A while back I thought about making a bath mat for my shower. A thick, textured, cotton crochet rug seemed an ideal summer project. This idea ran aground when I began to wonder about (obsess over?) which of the cotton yarns available to me would be most suited for this project. Which one would be most absorbent? Best stand up to bathroom abuse? Least likely to mildew or mold? Shrink? Stain? On the verge of despair, or as much as one can despair over a bathroom rug, I realized that these were empirical questions … questions worthy of answers.
I obtained a selection of readily available cotton yarns and crocheted washcloths from each of them. These cloths were weighed, measured, drenched, stained, pushed, pulled and otherwise abused. They were repeatedly washed and dried and measured after each. I wanted to discover not only which of the yarns would make the best bath mat for me, but to what end all the various yarns would be served. The results of these tests, and my interpretations of them, are reported here.
I wanted only 100% cotton yarns for this test, which ruled out quite a few of the less expensive cotton-synthetic blends. But I also didn’t want to include very high-end designer yarns because for my purposes substance mattered more than style (which is not to say that expensive yarn is not substantial, only that I decided, a priori, that it would not be necessary to spend the extra money for fancy yarn). Searching out the larger chain stores common in the mid-west US, such as Jo-Ann’s and Hobby Lobby, I ended up with a sample of acceptably priced, 100% cotton yarns. Each of the above mentioned stores carried at least two of the following four yarns: Lion Cotton (Lion Brand Yarn), Sugar ‘n Cream (Lily), Cottontots (Bernat), and Peaches & Crème (Elmore-Pisgah). I did include one other yarn that might be thought of as more “designer” – Classic Elite’s “Sand”. This is a fun and affordable cotton yarn with a terrycloth-like texture. I chose it as something of a control fiber, but also because I happened to have it on hand and thought that, whatever the results, it would make lovely washcloths. See Table 1 for a detailed list of the yarns used.
Skein Specs *
Lion Brand Yarns
5 oz (142 g) / 236 yds (215 m)
Sugar 'n Cream
2.5 oz (70.9 g) / 120 yds (109 m)
Peaches & Crème
1.76 oz (50 g) / 77 yds (70 m)
4 oz (113 g) / 200 yds (182 m)
*Fiber content of all samples is 100% cotton.
From each yarn, I made two crocheted washcloths. One cloth was made up of rows alternating single and double crochet (the “smooth” cloth) and the other was a thicker woven-looking cloth made with front-post and back-post double crochets (the “textured” cloth). See sidebars for patterns. The smooth cloths averaged 12.5 x 8 inches in size (31.5 x 21 cm), weighed 1.6 oz (44.5 g), and used 74 yds (67 m) of yarn. The textured cloths averaged 11.8 x 7.5 in (30 x 19 cm) in size, weighed 2.3 oz (65 g), and used 107 yds (97.6 m) of yarn. As you would expect, the textured cloths were thicker than the smooth ones. They used more yarn and weighed more than the smooth cloths, but were a bit smaller in size. These 10 cloths were then put through the paces.
One of the primary criteria for selecting the yarns was that they be machine washable and dryable. Immediately, then, that criterion was violated with the Classic Elite “Sand,” as the instructions on that yarn clearly state that it should be hand washed and air-dried. The Peaches & Crème also suggested air-drying, although it was acceptable to machine wash. The remaining yarns were labeled as machine washable and dryable.
To begin the testing, all cloths were tossed unceremoniously into a hot regular wash cycle, machine dried on high, and measured for shrinkage. (Regardless of their respective labeled washing instructions, all the yarns passed this first test completely intact and healthy – more on this in the results section). An absorbency test followed. The cloths were submerged in a tub of water overnight, hung to drip for 20 minutes, and then weighed.
After drying overnight they were subjected to a stain test. Four staining agents were applied to the cloths: strong black tea, red wine, thick clay mud, and bacon grease. These agents were allowed to dry on the cloths overnight. The following day the cloths were washed in the following manner: Cold water wash, air dry, hot water wash with an oxygen-type bleaching agent, air dried, hot water wash with clorine bleach, and finally machine dried on high heat. The cloths were measured, handled, rated for stain steadfastness, and photographed between each of these steps to assess their ability to maintain structure, softness and appearance.
A note about the measurements. Since there was variability in the cloths even before the first washing it would be misleading to report shrinkage in terms of inches (or centimeters). For that reason, most of the results are reported here as percentages rather than absolute numbers.
The short story here is that all the yarns tested here came through the entire battery of tests quite well. All are quality products that looked and felt great post-testing. Having said that, there were some small, but consistent, differences in how each brand of yarn performed throughout and I will discuss these in detail.
First, however, is the matter of stitch pattern. Each sample of yarn was made up into one smooth cloth and one textured cloth. Not surprisingly, the stitch pattern made a difference in how well the cloths performed in terms of shrinkage and absorbency. For example, the textured cloths shrunk more, 14.7% area loss compared to 11% area loss for the smooth cloths. This was most certainly due in large part to the fact that the textured cloths simply used more yarn than the smooth cloths to make an equivalently sized sample. The pattern of shrinkage differed also. On average, smooth cloths lost 3.2% of their length and 8% of their width, while the textured cloths lost 10.5% of their length and 4.7% of their width. In addition, the smooth cloths proved to be more absorbent, holding an average of 4.2 times their weight in water while the textured cloths held an average of 3.3 times their weight. This may seem counter-intuitive and may be explained in part by the fact that the textured cloths were, particularly after shrinking, more tightly worked. The tighter stitches may have prevented the textured cloths from becoming fully saturated with water.
To complicate matters, the textured cloths actually did hold more water than the smooth ones (7.6 oz vs 6.7 oz), but they also weighed more when dry (3.2 oz vs 1.6 oz). All the cloths, smooth and textured, were about the same size (roughly 12” x 8”) but more yarn went into the textured cloths, increasing their net weight. So while the textured cloths may have been able to absorb more water overall than the smooth ones, relative to weight and yardage, the smooth ones out-performed the textured. The take home message here is, if you have a fixed amount of yarn to use and you want to maximize the absorbency of your fabric, use a loose, flat stitch pattern rather than a tight, textured one.
While the stitch pattern did affect cloth performance, and not always as expected, it did not affect how the individual brands of yarn performed. When one brand of yarn outperformed another, it did so equally for both smooth and textured fabrics. Therefore, the results of the remaining tests apply to both types of cloths, regardless of brand.
Cotton shrinks, that’s just a fact of life. The area of each new cloth (length X width) was measured before and after an initial run through a hot wash and dry. The cloths lost an average of 12.8% of area after their initial bath, though this varied from 7.3% for the Classic Elite up to 16.0% loss for the Elmore-Pisgah. (See Table 2 for a summary of all yarn ratings). Subsequent washes did not result in further significant shrinkage.
This may have been the source that differentiated brands more than any other. The cloths held 3.8 times their weight in water on average. The best performer in this category was Lion Brand, which held 4.1 times its weight. Lily and Bernat placed close together at 2 nd (3.8 times) and 3 rd (3.75 times), respectively. Classic Elite and Elmore-Pisgah were the runners-up here, at 3.6 and 3.5 times, respectively.
The scoring in this category was more subjective than the previous ones. After washing, fabrics were ranked in terms of amount of stain remaining on the fabric on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 = most or all of the stain remaining and 1 = barely visible stain remaining. The various staining agents (tea, wine, mud & grease) were scored individually. Following the initial cold water wash virtually all of the tea stains remained on the cloths (scores = 5). The same was true for the red wine, with the exception of Classic Elite which released about half of the wine stain (score = 2.5). About 1/3 of the grease and mud stains were removed for all the cloths.
Following the first hot water wash (with the oxygen-type bleaching agent), most of the tea and wine stains still remained on all the cloths. The grease stains, however, were completely eliminated on all the cloths. The mud stains were also greatly reduced on all the cloths with the exception of Lion Brand and Elmore-Pisgah, on which the stains were reduced by ½ and 2/3, respectively.
The final hot water wash with chlorine bleach managed to eliminate most of the remaining stains. The tea stains were eliminated on all by the Elmore-Pisgah, and the red wine reduced to barely visible (scores all less than or equal to 1). The mud stains were surprisingly stubborn and were not improved at all by the chlorine bleach. Overall, the Classic-Elite yarn ended up with the least visible stains and an overall score of 1.8. The yarns poorest at releasing their stains were Elmore-Pisgah and Lion Brand with scores of 2.7 and 2.5, respectively. Lion Brand, while otherwise performing admirably (tea and grease = 0; wine = 0.5), had the dubious distinction of the single highest score at the end of all the washes: 2.5 for the mud stain.
Herein lies the most subjective test of all. For softness the various yarns were simply ranked by touch and the hands-down winner was Bernat Cottontot. This yarn is marketed as a baby yarn, rather than a utility yarn, and rightly so. None of the washes included fabric softener, so most of the fabrics turned out a bit stiff. The Cottontot held its own in sturdiness while retaining a cushy softness that clearly set it apart and made it consistently easy to recognize by touch alone. The Classic Elite yarn came in second. I doubt if this yarn was ever intended for the sort of abuse it came into here, but it held up just fine without ever becoming stiff, and maintained its terry-cloth texture, drape, and soft hand. The remaining yarns, Lion Brand, Lily, and Elmore-Pisgah, were virtually indistinguishable in term of softness. While they never became scratchy or difficult to handle, and indeed would make perfectly comfortable garments, these yarns are the ones that appear most well suited for household use. These are no-nonsense cotton yarns that could stand up to the demands of, say, a kitchen. This brings us to durability, which, truth be told, was only minimally tested. And, such as it was, all the cloths held up well against these tests, maintaining their strength, shape, and thickness.
The yarns were finally ranked according to their scores in the various categories, and a final ranked score was derived. These are shown in Table 2. Bernat Cottontots tied with Classic Elite Sand with score of 2.0. Bernat scored consistently well in all categories as did Classic Elite with the exception of the absorbency category where it fell well below the average.
OVERALL RATING: 2.0
A very soft, touchable fabric.
Quite a bit of shrinkage for the textured cloth.
Classic Elite Sand
Almost no shrinkage, very stain resistant. Nice hand.
Lion Brand Lion Cotton
OVERALL RATING: 3.0
The most absorbent.
Stains tend to stay.
Lily Sugar ‘n Cream
OVERALL RATING: 3.3
Good absorbency & stain resistance..
Shrinks more than most.
Elmore-Pisgah Peaches & Creme
OVERALL RATING: 4.8
Yarn has a nice hand, easy to work with.
Poor performance relative to others
It is important to note that not one of these yarns actually “failed” a test and I would not hesitate to recommend any one of them. In the end, all of the scores were very close and most of the yarns stood out in some unique way. I now have 10 high quality cotton cloths and a little more information to help me chose a yarn for my new bath mat. The yarn I will be using, by the way, will be Lion Brand Lion Cotton. My choice is based primarily on the absorbency test. Even though Lion Brand came in as the middle ranked yarn, it was the high scorer for absorbency -- my number one consideration for a bath mat. My second choice would be Lily Sugar ‘n Cream or Bernat Cottontots since they also did well with absorbency as well as stain release. The extra softness of the Bernat would be a plus for this project, but that’s not my primary consideration.
For jobs where substance is the primary consideration, such as potholders or hotplates, any of the yarns would perform well, though based on these tests I’d be more likely to chose Lion Brand or Lily over Elmore-Pisgah given its consistently lower scores in every category.
For a baby blanket, however, Bernat would be my first choice. This yarn is so soft, and does such a good job letting go of stains, that I wouldn’t hesitate for second to wrap a baby up in it. I would choose the Classic Elite Sand for lighter, more personal, jobs. It doesn’t shrink or stain, and would make lovely face cloths and hand towels, not to mention very comfy garments. I am thinking about making more washcloths from this yarn to include with gifts of homemade soap during the holidays.
First things first, however. I have to come up with a pattern for that bath mat...
What a wonderful review of cotton yarns and it is so timely for me.
Thank you very much for posting this. It certainly helps when choosing cotton for different projects. I have used a lot of Elmore Pisgah which I choose because it was made in America (haven't checked lately, so not positive). I also like Lion Brand cotton. I agree though the Peaches and Creme or Sugar n Cream are great for all household projects. I have made purses using them and they do pill or fray with wear. Again, thanks for all the effort.
I am having the same obsession with yarn choice for my bath mat but this has helped me enormously so thank you for your commendable effort! (...I am now wondering if knitting or crochet would be better for absorbency; I think I am looking too deeply into this and should really just get on with making the darn thing!)Did you ever get round to making your bath mat? If so are you able to share the pattern or a picture? Like you, I am after something more interesting than boring store-bought mats and handmade stuff is always better :)