For the first post in my thoughts on fiber series, I'd like to look at cotton. Cotton tends to get a bad rap. It is scratchy, it is inelastic, it pills. Banish the "scratchy" assumption right now. It is a misconception started because for most of us, the only 100% cotton yarn we encounter on a regular basis is Peaches and Creme or Sugar and Creme. Don't get me wrong, these are great yarns for kitchen and bathroom items. They are durable and absorbent, and come in a wide range of attractive colors. But they are not all cotton can be. Knitpicks Simply Cotton, for example, is like working with a soft fluffy cloud. Another factor in the softness of cotton is what kind of cotton it is. You wouldn't expect all wools to feel the same, and cotton is no different. My personal favorite for softness is pima cotton. Soft, soft, soft! I have also found it to be less pilly than some other cultivars, which is a double bonus.
Which brings me to the other complaint about cotton: it pills. Unfortunately this is a fact of life when working with very soft fibers. Because cotton fibers on their own really are soft -- comparable to very fine wool. The difference with cotton is that those fibers are also very short. It takes a lot of twist to get all the teeny tiny ends bound tightly into the yarn, and all that twist tends to make the yarn feel hard, like Peaches and Creme. When it is spun more loosely, the fibers have a tendency to escape a little, forming those irritating little pills. Of course wool does this too -- a very fine merino, for example, will pill just as much as any cotton yarn. This is where a sweater shaver comes in handy... most yarns, regardless of fiber content, pill like crazy for a little while, then stop. Shave off the pills, and it's good to go.
An important thing to remember about cotton is that when you block it, it will GROW. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, depending on the stitch and blend. In my experience, it gains much more length than width, especially if you encourage it to do so. I like to take advantage of this, personally... it gains a lot of length when washed that first time, so I don't have to work as many rows!
Another common complaint about cotton is that it's inelastic. This is true! It's only a downside, though, if you expect cotton to behave like wool. Yes, ribbing in cotton will stretch out and never go back. Cotton socks do not stay up well without the addition of elastic. But cotton lace is virtually self blocking. Yeah, if you make a big ol' cabled sweater out of cotton, it will grow and stretch and sag under it's own weight. But it makes great baby clothes, and again... lace that stays blocked.
Another advantage of cotton is how incredibly well it breathes. It doesn't insulate the way wool does, which makes it fabulous for summer knits. It does insulate some though, especially some of the fluffier yarns, which makes it great for transitional weather, as well. My very favorite hand made sweater is in fact a cotton/silk blend. It is soft and scrummy, and keeps the chill off without overheating me. The drape of it (it is a lace sweater) is also very flattering, whether I can fit into my skinny pants that day or not!
So in conclusion, cotton is great as long as you don't expect it to behave like wool does. It won't. But it has it's own properties that make it a great fiber in its own right, as well as having a lot to bring to blends. It's not just for dishcloths!