Making a Homespun Cotton Shirt

Be inspired by this slow-fashion project to grow, process, spin, weave, and sew cotton garments.

| April/May 2018

Gardens are wonderful places. We can feed ourselves from them, but they can produce so much more. Fiber plants, such as cotton and flax, are no more difficult to grow than vegetables, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the processes that clothe you by growing the source plants. I used cotton to create first a vest and then a shirt from seed all the way to the finished garment.

Cotton is a wonderful plant. Not only does it look great in a garden, but it produces fiber you can spin into thread or yarn for making clothes. To grow your own, you’ll need a long growing season, fertile soil, and adequate moisture, plus plenty of heat — particularly later in the season. Start your seeds about six weeks ahead of your transplanting time, and set the cotton plants out in your garden after the last frost. If the last frost date has arrived but the weather for the following week or so looks unseasonably cool, hold off until it warms up again.

You’ll have to wait two months or more before you see your first bloom, which will start as white or ivory, and then turn pink. The cooler your garden is, the longer your plants will take to start blooming. Cotton is a tropical plant, so its maturity depends on heat. Remember, sunny days aren’t always hot days — but if you live in a sunny, cool climate, a greenhouse or row cover may be enough to encourage your cotton plants to bloom.

Cotton growers track heat units known as “DD60s” to monitor the maturing cotton bolls. These heat units are calculated by subtracting 60 from a day’s average temperature in Fahrenheit (maximum temperature plus minimum temperature, divided by 2). For example, a day with a high temperature of 90 degrees and a low temperature of 60 degrees would provide 15 DD60s. The more DD60s you accumulate, the sooner your cotton bolls will mature and open. You can find a detailed explanation of these units from Texas A&M University at Development and Growth Monitoring.

I set my cotton transplants out on 12-inch centers in 2, 3, or 4 rows within 4-foot-wide beds, as that’s the spacing that works best for me. I’ve seen recommendations for spacing plants as far as 30 inches apart, but my yield suffered when I tried wider spacing. If you live in a state that has commercial cotton production, you may need to have a permit to grow cotton because of boll weevils. Contact your local extension service agent for more information.

When it’s time to harvest, you’ll notice that cotton bolls are mostly seeds! I harvested 2-1/2 pounds of bolls from an 80-square-foot bed, but netted only 3/4 pound of fiber after I’d picked the seeds out. Average cotton production in the United States is 1.7 pounds fiber per 100 square feet of field. Cotton doesn’t ripen all at once. If you harvest as bolls ripen throughout the season, you won’t need to worry about losing fiber to weather damage while it’s standing in the field. Commercial cotton growers wait until only five flowering nodes remain above the highest open flower, and then begin harvesting — the remaining nodes often produce smaller bolls, and the oldest bolls may become damaged during the wait for the newest ones to mature. Those of you in areas with short growing seasons may need to use hoop houses to extend the season, or pick bolls before they’ve completely formed and then store them in a warm place. I encourage half-open bolls to open by placing them in a basket by my woodstove. 

5/22/2018 8:57:44 PM

I use the plans at WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG to build my own DIY projects – I highly recommend you visit that website and check their plans out too. They are detailed and super easy to read and understand unlike several others I found online. The amount of plans there is mind-boggling… there’s like 16,000 plans or something like that for tons of different projects. Definitely enough to keep me busy with projects for many more years to come haha Go to WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG if you want some additional plans :)

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