Our Business and Presentation shirts, as well as Quantum Cat Designs novelty shirts, are made of high thread count, tighter weave, quilting-grade Kona cotton. This material is a little thicker and heavier than most shirting cotton, thus a bit more expensive. Although the extra cost is a downside, the upside to this better-grade cotton is that it lasts longer and has a better feel on the skin. The Kona cotton still breathes well, so do not worry about wearing it in a warmer setting.
Organically grown and naturally dyed cotton clothing is being planned for future Quantum Cat Designs clothing lines.
Q: It's clear there are many ecological and social concerns about cotton. Do you think people should stop using cotton?
A: No, not at all. I do not want to see cotton disappear, just be more ethically cultivated. I also hope that in the future, there will be more balance between the use of cotton and other naturally produced plant textiles, such as hemp, natural bamboo fiber, banana fiber, and pineapple fiber textiles.
Trying to ban cotton would be rather fashionista fascist. Take a look at the history.
History of Cotton
Native varieties of cotton are found on different continents. The cotton plant produces very fine fibers in seedpods, so seeds more easily disperse in the wind. Many other plants also produce cotton-like fibers that help the wind disperse their seeds far and wide. Using the fibers of plants that have wind-dispersed seeds for textiles was inevitable.
Cotton has been in use for millennia in many parts of the world. For example, the Incas had their own native types of cotton grown for textile use in pre-Colombian Peru. To this day, the cotton industry in Peru favors the varieties of cotton cultivated by the Incas in pre-Colombian times. The Incas made ropes, fishing nets, and clothing out of cultivated cotton. The Aztecs, in what is today Mexico, also grew their own strains of cotton, and from it, made clothing and fishing nets. Archeologists have dug up the remains of cotton fabrics in the Indus Valley of the Indian sub-continent almost 10,000 years old.
Q: So what are the advantages of a cotton garment?
A: First, cotton has a nice natural look that is hard to beat. Second, cotton still beats out rayon for comfort and softness. Third, cotton is the primary textile fabric in the world today. Most fabrics available to clothing designers are cotton. Cotton fabrics offer the widest array of fabric textures, colors, weights, applications, and printed images. Cotton is also not likely to trigger allergies in most people. Cotton breathes well in warm conditions and does not trap heat or perspiration too much. And cotton is biodegradable.
Q: What are the downsides of a cotton garment?
A. Notice how many garment labels say things like "60% cotton, 40% polyester"? Cotton is often prone to shrinkage, and it may not hold its shape as well as other textiles. That tendency is one of many reasons lots of textile manufacturers blend polyester fiber into their mostly cotton textiles. Cotton is also not the most durable of all textiles. It wears out a little faster than a lot of other fabrics. And those are only a few of the many reasons why cotton and polyester blends are popular.
The traditional 100% cotton fabrics of India, while truly beautiful, can have terrible color retention issues, and often an appalling shrinkage rate. Some cotton textiles bleed colors badly not only when washed, but even while worn. Cotton also loses its insulation value when wet, so it is not the best thing to be wearing in cooler or wet conditions. Cotton does not have any inherent anti-bacterial properties, unlike some other textiles. Cotton absorbs unpleasant odors rather easily compared to some other fabrics. Cotton is prone to mildewing. Cotton is a big magnet for lint. And cotton stains easily—although not as bad as polyester.
Ecological and Social Impacts of Cotton
On a world scale, the cultivation of cotton is a big environmental problem for a variety of reasons, including that cotton is very thirsty for water. Cotton is typically grown in hot and arid climates such as Texas, California’s Central Valley, Western China, and Central Asia. Cotton tends to grow in tropical, subtropical, or warmer Mediterranean climates. A decent amount is grown in Greece. Many places around the world cannot produce locally grown cotton. This creates dependence on faraway and volatile international cotton commodities markets.
Although cotton is naturally drought and salinity resistant, the necessary combination of a hot and arid climate that still has water for a thirsty crop means that intense irrigation is usually needed. This has made necessary the damming and diverting of rivers and intense over-pumping of aquifers. Building dams has been associated with a host of ecological problems. Over-pumping of aquifers gradually leads to increased salinity of ground water and over-mineralization and depletion of the irrigated soil.
To make matters worse, because cotton is such an in-demand cash crop, there has been a tendency to only produce cotton and not practice crop rotation. Lack of crop rotation quickly leads to soil nutrient depletion and over-reliance on chemical fertilizers.
Cotton is very attractive to pests of all types. Unfortunately, fungicide, herbicide, and pesticide use is rampant where cotton is cultivated. It has been reported that cotton cultivation currently accounts for about half of all worldwide pesticide use, and that large-scale commercial cotton production also accounts for a large percentage of the world’s industrially produced fertilizer and herbicide use. As of 2012, cotton is also one of the most genetically engineered crops.
Although organically grown cotton is obviously a better choice, regrettably, because of cotton's thirst for water, even organically grown cotton does not receive the best fabric rating for overall environmental impact.
In the past, and present, cotton has been linked to regional one-crop and one-product economies. And the food implications of cotton are also worth considering. When drought strikes a region, cotton production can suffer. However, cotton competes with food crops for the same production land. When droughts come, many regions have tough economic and political decisions concerning whether to plant cotton or other crops. There is only so much land and water available. Food production taking precedence over cotton production can lead to cotton shortages—and vice versa.
It is true that cotton itself is also somewhat of a food crop. Besides being harvested for its textile-grade fibers, it is also a major source of edible seeds. However, cotton is often not officially classified as a food crop, so its seeds are not subjected to the same food preparation standards as are the edible seeds of dedicated cereal grasses, such as wheat. Many nutritionists believe that cottonseed oils are too high in saturated fats and not high enough in monounsaturated fats. There is also the added health issue concerning the safety of using non-organically grown cottonseeds as a source of edible oils and vegetable proteins. Since cottonseed pods and entire cotton plants are typically so heavily treated with chemicals—including high-nitrate fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides—consumers are ingesting a portion of these.
In spite of all these issues, cotton remains very much in demand and a profitable crop. Some of the reasons cotton is so desirable as a textile crop are its abilities to be picked, deseeded, carded, and packaged by machine. The harvesting and processing of cotton is no longer labor intensive. The automation of cotton harvesting has made cotton a readily available and inexpensive fiber for markets around the world. One of the drawbacks to stem-based fabrics, like linen and hemp, is that they cannot be produced as quickly and with as little labor as cotton.
Q: Okay, so cotton is popular, but it sounds like super bad stuff. Really, shouldn't I just try and avoid buying any cotton products from this time forward?
It makes sense to purchase products made from organically grown cotton when you can—from cotton swabs to baby diapers. But please do not feel guilty about purchasing clothing made with cotton. Cotton has been cultivated for textile making by humans for thousands of years and has earned a place in the hearts of all people. Before the Industrial Revolution and the development of large-scale intercontinental trade, cotton was a staple textile crop in India and a novelty in Europe and other places. Today, cotton has become a worldwide favorite as a breathable, comfortable fabric. Wherever you travel in the world now, almost every person you see is wearing cotton clothing, and by far, the vast majority of the clothing available for purchase is cotton.
As awareness is increasing worldwide about the problems associated with cotton production, two good things are happening: Steadily, more cotton is being cultivated in a more ecologically responsible manner, and other fabrics are emerging to help ease the demand for cotton.