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4 Most Tightly Woven Cotton Fabrics for Face Masks

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I recently finished a 2-week research binge on the different types of cotton (I covered 70+ types!). Some cotton fabrics are more tightly woven than others.

Examples of tightly woven cotton include denim, cotton sateen, percale, and poplin. Bedsheets are a good place to find cotton percale and sateen. I recommend getting light to medium weight fabric for easier breathability.

So why do I recommend these fabrics?

I held 9 cotton fabrics to the sun to see how tightly woven they were. Light shining through the fabric allowed me to see if there were big gaps between each yarn.

Here’s how the cotton fabrics compared, from most tightly woven (1) to the least (8):

  1. Cotton denim and cotton twill (2 medium weight fabric samples)
  2. Cotton sateen (medium weight)
  3. Cotton percale (300 thread count, lightweight)
  4. Cotton poplin (lightweight)
  5. Cotton flannel from Liberty (lightweight)
  6. Quilting cotton (medium weight)
  7. Fine cotton twill with a looser weave (medium weight)
  8. Cotton flannel with a looser weave (medium weight)

The differences between the top 4 were very small. They were all tightly woven fabrics with tiny gaps between the yarns, not big gaps (based on eyesight).

I tested 2 samples of cotton flannel and 2 samples of cotton twill, and the results were very different. Despite having the same name, the poorer quality ones were more loosely woven.

This shows that fabrics with the same name can still be made slightly differently, so I recommend buying samples and holding them up to the light to check how tight the weave is.

Be aware that darker colors could skew the results because they absorb light more than other colors.

tightly woven cotton fabrics for face masks

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cotton fabric samples taped to window
Here are most of my samples taped to a window.
a hand holding cotton twill fabrics to check the tightness of the weave against the light
2 types of cotton twill fabric compared. The black “fine twill” on the left is more loosely woven than the twill fabric on the right. You can tell because it’s easier to see gaps between the yarns in the black fabric.
2 types of cotton flannel being held up to light
Here I’m comparing 2 cotton flannels; the left is much more loosely woven than the Liberty flannel on the right.

Note: I listed cotton twill and denim together because they were both made using a twill weave, 100% cotton, and were of a similar weight. It was hard to see much difference between them.

Note: most of the stores I bought these samples from provided no thread count information.

Here’s more information about the fabrics I tested (click to skip to a section):


What is tightly woven cotton fabric?

close up of threads on a tightly woven cotton poplin fabric
Here’s a tightly woven cotton poplin held up to light.

Cotton is a fiber that’s woven, knitted, or felted to create a big range of fabrics. When it’s woven, yarns are weaved together in a grid. If it’s woven using a plain weave construction, this means 1 weft yarn overlaps 1 warp yarn and this repeats.

Some fabrics are woven loosely, so there are gaps between each yarn. Fabrics with a tight weave have more threads per inch/cm, so the gaps between each yarn are much smaller.

You can hold up your fabric to light to see the gaps better, but be aware that darker colors could skew the results because they absorb light more than other colors.

close up of cotton twill fabric
Here’s a fine cotton twill fabric held up to light. Note: that 1 big hole was caused by a plastic tag and isn’t related to the weave of the fabric.

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How to tell if a fabric is tightly woven

Froedtert Health says you can check whether your fabric has a tight weave by holding it up to a light and checking that you can’t see through it.


Cotton percale

cotton percale fabric being held up to light
Here i’m comparing fabrics. The fabric on the right is a 300 thread count cotton percale.

What is cotton percale? it’s a tightly woven fabric with a matte finish. The thread count can vary from 180 to 400 threads per inch.

Weight: light to medium weight.

Construction: a tightly woven plain weave.

How it feels: smooth.

Drapey? it has some crispness.

See-through? no.

Uses: bedsheets and pillowcases.


Cotton sateen

white cotton sateen fabric sample
My sample from Fabric for Fashion: the Swatch book (Amazon link)

What is cotton sateen? cotton that’s woven with a sateen-weave has a smooth surface and a dull sheen. Sometimes the yarns are immersed in a solution to increase the sheen (this process is called mercerization).

Weight: it varies from light to heavy.

Construction: sateen weave, giving it a subtle shine in the light. It normally uses finer yarn counts and a high thread count (which means more threads per inch/cm).

How it feels: smooth and structured.

Drapey? it has some structure.

See-through? no.

Uses: bed sheets, home decor, and structured clothing.

Videos:

Here’s a medium weight stretchy cotton sateen with 3% spandex.


Cotton denim

dark indigo denim fabric, front and back
Featured: dark indigo 14 oz denim by The Fabric Store.
a hand holding cotton denim up to light
Here’s my cotton denim sample held up to light. The gaps between the yarns are very small; only tiny specs of light can get through.

What is denim? it’s a sturdy twill weave fabric, often made with blue, grey, or white yarns. Elastane or lycra are often added to make it stretchy and more comfortable.

‘Selvedge/selvage denim’ has a self-finished edge, a tighter weave, and it’s a narrower width (more info here).

‘Raw denim’ isn’t washed after it’s dyed, so it has a more natural look over time as it fades.

Weight: medium to heavyweight.

Construction: twill weave, so it has subtle diagonal ribs.

How it feels: it has a dry, slightly textured feel from the small ribs.

Drapey? no, it’s structured.

See-through? no.

Uses: jeans, shorts, skirts, structured dresses, dungarees, and jackets.

Video:


Cotton poplin

orange and green cotton poplin fabric squares
I’m pinching the poplin here to show you that it’s a crisp and structured fabric.
white cotton poplin fabric squares
close up of threads on a tightly woven cotton poplin fabric
In the light you can see the tight weave better.

What is poplin? a crisp fabric with very fine ribs and a subtle sheen.

Weight: light to medium weight.

Construction: plain weave. It has very subtle horizontal ribs because the warp yarns are closer together and finer than the weft yarns.

How it feels: smooth and crisp.

Drapey? no, it’s structured and crisp.

See-through? no.

Uses: lightweight poplins are often used to make buttoned shirts and structured dresses. Medium weight poplins suit trousers.

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Video:


Cotton twill

cream and white cotton twill fabric
Medium to heavyweight cotton twill fabrics with obvious diagonal ribs.
a hand holding cotton twill fabrics up to light
2 types of cotton twill fabric compared. The black “fine twill” on the left is more loosely woven than the twill fabric on the right. You can tell because it’s easier to see gaps between the yarns in the black fabric.

What is twill? it’s a type of weave. All twill fabrics have diagonal lines (called ribs or wales) on the front. On heavyweight fabrics the lines are clear to see, but on some lightweight fabrics they’re very subtle.

Twill weaves are normally harder-wearing than plain weaves made using the same yarn and thread count, so they suit high-use utility and casualwear. They also tend to recover from wrinkles better.

Herringbone, houndstooth, and Scottish tartan designs are made using a twill-weave construction too.

More examples of twill weave fabrics are denim, gabardine, drill, and chino. For more info on these, check out my full guide on the 70+ types of cotton fabrics.

Weight: you can get this fabric in many weights, from light to heavy.

How it feels: Heavyweight fabrics with a more obvious twill weave feel more textured as your hand moves over the bigger, thicker ribs. Lightweight twill weaves have finer ribs, so they’re smoother.

Uses: lightweight versions are used for shirts, and heavyweight versions are used for trousers, traditional trench coats, etc.


Cotton flannel / brushed cotton

white brushed cotton fabric, front and back view
Here one side of the fabric is a twill weave and the other side is brushed.

What is flannel? a soft fabric where one or both sides have a warm and fuzzy feel, making it ideal for cold weather. This fuzzy effect is achieved either by brushing the fabric, or through it’s loosely spun weave.

According to this book (Amazon link), brushing is sometimes used to disguise poorer quality fabrics (defined as fabrics with a loose weave, and/or lightly spun yarns).

By brushing the fabric, it gives it extra body and fullness, which hides any quality issues. There’s a higher likelihood that this ‘trick’ has happened when the fabric is brushed on both sides.

Here’s a great example I found in my fabric stash. This medium weight cotton has been brushed on both sides and has a loose weave (ie. it has bigger gaps between each yarn):

close up of loosely woven brushed cotton
A poorer quality brushed cotton. It was brushed on both sides to hide the loosely woven construction.
2 types of cotton flannel being held up to light
Here I’m comparing 2 cotton flannels; the left is much more loosely woven than the Liberty flannel on the right.

Weight: it varies from light to heavy.

Construction: woven fabric.

How it feels: one or both sides are soft and fluffy.

Drapey? the lighter weight ones are drapey, but heavyweight ones for ‘shirt-jackets’ (aka. ‘shackets’) are less drapey.

See-through? no.

Uses: button-down shirts, pajamas, dresses, children’s clothing, jackets, and sheets.

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Video:


Quilting cotton

quilting cotton with gardening print

What is quilting cotton? a medium weight and sturdy fabric used to make quilts. It comes in lots of fun prints and colors.

Weight: medium weight.

Construction: plain weave. The fabric is not woven as tightly as other kinds of cotton, like poplin.

close up view of threads on a quilting cotton
The yarns are quite close together, but the fabric isn’t as tightly woven as other cotton fabrics like poplin. If you look at the orange carrot and green beans you can see the gaps easier.

How it feels: a little rougher than fabrics used for clothing.

Drapey? no, it’s quite structured.

See-through? no.

Uses: it’s mainly used to make quilts.

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Video:



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Sources

C. Hallett and A. Johnston (2014). ‘Fabric for fashion: the swatch book’ 2016 edition. Laurence King Publishing, London.

Cotton Incorporated. ‘Types of cotton fabric’. [online] Available at: https://thefabricofourlives.com/cotton-fabrics [accessed: 25 Oct 2020]

Todd Shelton (2019). ‘What is Selvedge Denim?’. [online] Available at: https://toddshelton.com/blog/products/jeans/selvage-denim [accessed: 30 Oct 2020]

S. Maker (2020). ’71 Types of Cotton Fabric, their Uses, & 207 Example Photos!’ [online] Available at: https://threadsmonthly.com/cotton-fabric-types/