima Indians who cultivated it, this cotton is soft, highly absorbent and sought after for expensive clothing and bedding.

Although organic cotton still represents a small percentage of the global market, consumer and corporate demand for organic cotton is on the rise. According to the Organic Trade Association, demand for cotton that is sustainable and chemical free increased 15 percent between 2015 and 2016. Following trends in organic food consumption, the forecast for environmentally-friendly textiles is strong. 


Case Studies

In preparation for upcoming orientation sessions, a college was looking for shirts that would communicate its brand, differentiate orientation groups and ensure that orientation leaders stood out from the crowd. The college approached Axis Promotions, which suggested cotton t-shirts with coordinated colors and artwork. The shirts were well-received, and they were successful in providing the leaders with visibility, the groups with distinct identifiers and the new students with a polished orientation experience.
Source: Axis Promotions 


A library was hosting a summer reading program for grades K-8 and wanted to give the children a nice bag in which to carry their books. Previously the library had provided nonwoven tote bags, and it wanted something new. In addition, the library was concerned that a paper or plastic bag would not be strong enough to withstand an entire summer of toting books back and forth to the library.

Supplier American Ad Bag recommended a six-ounce cotton canvas tote, similar to the one at right, which was the ideal size to hold various shapes of books without being cumbersome for small children. The distributor suggested a rewards program: every time a child returned to the library with the bag, it would be filled with small prizes such as stickers, pencils and bookmarks.

The bags were extremely popular during the summer reading program, and the library received a number of inquiries about where additional bags could be purchased. In response, the library ordered more bags to be kept in stock and sold throughout the year. 
Source: American Ad Bag


Terry Ramsay is associate editor of PPB.