Ultra-Local Clothing: Making a Homegrown, Handspun, Naturally Dyed Cotton Shirt

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

I first grew cotton in the late 1990s. However, I had no idea what to do with it. After I enjoyed looking at it and feeling it, I put it away in a box, seeds and all. I decided to grow cotton again in 2011, and this time learn to spin it.

Choosing the Cotton Variety and Materials

I grew Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green that year. Seeds are available for these varieties from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I bought a takli spindle and joined a handspinning group. The key to all this is joining that group because I found people who could help me along this journey — and it has been quite a journey. Learning to spin seemed to be slow going at first and I got sidetracked writing two books — Grow a Sustainable Diet and Seed Libraries. Once I got back to it, I finished a vest in 2015 and now a shirt!

For this shirt, I spun my cotton into singles on a book charkha and plied the singles together on a Louet10 wheel. I wove my two-ply homegrown cotton yarn on a small 12-inch table loom that I had acquired used at the swap meet that my spinning group has every two years.

Choosing a Shirt Pattern

For inspiration for my pattern, I turned to books about historical clothing design. I did not want to waste any of my precious fabric, and besides, I had a limited amount of fiber to work with. As you can see in the photo, I made my shirt from straight panels of fabric. The only cutting for fitting was around the neck. I faced the neckline with cotton fabric I had dyed with black walnuts. You will find all the details of this shirt, including measurements at Homeplace Earth.

I have been involved for many years promoting education for those wanting to learn more about their food, where it comes from, and how to grow it. Food gardens in every backyard would be wonderful. Now I want to expand on that to include promoting education for those wanting to learn more about where their textiles come from, particularly their clothes. In the future, fibersheds will be as talked about as foodsheds are now.

My wish going into the New Year is that you will be more aware of what you are wearing. Learn about the fiber content and where it was produced. That information is on a tag in every garment. You can go beyond that and learn to sew, grow cotton and maybe flax for linen, and learn to process it. I learned to sew as a child in 4-H and have gardened all of my adult life. Spinning and weaving were new to me. It definitely took time and practice to get this far, but it has been fun and I have met many wonderful people along the way.

Start where you are and join the fun. There is always something new and exciting to learn.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth. Read all of Cindy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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