Difference Between Cotton and Silk

What’s the difference between cotton and silk? They’re both fabrics, but their production and use is pretty different. The finished products have different properties to keep in mind when wearing them.

What they’re good for

Silk is so popular largely because it’s so comfy. Its texture is so smooth and soft that we use the word “silky” as an adjective to describe smooth skin. It’s also very durable, and tends to still be in good shape even after being recovered from an abandoned shipwreck. It’s an extremely strong fiber and can be worn as protective clothing against insects like mosquitoes, who can bite through other fabrics. It’s comfortable in both warm and cold weather. Aside from clothing, it’s also used for bedding, parachutes, and even in the medical industry. Once used by ancient people as bandaging, today silk is commonly used in “biomaterials”, products made to interact with biology — for example, artificial tendons.

Cotton fabric is famously breathable and wrinkle-resistant; it’s good in hot weather, but can trap moisture and wick heat away from your body in cold, wet climates. It’s soft and comfy, if not as nice to touch as silk, and its water-absorbing properties make it a popular material for towels and bathrobes. We also blend cotton with other materials like linen or synthetic fibers to make “blended” fabrics with the best properties of both materials. Cotton is a common source of non-clothing fabrics in yarns, bedding, and practical objects like tents, books, and fishing nets.

How they’re made

They couldn’t be more different here. Cotton comes from a plant, and silk comes from … bugs!

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Cotton grows as fluffy stuff around the seed of a shrub. We’ve found evidence that cotton was discovered and turned into clothing by people on both sides of the ocean, going back to ancient times. However, the mass production of cotton that we see today was made possible by Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The cotton gin is a machine that makes it easy to separate cotton fibers from cotton seeds, and it’s emulated by cotton machinery today. (Before the cotton gin, we had to separate cotton fibers from the plant by hand, which was a pain.) Partly because it’s so cheap to produce, cotton is the most common fabric worn by modern humans. America is the largest producer of cotton today, and one pound of cotton is worth about 86 cents. In January 2019, China announced that it had sprouted a cotton seed inside the Chang’e 4 lander on the far side of the moon, making it the first known extraterrestrial plant.

Silk is a protein fiber spun by insects and arthropods. We’ve also found evidence that silk was used by humans for thousands of years, but it was usually gathered as “wild silk”, basically collecting spiderwebs and empty cocoons. Complex silk production was discovered in ancient China, which dominated silk production for centuries. For a long time, silk traveled west along the famous “silk road” trade route and became the most valuable luxury good in Europe. China is still the largest producer of silk today, followed by India and other Asian countries, and it’s worth about 20 times as much as cotton, per pound.