Grow and Spin Cotton

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner
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Growing cotton has been an adventure for me and spinning it has taken it further. Growing it is the easy part, if you have enough sun and heat. That is not a problem here in Virginia in Zone 7 with the varieties I grow — Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green — which require 130 days to mature. The timing for starting the seeds and transplanting is like tomatoes. Knowing that cotton was such a part of the history here in the South, I believe that it should be in every school garden. In the fall the students would be harvesting what was planted by the previous class, then do the favor for the next class before the school year is over.

Cotton flowers look like hibiscus and okra, which is pretty interesting to me since I grow all three crops. The cotton flowers begin as ivory colored, then turn pink before they completely fall off and the boll begins to form. Cotton plants grow as small bushes and are annuals here, but I’ve heard of perennial cotton that grows as trees! Different kinds of cotton produce fiber that has different characteristics and uses. Although white cotton is what is most common and is, of course, the choice if you want white or something that is easily dyed, cotton produces colored fiber, also. The most common naturally colored cotton is green and brown. The color of the fiber changes as it goes from harvest to finished product. In my photo, you can see a boll each of brown and green cotton and the yarn that resulted from each color. Once cotton has been spun, it must be boiled to set the twist. At that time, the color deepens. What is on the spindle in the photo is green cotton. You can see how much darker the finished yarn is. I’ve heard it even changes over time with use, but I haven’t worked with it long enough to experience that yet.

Cotton has a lot of seeds that need to be taken out before it can be spun. The seeds of Nankeen Brown are “naked”, meaning the fiber doesn’t adhere to them as it does with other varieties, such as my Erlene’s Green. You can pull out the seeds first, or card it and deseed it at the same time. I have regular cotton cards now, but I got started using dog brushes that I bought for that purpose. They work pretty well.

I learned to spin using a takli spindle, which is a small metal spindle that is spun in a support dish. This type of spindle is called a supported spindle. You can also spin with a drop spindle (no dish). The world of spindles is a whole other adventure that I haven’t had the time to explore. Cotton has a short fiber which makes it different than spinning wool. There are other differences to know–such as, you don’t boil wool to set the twist. My first spinning efforts were pretty lumpy and thick, but I’m getting the hang of it now. It is exciting to be doing this with just a hand spindle, rather than a spinning wheel.

I joined a group of handspinners who get together each month and have learned much from them. It is the sharing of knowledge and skills that builds community and benefits everyone–even those beyond the group. Wool is the fiber of choice by most in the group, as you might imagine, but in October we had a program about a small project being carried out in Ecuador by Kathleen Klumpp, a cultural anthropologist. She is working to preserve a tradition she had first witnessed there in the 1970’s. The family she is working with still uses spindles and the old methods of spinning and weaving to produce their cotton articles. Getting to know cotton can carry you far beyond your garden. Learn more about this adventure at Homeplace Earth. Even a few plants can get you started spinning your own cotton.

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