Different types of cotton fabric explained

When I started sewing, I thought it would be easy to buy cotton fabric to make some face masks. It wasn’t. Every online fabric store had its own way of categorising things & cotton was listed under lots of different names – cotton, quilting cotton, printed cotton, poplin cotton etc etc.  Who knew there were so many different types? It was very confusing!

The most common types of cotton fabric that get mixed up are lawn, poplin & quilting cotton. Read on to find out the differences between them, so you can buy cotton with confidence.

Cotton Fabric Weights

When buying online, a lot of cottons look the same from pictures. So be sure to look for information about the cotton weight.

The fabric weight can vary significantly even for a specific type of cotton. For example, you can’t just assume that once it’s a poplin, it will be equivalent to another poplin.

My top tip is to look for the grams per square metre (GSM) or the ounces per square yard. This tells you how much a set size of material weighs and allows you to easily compare fabrics. A larger number means the fabric is more dense and a heavier weight.

Some online fabric stores don’t quote the GSM unfortunately, but they often indicate whether the fabric is a light, medium or heavy weight instead. If you contact them they may be able to tell you the GSM too. Some shops are even happy to send you fabric samples, which is worth asking about if you will be buying a large amount for a dress etc.

Cotton Fabric Types: Lawn vs Poplin vs Quilting

Fabric TypeWeightg/sq.moz/sq.yd.
Cotton LawnLight70-100g2-3 oz
Cotton PoplinLight – Medium110-130g3-4 oz
Quilting CottonMedium140g+4oz +

Cotton Lawn

Cotton lawn is a lightweight fabric with a fine thread count. It’s more expensive than the other cotton types.  Smooth to touch, it can be somewhat translucent in paler colours.

It is still easy to work with, even for beginner sewers. It’s comfortable & cool to wear, doesn’t wrinkle easily and is easy to care for, so it’s a great choice for warmer weather garments.

Cotton lawn is usually between 70-100 grams per square metre (2-3 oz per square yard). For example, Liberty’s famous Tana Lawn cotton range is 76 gsm.

Cotton Poplin

Cotton poplin is a heavier weight than lawn and not as fine. It ranges from a light to medium weight fabric. It is sometimes called shirting cotton as it is commonly used to make crisp cotton shirts & blouses.

Durable yet still quite light weight, poplin is a practical choice for clothing & home decor. It’s also breathable, so good for making face masks.

My own assortment of poplin fabrics vary in feel & weight. Most are fairly opaque when held up to the light, but others are a bit more see through. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive, designer poplins tend to be heavier.

Cotton poplin tends to range from 110g – 130 grams per square metre (3-4 oz pr square yard).

121 gsm is common & a good value to look for. I call it Goldilocks poplin; not too heavy & not too light – just right!

Quilting Cotton

Quilting cotton is a medium weight fabric which is heavier than Poplin. Traditionally used for patchwork and quilting, it’s also called craft cotton, to differentiate it from dressmaking or apparel cotton used for garments.

Be aware that some fabric shops call quilting cotton just “cotton” or “cotton prints”.

It comes in a huge variety of patterns, so if you are browsing a large “cotton” category with printed designs in assorted colours, that is likely quilting cotton.

A popular way to buy it is in “fat quarter” bundles where you get a stack of co-ordinating quarter yard fabric pieces ideal for quilting and other small projects.

Craft cotton quality can vary a lot – from hard & scratchy to soft and smooth. So bear that in mind if the price looks a bit too good (except for remnants & clearance sales).

Quilters cotton can be used for making clothes too. Dressmaking fabrics usually have a 150cm width, whereas quilting cotton is narrower at 115cm wide. Many sewing patterns cater for both, so just follow the fabric requirements for the 115cm pattern version.

Because it’s stiffer & not as soft as some other materials,  quilting cotton works best for looser fitting, structured garments e.g. tops, full skirts or pyjamas. It is also extremely durable, so you can wash & wear it with ease again & again.

Best Cotton for Face Masks

Cotton poplin works well for making your own face masks. You can read my sew your own face masks beginners’ guide with recommended patterns here.

While all 3 cotton types are tightly woven, lawn is very light and multiple layers of heavier quilters cotton can be less comfortable to wear. Poplin is the sweet spot.

I find 2 layers of heavier weight, designer poplins or quilting cotton a bit much in warmer weather, especially with my favourite pleated design where it is more than 2 layers in places.

So I often combine a heavier weight printed cotton (poplin or quilting) for the front layer, with a lighter weight plain cotton fabric for the back. It’s also cheaper to make masks this way & it’s obvious which side is the front – win win!

I hope this post helps clear up your cotton confusion, but if you have any questions just leave a comment below thanks.

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