Learning about cotton fibers when weaving rugs
Cotton Fibers and Antique Rugs
Cotton is a vegetable fiber derived from agricultural cultivation. It is used most commonly in the foundation of the rug rather than its pile or flat-woven facing. It’s fibers are stronger and less elastic than those of wool, and weavers can maintain an even tension more easily with cotton yarns.
When used for the rug foundation, it makes it easier to produce a straight-sided, evenly-proportioned, tightly woven rug, and that is why urban and court weavers with high standards of technical precision long ago adopted cotton as the main material for the foundation of the rug.
Cotton can, however, be used for the pile or flat-woven facing of rugs. This is done to get an extremely bright white color, since it will do this better than wool. It’s yarns are stronger and less elastic than those of wool, and weavers can maintain an even tension more easily with cotton yarns.
When used for the rug foundation, it makes it easier to produce a straight-sided, evenly-proportioned, tightly-woven rug, and that is why urban and court weavers with high standards of technical precision long ago adopted cotton as the main material for the foundation of the rug.
Cotton can, however, be also used as the actual pile of a carpet or the kilim flat woven facing of rugs. This is done to get an extremely bright white color, since it will do this better than wool.
Cotton in Rug Making
The most common fibers used in traditional rug making are cotton, wool, and silk. They can be used singly, or any combination using a different fiber for the warp and weft of the rug. Cotton is one of the most common materials used for the f warp of rugs. There are many reasons why this is so.
Cotton is pure cellulose fibers produced from plants in the family Malvaceae and the genus Gossypium. There are four main species used in commercial cotton production around the world, but there are also many species of wild cotton to be found in Africa, Australia, India, and the Americas. Cotton requires a long growing season with moderate rainfall, high amounts of sunshine, and a long frost free season. It is also quite nutrient intense.
When the flower of the cotton plant matures, it produces fluffy balls containing the seed, called bolls. These are harvested and processed into fibers that can be spun. Traditionally, this was done by hand carding and combing, but the invention of the cotton gin in the late 1700’s allowed for the introduction of the commercial cotton processing similar to that which is still used today.
Throughout the years, the center of cotton production has shifted to various cotton producing centers around the world with different countries leading production at different times. Cotton is known to have been used on the Indian subcontinent since Neolithic times, about 6,000 BC. The centers of cotton production have shifted between Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, India, England, and more recently, the USA.
Making Cotton Rugs
Cotton is the most common fiber used for rug warps. This is because it has a higher tensile strength than wool or other fibers, with the exception of silk perhaps. However, silk is usually reserved for the making of fine cloth, but it is used as the rug wefts with a cotton warp. In some remote locations cotton is not readily available and rug makers are limited to locally available materials such as sheep’s wool.
Cotton has a finer fiber diameter, allowing it to be spun into thread that is both finer and stronger than wool. The fibers of cotton range between 11 to 22 microns. Wool can go up to 40 microns on some sheep. The makes a strong cotton rug warps with a fluffier wool weft.
Another advantage to using cotton in rug making is that it can be mercerized, a process that gives it a sheen that is difficult to distinguish from silk at first glance. The mercerization process was developed in 1844 by John Mercer of Lancashire, England. However, even though mercerized cotton looks similar to silk, it is not as durable and will wear out quicker.
Cotton shrinks less and more evenly than wool because it does not have the elastic qualities of wool. In addition, during the weaving process, the warp of the rug must be placed under high tension. Wool is springy and when stretched under tension on the loom, it will bounce back when it is cut free and this can cause buckling too. This is why cotton and the rug making industry have a long standing relationship and why cotton is still the preferred material for many rugs and carpets on the market today.