Making a Homespun Cotton Shirt

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Photo by Stephanie Conner
Making an entirely homegrown garment was an unforgettable experience for Cindy.

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. 

Processing Cotton at Home

You don’t need to clothe the masses from your garden — you can just grow enough to enjoy for yourself. It’s a wonder to grow cotton, pull it out of the boll, and spin it into usable thread. If you want to make a garment — and I hope you do — and your harvest is meager, you can save it up each year until you have enough. Great things come to those who are patient.

I was determined to work with cotton I’d grown myself, but if you’d rather get right to spinning, you can source naturally colored cotton from sustainable growing operations. Cotton takes natural dyes very well, too, if that’s something you want to try — I was most intrigued by the natural greens and browns available when I started this project.

Homegrown cotton can often be spun right off the seed, especially if you’re using a spindle. A wheel may spin too quickly for you to remove the seeds as you go. If you want to take the seeds out first, you can easily do so by hand. I tried using a pasta machine as an improvised cotton gin, but the machine compacted the fiber more than I liked, and it didn’t remove all the seeds. I’ve decided it’s better to remove the seeds by hand.

Whether I’m spinning cotton off the seed or taking the seeds out first, I spin with rather loose fiber. If it becomes compacted, I use cotton cards to card it before spinning. Pet brushes work just as well, and that’s what I used when I first started working with cotton. I found one at the pet store that has a button on the back to push the fiber forward to the edge of the bristles. How handy! It’s easier to spin a nice even thread with loose fiber, regardless of the tools you use to get there. 

Spindle or Wheel?

Cotton is a very short fiber and must be spun at high speed to put in sufficient twist for the thread to hold together. If you’re using a spindle, it also needs to be more lightweight than the spindles typically used with wool. When I made my first garment, a vest, I used a metal “tahkli” spindle that weighs about 1/2 ounce, which I bought from Cotton Spinning. Because the fiber is so short, even a lightweight spindle needs to be supported. My tahkli came with a small dish specifically made for spinning, but I usually prefer to use a personal-sized wooden salad bowl because it’s larger and doesn’t slip around on my lap as much.

I needed lots of thread for my second garment, a shirt, and wanted to practice with the “book charkha” I’d bought at the Asheville, North Carolina, MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR from New World Textiles. Charkhas are a family of spinning wheels from India, designed for spinning cotton. A book charkha fits into a wooden box that folds up like a book. I’d gotten pretty good using a spindle, but learning to use the charkha took some concentration. After I got the hang of it, I could produce thread faster on the charkha than with a spindle.

The thread or yarn you’ll produce from your spindle or charkha is called singles. While you can make fabric with singles, your yarn will be stronger if you ply two singles strands together to make 2-ply yarn. To do so, wind your singles onto one bobbin per ply you want in your finished yarn, join the ends, and spin in the opposite direction from how you spun the singles: If you spun clockwise for singles, ply counterclockwise.

Handmade Garments

I joined a local fiber group for advice and support at the beginning of my cotton-spinning journey, and it’s been a terrific resource ever since. I bought a small table loom at the group’s biennial swap meet to weave my hand-spun cotton yarn into fabric. The loom is 12 inches wide, but it produces fabric that’s only 9-1/2 inches wide.

My first homegrown, hand-spun cotton project was my vest, which I made using primarily green cotton. I made a pattern from the commercial quilted vest I often wear, and from that, designed a pattern that used 9-1/2-inch-wide fabric. Because 9-1/2 inches wasn’t wide enough for a full front or back panel, I added side panels to make up the difference. I also wanted buttons, but didn’t want to cut my fabric for the buttonholes after all the work it had taken to make it! Instead, I braided loops of brown cotton yarn and stitched them in place opposite my handmade shell buttons.

When I started working on the fabric for my shirt, I was careful to separate the shade of green and two shades of brown fiber before spinning, so I’d have more control over the appearance of the finished garment. All the cotton that had crossed in my original pure-green and pure-brown beds expressed as light-brown fiber (see “Colored Cottons” below), so I had three natural colors to work with. I also removed all the seeds from the fiber before spinning. My book charkha lets me work fast enough that removing the seeds as I spun would have been very difficult.

The hardest part of this project was estimating how much fiber I needed. I had the calculations of how much 2-ply yarn it took to make my vest, but now I was using a wheel instead of a spindle, and I had much more experience as a spinner. My yarn was finer, requiring more yards per woven inch, and I had a limited amount of colored fiber. By keeping careful records and weaving a sample, I estimated that I needed 43.65 yards of raw singles for each inch of weaving. This cotton would get boiled twice — once after being spun into singles and again after plying. I estimated about 12.5 percent total shrinkage for that. After everything was plied, I needed a figure for how much 2-ply yarn I’d need to finish my project. My calculations from actual weaving were 18.1 to 22.2 yards of 2-ply for each inch of weaving, so I used 22.2 yards for my estimate. I wanted to use generous estimates to make sure I had enough fiber, and I added the white cotton I’d grown several years earlier to my fiber supply for extra insurance.

I spun the brown, green, and white separately, and then plied brown and green together and brown and white together. I used the same 12-inch table loom as I had used for my vest, resulting in 9-1/2-inch-wide panels of fabric to work with. There are two panels each on the front and back and a half-panel on each side. Each shirt sleeve is made from two and a half panels. I wanted to conserve as much of the fabric as I could, so I designed the shirt to use only unshaped lengths of fabric, aside from a bit of neck shaping. I used the light-brown crossed fiber for my warp, set up exactly as I’d done for my vest, with eight warp ends per inch to make a weft-faced fabric that really showed off the cotton colors. The weft was entirely made of my homegrown 2-ply cotton, too.

I wove four 30-1/2-inch-long panels for the front and back. The color blocks in my shirt are woven in, not pieced. I measured my fabric as I wove, and changed the brown/green weft yarn to brown/white at the same point on each panel, so I had only to line up the panels when I sewed everything together. The side panels were each woven at 22 inches long. The sleeves are each made of rectangular panels, woven at 14 inches long total, with 10-1/2 inches of brown/white yarn and 3-1/2 inches of brown/green yarn to echo the color blocking on the body panels. I allowed 1 inch for the hem, with 3/8 inch turned in and stitched to finish the raw edge on the inside. These measurements aren’t the final measurements of the pieces, however — fabric shrinks when it’s removed from the tension of the loom, too. I had to allow for shrinkage when I determined my measurements for weaving. Shrinkage in the length amounted to about 8 percent.

Before cutting my precious handmade fabric, I made a mock-up shirt (also known as “making a muslin”) from denim scraps I’d saved from old jeans. It fit beautifully, and I created more room over my hips (and for putting my hands in my pockets) by ending the seams where the front and back panels connect to the side panels a few inches above the hem. I faced these edges and the neckline with purchased cotton fabric I’d dyed with black walnuts, making a nice complement to the hand-woven fabric while stabilizing the areas that would be under the most stress. Most of the seams were 1/4 inch, with a 3/8-inch seam at the shoulders.

I hope this story has encouraged you to consider growing fiber plants and learning about the rewarding processes involved in producing your own clothes. Plus, you can meet some wonderful new people by joining fiber groups to learn more about spinning and weaving.

Colored Cotton Cultivars

Almost all commercial cotton is white, but a number of heirloom and newly developed cultivars are available with naturally colored fiber. You can choose between several shades of brown and green. Colored cottons tend to have shorter fibers than commercial white cultivars do — the result of less selection overall, and of maintaining the unique colors of the fiber rather than focusing on fiber length and ease of machine harvest. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange  and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds both offer colored cotton seeds in a variety of shades.

I chose a brown cultivar and a green cultivar when I decided to venture into the world of colored cotton, and my first year’s harvest gave me beautiful, clearly defined colors. I saved seeds for each color from that harvest to plant the following year, but when harvest time came again, I discovered my beds weren’t separate enough: Some of my fiber was light brown. Clearly the two cultivars I’d started with had crossed, and the resulting first-generation hybrids demonstrated characteristics of each of their parents. Each year I save seeds and find surprises; brown seems to be dominant over green, but I’ve had both colors, and even some white! I’ll keep saving seeds and growing out plants with the colors I want to produce, and eventually I’ll have green and dark-brown cotton again, or even new shades I want to perpetuate.

My beds were only separated by about 100 feet, so pollinators merrily went from one bed to the other, muddying my original colors. I’ve since read that isolating the beds by at least 650 feet for home use, or 1⁄2 mile or more for commercial growing, is the way to keep your cultivars from crossing. Alternatively, you could grow only one color per year, and save the seeds somewhere cool and dry so they’ll survive a longer dormancy period. What you do will depend on how patient you are, and how much space you have to devote to growing cotton.

Cindy Conner is a permaculture educator and managing partner of Homeplace Earth LLC, through which she teaches sustainable growing practices and other skills. Her most recent book is Seed Libraries.