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The complete guide to cotton knitwear – Everything you need to know 

To those not familiar with the ins and outs of fashion, “knitwear” means one thing and one thing only: woollens. Scarves, jumpers, cardigans and bobble hats all conjure up that woolly, cosy feel, and they are the very image of knitwear. 

But that probably has more of a throwback to the popular image of “knitting”, which might conjure up relatives tapping away with their needles and creating homespun works of art as if by magic. And it’s safe to assume they would have been using wool, not cotton.

The thing to remember is that knitting is a process, not a product. Most cotton clothing is woven, not knitted. They are two different ways of achieving a similar end, but with slightly different characteristics. If you like, it’s like comparing roast potatoes with baked potatoes – practically the same effect (heating), but slightly different end products.

What is the difference between knitting and weaving?

We’ve all seen comedy sketches where someone catches their knitted jumper on a nail and as they walk away, the jumper starts getting smaller and smaller as the length of wool pulls away. That can only happen in knitted clothing because the knit is made from one continuous length of wool, looping back on itself as it goes. 

In other words, it is created row after row, with each row attaching itself to the hundreds of loops of the previous row.

Weaving on the other hand, needs hundreds of individual strands of thread, arranged close to each other like harp strings, with half running north/south, and half running east/west. In a basic plain weave, they go over and under in turn, but more complex weaves can create patterns such as twill, satin and basketweave.

If you look at knitted and woven fabrics up close with a magnifying glass, you’ll see the difference in structure – rows of interconnected loops in the knit; 90 degree criss-cross in the weave.

But there’s more to the difference than the appearance close up. They also have quite different tactile properties. If you imagine the structure of a weave, it’s easy to imagine how it won’t stretch if pulled. After all, it’s made from lengths of thread that are already stretched – there’s nowhere for them to stretch to. Knitted cotton, on the other hand, has that looser structure created by the loops. You’ll be able to stretch it a little and it should settle back to its original shape.

That flexibility also makes it more forgiving when you’re packing it in a suitcase, or just wearing it. Knitted fabric can be screwed up, folded and manipulated more, whereas woven fabric will tend to crease. 

The advantage of weaving is that it’s cheaper and easier to mass produce, especially with repeated patterns such as plaid woven in. Most woven clothes are cut from squares of cloth, with the excess discarded or recycled, whereas knitted fabric tends to be made to the exact shape required.

What is cotton and where does it come from?

Cotton is a natural plant-based fibre that grows around the seeds of certain species of plant. It has been spun into thread and woven into fabric for many thousands of years, and was one of the most important materials driving the Industrial Revolution. Many towns and cities in the UK, especially in the North West, owe their existence to cotton – indeed, Manchester became known as “Cottonopolis” in the 1700s.

Although the industry largely died out in the UK and moved to Asia, it is currently having a resurgence in Europe, as demand for sustainable fabrics and an end to throwaway fashion gather pace. At Luella we use Ecotec® yarn – find out more about it here.

Why is cotton so desirable?

Cotton is, and always has been, valued for a host of benefits. First, it’s durable – cotton clothing can last for years and come out looking like new wash after wash, iron after iron. Second, it’s relatively easy to work with. It can be woven into very neat and fine threads that are still very tough despite the small cross-section – and when woven into fabric, it’s even tougher.

Third, cotton takes dyes very well – fast dyes keep their tone beautifully, allowing intricate patterns to be woven in that will last forever. It also takes prints exceedingly well too. And fourth, it’s incredibly soft to the touch. Cotton is used in shirts, T-shirts, underwear, bedclothes and even napkins; wherever there’s contact with skin, cotton will be a soft and pleasurable fabric – and its washability also comes into play here too.

A more recent addition to cotton’s benefits is that it’s a vegan fabric. People who don’t like to use animal products such as wool, or man-made fabrics like synthetic polyamides, have an all-natural product that brown from the ground, is sustainable and supports millions of livelihoods all over the world. 

Luella’s range of cotton knitwear

As you can see from the details above, cotton is the perfect fabric for knitwear. It might not be as warm as cashmere, but it’s just as versatile, breathable and easy to care for. And anyway, who said knitwear was just about warmth? It’s just as important as fashion wear, and also for layering, in summer, autumn, winter and spring.

The classic use for cotton knitwear has to be in a simple jumper. Of course, when you shop at Luella, simple always has a few touches that make you stand out from the crowd. Take the hot pink and silver star jumper that has the Luella stamp all over it. Did you ever realise knitwear could be this glamorous? It’s 100% cotton and made in Italy to our exacting designs, so it’s everything you need in a sweater – and more. (Also available in coral red)

Another superb look comes with subtle stripes running across the fabric to break up what could be an expanse of paleness. The Clara comes in a striking collection of colours: ivory and tangerine, azure blue and white, and the earthy coral and ivory scheme. A perfect top for summer, but throw a t-shirt on underneath and it’ll get you through spring and autumn too.

If you want a little more from your stripy look, the Brittany collection is for you. They feature regular two-tone stripes from neck to waist, but there’s a contrasting third colour in the collar, cuffs and hem, which all adds up to a cotton jumper that really looks the part in all seasons. This one comes in sky blue, white and slate; blue, denim and yellow, tangerine, ivory and pink, and green, white and turquoise mixes

And then there’s tutti fruitti – the coloured stripes are spread throughout the jumper, but this time it has much more casual collars, cuffs and hem than Brittany.

At the other end of the scale is the Alex V-neck collection – simple cotton knit in one colour, blue or pink, for a casual classic you can wear with almost anything, indoor or outdoor, formal or laid back.

With cotton knit, you don’t even have to have full-length sleeves. Have a look at the short-sleeved cotton knit T-shirts, for example. They have the luxury associated with cotton knit – nobody would ever mistake it for a plain jersey T-shirt – but all the casual qualities you get from knitted clothing. They’re light, cheery and perfect for layering or wearing out on a summer’s evening when you need a little more than a simple tee.

Finally, we bring you Cassie. It’s a beautifully chic cotton knit jumper that our customers seem to be loving right now. The stripes all the way along the sleeves are certainly a striking feature that makes it look very European, and maybe even a touch sporty. The effect of the three or four highly contrasting colours really makes the top jump out at you. 

And because the torso section is just one signature colour, you can wear it under a blazer or coat and nobody will know what’s hiding under the sleeves – until you take the jacket off and create a wow. Available in a trio of blue tones with navy as the signature, pink, hot pink, orange and raspberry, and a lighter blue quartet version, there is sure to be a Cassie for you.

Cotton knit – something for everyone

So there we have it – cotton knit is a perfectly wearable intermediate fabric that sits between jersey fabric and woollen knitwear. It can be as smart or as informal as you like, and because it’s cotton, it’s versatile, washable, super comfy against the skin, and very forgiving when you are carrying it, packing it and wearing it. In short, what’s not to love about this gorgeous fabric?