Plain Cotton vs. Cotton Canvas: Everything You Need to Know

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Canvas and canvas-like fabrics see frequent use in outdoor gear. This includes clothing like jackets and shoes, as well as tents, chairs, bags, and many other items. But while you might see any durable fabric that looks like cotton and thinks “canvas,” the reality is that canvas refers specifically to fabric with a certain weave and other characteristics. Not all rugged cotton is canvas, and not all canvas is cotton! Today, we’re going to go over plain cotton fabric and cotton canvas to highlight the similarities, differences, and common uses for each type of cloth.

 

Cotton Vs Cotton Fiber Comparison Chart

Materials Used Weave Strength Waterproofing
Cotton Cotton Plain weave Average durability Not waterproof
Cotton Canvas Cotton Plain weave, but very tight Very durable Waterproofs well with oils, waxes or waterproofing

 

 

Cotton Fiber

Both plain cotton cloth and cotton canvas are made from the same natural material: cotton. Cotton has been in use as a fabric source for over six thousand years and is native to India, the Andean coast of South America, Mexico, southern Florida, the Middle East, and northern Africa including Egypt. It was domesticated independently in all of these areas and was important for trade in antiquity and during the modern era. Cotton agriculture takes up about 2.5% of the world’s arable land; because it can grow well in relatively hot and dry conditions, it is a staple crop in many parts of the world. 

Cotton fibers are made almost entirely from cellulose, and are very strong for how thin they are. They can be spun into threads and yarns of various weights and thicknesses, all of which will be quite soft and flexible compared to other threads and yarns of the same dimensions. Cotton is very breathable and absorbs moisture easily. Cotton is also an eco-friendly material, especially organic cotton that doesn’t use harmful pesticides. Because cotton is so soft, it is frequently used for garments worn close to the body and is comfortable for people with sensitive skin. 

 

Plain Weave

One important similarity between plain cotton and cotton canvas is that both types of fabric are constructed with a weaving technique called “plain weave.” Plain weave can be identified by a checkerboard appearance when examined closely; the threads cross each other at right angles. Plain weave is the simplest of the primary types of fabric weaves and creates a fabric that is strong and durable. 

Plain weave typically uses one yarn in the warp and one yarn in the weft. The warp yarn is the yarn that is held taut and stationary in the loom, while weft is the yarn that passes through. A 1:1 ratio of warp and weft is a hallmark of plain weave, although there are variations on this that are used to alter the finished fabric’s characteristics.

 

What Is Plain Cotton?

Plain cotton cloth is any cotton cloth made with a plain weave. There are several subtypes of this kind of cloth, including muslin, calico, lawn, and poplin. Plain cotton cloth is lightweight and flexible. The fabric type is dependent on the threads used to construct it; muslin, for instance, uses lighter threads than calico, and calico uses lighter threads than lawn. 

When plain cotton is made, it usually uses undyed and unbleached cotton. This makes plain cotton fabric cheap and easy to produce. The fabric can then be dyed or printed to the end user or garment manufacturer’s specifications, or left in its raw state for items like tote bags. 

 

Uses For Plain Cotton Cloth 

Because plain cotton cloth is so breathable and flexible, it is often used for summer clothing. Lighter types of plain cotton cloth like calico, lawn, and poplin are frequently used to make shirts, pants, undergarments, and more. It is frequently used in bedding and for items like bags. Cotton tote bags are one of the most readily available types of reusable bags.

However, when you’re looking at outdoor gear, plain cotton cloth isn’t all that common. It is durable, but it’s not usually durable enough for things like tents, camp chairs, or things that see heavy use. Plain cotton cloth isn’t woven tightly enough to be that useful for outerwear, and because it absorbs water without wicking it away, it’s not that great as a base layer. Instead, you should look at cotton mid-layers or clothing for activities where you won’t be getting too sweaty.

 

What Is Cotton Canvas?

Cotton canvas is a heavy-duty cotton fabric that is frequently used to make durable items like tents, sails, bags, shoes, and even boats. Canvas uses a very tight weave– there isn’t a lot of space between the threads of the fabric. The tighter the weave, the more durable the canvas. 

Single-weave canvas is categorized by its weight in ounces. The higher the weight, the more durable the fabric. All cotton canvas must be 100% cotton and is resistant to rips and tears. It is also naturally finished, meaning it is not bleached during the manufacturing process. (The white canvas you might see for artists has been stretched and covered with a layer of gesso to prime it for painting– not bleached.)

 

Cotton Duck Canvas

One special subtype of cotton canvas is called duck canvas, or just simply duck. The term “duck” comes from the Dutch word doek, which originally referred to linen canvas. Duck canvas is more tightly woven than regular canvas and uses two yarns together in the warp with one yarn in the weft. Cotton duck is often used for outdoor furniture like patio and beach umbrellas, sandbags, tents, tarps, storage bins, gear covers, camping chairs, awnings, backpacks, and heavy-duty work clothes. 

Cotton duck also has another use: tape. “Duck tape” was first used in the late 1800s and referred to long strips of plain, non-adhesive cotton duck that were used to make shoes stronger and to wrap steel cables to protect them from corrosion and wear. Duck tape became well-known in general during WWII when a munitions worker named Vesta Stroudt invented a fabric-backed adhesive tape and wrote to President Roosevelt about using it to seal ammunition boxes to make them easier to open. Though today we know this tape as “duct tape,” the original name really was duck tape!

Cotton duck’s various weights are identified with a numerical classification system. The lower the classification number, the more ounces per square yard. Numbered cotton duck starts with #12 (the lightest variety) and ends with #1 (the heaviest available). Grades 7, 9, and 11 are no longer commercially manufactured; most of the demand for cotton duck is for fabric at the heavier end of the scale.

 

Other Types of Canvas

The vast majority of canvas produced for outdoor gear is cotton, but cotton canvas isn’t the only type of canvas available. The oldest canvas material was actually made from hemp– in fact, the words “canvas” and “cannabis” have the same etymology. Hemp canvas was originally used for sails and ship’s cloth and can still be found in sailing gear today. Due to the increasing popularity of hemp fiber as an environmentally friendly material, hemp canvas is becoming more prevalent in other types of outdoor gear as well.

Linen canvas is another type of canvas that’s almost exclusively used for art these days. Canvas made with linen fibers is much more expensive than canvas made from cotton fibers. There aren’t many performance advantages to justify the use of linen canvas, except when you’re working with oil paint. Some painters prefer the way linen canvases perform for large paintings, as linen canvas is stiffer than cotton. But unless you’re painting en plein air (outdoors), you won’t be taking linen canvas with you on a hike.

 

Uses for Cotton Canvas

 

Tents

Because cotton canvas is so strong and durable, it is a very popular choice for tents. Cotton canvas tents make great four-season tents. While they are heavier than nylon or polyester tents, they are durable and last for years. Large tents like bell tents and hot tents are commonly made with canvas. Cotton canvas also makes great camp chairs and backpacks, and is often used in mid to heavyweight jackets.

 

Heavy Duty Work Clothing

A great deal of heavy-duty workwear including work jackets, work pants, work gloves, and work vests, can be made from cotton canvas. Cotton canvas is one of the most windproof fabrics available; only leather is better at blocking the wind, and cotton canvas is much more flexible and easy to wear than leather is. It’s also somewhat fire resistant– sparks won’t put pinholes in the fabric as they will with synthetic materials. 

 

Footwear

Cotton canvas is also a popular choice for casual footwear. The first sneakers, Keds, were made from canvas, and canvas is used in the ever-popular Converse shoes. Companies like Columbia will even use waxed canvas in some of their hiking boots– the fabric has lots of fans because of how lightweight and breathable it is.  

 

Boats

Another use for cotton canvas is in boatbuilding. Canvas canoes are beloved by boaters who appreciate the craftsmanship it takes to make them, as well as their smooth profiles and their excellent performance in difficult water. Canvas canoes require the canvas to be stretched drum-tight over the wooden ribs of the boat. The outside layer is then filled, which means that it’s coated with waterproofing material to ensure that the canoe stays in ship-shape condition. 

Canvas is also used to make sails, marine bumpers, boat tops and covers, marine storage, and cushions for use on boats. While some modern applications use marine canvas, which uses synthetic fibers, waterproof cotton canvas is still many manufacturers’ fabric of choice. 

 

Waterproofing Cotton Canvas

Because canvas has such a tight weave, it’s easy to waterproof. This has been done for centuries using waxes and oils. The earliest known intentional waterproofing occurred during the 15th century when mariners added fish oil to their sails. They did this because they noticed that wet sails were more efficient than dry sails, but that the added weight slowed the vessels. This was because cotton absorbs moisture really well, and the cotton fibers would swell when wet, creating a tighter weave that caught the wind more effectively. 

Adding oil to the sails did the same thing, though through a different mechanism. The oil would stay in the tiny gaps between the threads of the sailcloth, blocking the wind and making the sail more effective. Additionally, the oil kept the sails dry, so that the water wouldn’t sink in and the sails wouldn’t get heavy. 

Starting in the 1850s, waterproofing cotton became an industrial process. It was first done with linseed oil when cotton sails replaced linen sails on tea clippers and other fast ships. This continued until the 1930s when a process for impregnating cotton fibers with paraffin was developed in Scotland. This paraffin-impregnated cotton was an instant hit with the international shipping industry and became the basis of the rainwear industry for motorcyclists, farmers, and gamekeepers because of how light and effective it was. 

Today, this traditional method of making wax cloth has largely been supplanted by other waterproof coatings. It still sees use in the field sports community in the UK, as well as in some artisan-produced or specialty bags, jackets, and other goods. 

Modern waterproof canvas typically uses synthetic durable water repellent coatings or DWRs. DWRs are applied commercially or at home and last for years without making the fabric heavier or stiffer. Canvas is highly absorbent and textured, meaning that it’s easy to get DWR sprays and coatings to stick.

You can also waterproof canvas with beeswax or a beeswax-paraffin blend at home. By melting the wax in a double boiler and using a paintbrush or dauber to push it into the canvas fabric, you can make your favorite canvas gear as water resistant as you’d like. Home waterproofing can also be achieved using the chemical reaction between alum powder and laundry detergent. This is an important skill to have if you have a cotton canvas tent because eventually, you’ll want to renew the waterproof coating to ensure that your tent protects you perfectly. Your tent’s manufacturer may have a particular DWR home coating they recommend, or you can seal any seams with beeswax and paraffin. It’s up to you!

 

The Final Word

Cotton cloth, whether it’s plain cotton or cotton canvas, has a long history in the world of outdoor activity. Even though it has fallen out of favor for certain types of outdoor clothing, its characteristic strength and durability make it an excellent choice for dozens of outdoor applications.

Max DesMarais
Max DesMarais

Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about