Photo by Flickr/Rachel Zack
I started growing cotton six years ago. I’d just begun spinning wool and was looking for fibers that I could grow and harvest myself. I was especially interested in a fiber that wouldn’t require purchasing several expensive tools at the outset, before I knew whether or not I wanted to continue to work with that particular fiber. I discovered naturally colored cotton in a seed magazine, and I wondered if the hot summers in Kansas would be enough to sustain a plant I’d always thought preferred more southern climates. I planted the cotton seeds after the last frost in spring, and the plants grew rapidly, taking advantage of the summer heat with only minimal watering once they were established. By fall, I had dozens of bolls developing, and many opened and dried on the plants before our first freeze. I’d successfully grown cotton!
When to Pick
Once the cotton bolls open and dry on the plant, the fiber should be cloud-like and “blooming” from the dried bolls. Some bolls will even open after the plant has succumbed to winter freezes, and as long as the sections of fiber are fluffy, the fiber will still be viable for spinning. Depending on the cultivar, each boll has four or five sections filled with cotton fiber surrounding the seeds. To gather and store the cotton for later use, I snap the dried bolls off the plants and remove the fiber immediately, discarding the empty bolls into the compost. The fiber may be a little damp right out of the boll, so I lay it out on a towel or cookie sheet indoors for a few days to dry before storing. Separating the fiber from the bolls keeps crushed boll debris from mixing in with the cotton fiber, and thus the fiber requires minimal preparation and cleaning before spinning.
Photo by UN Photo/Mark Garten
Prepare to Spin
You can spin cotton fiber as is, right out of the boll, without removing the seeds first. Cotton doesn’t require any washing, and can be spun right off the plant. I prefer to remove the seeds first, so I can seamlessly spin through my pile of fiber. Some spinners prefer to combine seed collecting and spinning into one activity, as the fiber will pull right off the seeds during spinning. Regardless of the method you choose, save your seeds! The initial cost of cotton seeds from a seed catalog may seem a little pricey for the number in a package, but be assured that once you have a few bolls develop and open, you’ll have more than enough seeds for the following year.
If you end up wanting to produce lots of cotton yarn, investing in a charkha wheel may be a good idea. Photo by Adobe Stock/amlanmathur
To prepare cotton fiber for spinning, hand carders are the tool of choice, but a pair of wire-toothed slicker brushes for dogs will suffice. After removing the seeds, load the cotton fiber onto one of the carders by taking a handful and “wiping” the cotton onto the carder. Use light pressure; the wire teeth in carding combs or slicker brushes are very sharp. When you have a layer of cotton on one carder, put it teeth-up on your lap, with your nondominant hand holding the handle underhand on the corresponding leg. Now, take the other carder in your dominant hand, teeth-down and overhand, and position the top carder’s furthest end from the handle to slightly overlap the bottom carder’s furthest end. Gently “pet” the bottom carder with the top carder, lightly lifting and combing the cotton fiber. Repeat this process, gradually working toward both handles. You should be lifting cotton fiber off of the bottom carder and onto the top one, combing it and lining up the fibers in the process. Avoid meshing the teeth of the carders together and pulling through — this can break the cotton fibers into smaller pieces and result in linty yarn that pills easily. Work the fiber from one carder to the other until it looks like a soft, uniform cloud. This may take a few passes from carder to carder. When the fiber is open, fluffy, and uniform, you can spin it as is or process it further into “punis” or “rolags,” either of which will store better than loose fiber.
Loading the carder. Photo by Kelly Bohling
First pass with carders. Photo by Kelly Bohling
Ready to spin or roll. Photo by Kelly Bohling
Some spinners prefer working with punis or rolags, which are small amounts of carded cotton fiber that’ve been rolled into tubes for more efficient storage and to facilitate even drafting (drawing out of the fiber) while spinning. To make a rolag, lift the fiber from the end of the loaded carder that’s furthest from the handle. Gently curl these ends in the direction of the handle and keep rolling the fiber lightly onto itself until you reach the handle and it rolls right off. To make a puni, use the same motion, but roll the fiber around a small dowel or pencil. Then roll the fiber tube, with the dowel still inside, over the carder to create a denser roll, and remove the dowel. Rolags and punis are easy to store in a box or tub until you’re ready to spin. Many spinners find that this preparation helps to create a more even yarn by keeping consistent tension on the fiber.
A finished rolag. Photo by Kelly Bohling
Starting a puni with a stick. Photo by Kelly Bohling
A finished puni. Photo by Kelly Bohling
From Fiber to Yarn
The process of spinning may seem daunting, but it’s simply adding twist to fiber. A “single” is the initial length of spun fiber, which is spun in one direction (I tend to spin clockwise on my singles). “Plying” yarn is when two or more singles are spun together in the opposite direction from the singles (in my case, counterclockwise). While you can use a single on its own, plying combines multiple strands to lend more durability, strength, and integrity to the yarn. Especially when using cotton, plying is highly recommended. Cotton’s staple, or fiber length, is very short, which makes a stand-alone single weak and prone to coming apart in use. Even though twist is added during spinning, it’s rarely enough to keep the short fibers clinging to each other in a single. Pima cotton, the most iconic and popular among commercial growers, boasts one of the longest cotton staples at only 2 inches, and most naturally colored cultivars are quite a bit shorter.
Using a bowl helps to keep the spindle contained while it spins like a top. Photo by Caitlin Wilson
One of my first spinning tools was a hefty drop spindle, and I didn’t have great success spinning cotton with it. Because cotton has such short fibers, it needs minimal pull during spinning; any excessive pull or weight (such as my heavy drop spindle) will cause the single to come apart.
For this reason, a supported spindle is ideal for spinning cotton. Supported spindles are always in contact with a supporting surface, rather than dangling in midair. Supported spindles have a sharp, pointed bottom end that sits on the ground, a table, a bowl, or a similar hard, smooth surface. This provides minimal friction in spinning and prevents any heavy weight from pulling on the fiber. I recommend a tahkli spindle, a traditional supported spindle from India often used for spinning cotton. Tahklis are relatively inexpensive, and usually made up of a metal rod (with or without a hook at the end) and a heavy metal whorl. This provides a balanced, extremely fast spin, which is perfect for working with cotton fiber. Other types of supported spindles can also work. If you happen to have a spinning wheel, it’ll be just as suited to spinning cotton as a supported spindle. Use high spinning ratios when spinning cotton on a wheel, and keep your drafting hand close to where the twist is entering the fiber, since the staple length is relatively short.
Metal tahkli spindles are spun in a bowl like a toy top. Photo by Caitlin Wilson
I learned to spin cotton on a tahkli by watching videos online and finding tutorials on fiber sites. There are numerous free resources to consult, and watching another person spin is the easiest way to pick up the skill. When spinning, choose to use either a worsted draw or a woolen draw. A worsted draw means that you’ll pinch the single to keep twist out of the fiber you’re drafting, then lighten your pinch and guide the twist down into the newly drafted fiber. In a woolen draw, you’ll allow the twist to enter the fiber as you draft it, and work out slubs (bumps) with a pulling motion from the drafting hand. I’ve found that a worsted draw results in a smoother, glossier yarn than a woolen draw, and cuts down on breakages in the single while I’m spinning. The resulting yarn is less fuzzy, with fewer flyaway fibers, since my fingers were smoothing the fibers as they became yarn. While you can certainly experiment with the thickness of your cotton yarn, I’ve come to prefer spinning thread-like cotton singles and plying them together. This type of yarn is more durable and less likely to pill or come apart with use.
Why Choose Cotton?
Cotton is ubiquitous in the textile industry for good reason: It’s an excellent fiber to wear in warm weather, as its breathability, absorption, and light weight keep the wearer cool. While it doesn’t have the elasticity of wool, and is more inclined to stretch than to spring back to its original shape, it has a beautiful drape in garments. It also makes for durable towels and scrubbing cloths.
Cotton spinning fiber is widely available online or at your local yarn store (if they sell spinning fiber). Commercial cotton fiber may be available as ginned lint, sliver, or top, all terms referring to slightly different ways that the fiber can be combed, layered, and twisted. White cotton is easy to find, and naturally colored cottons are becoming more common in prepped forms.
Charkhas are small, lightweight wheels that spin very quickly, ideal for cotton. Photo by Adobe Stock/amlanmathur
If you decide to grow your own cotton, there are many naturally colored heirloom cultivars available: ‘Sea Island Brown,’ ‘Mississippi Brown,’ and ‘Erlene’s Green,’ among others. Visit “Growing Naturally Green Cotton” for more information about growing your own. Unlike cultivars that’ve been selectively bred for longer staple length at the expense of drought- and pest-hardiness, these heirloom lines are relatively pest-resistant and hardy in hot climates. You can have the satisfaction of knowing you’re continuing a long tradition of growing your own cotton from lines that’ve been around for a hundred years or more. Additionally, you can have a variety of natural browns, greens, and whites without the use of dyes! Many fiber artists turn to naturally colored cotton to avoid the ecological impact of dyeing fiber, which requires high water usage and results in chemical waste from commercial dyes.
Cotton Fiber Sources
Cotton Seed Sources
Kelly Bohling is a professional violinist and string instructor, and enjoys knitting, spinning, and raising quail when she isn’t playing music.