Seed to Garment: Spinning Cotton

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

If you are growing cotton this year you will need to learn how to spin it. Even if you are not growing cotton yourself, you can learn to spin fiber you have acquired elsewhere. Spinning fiber to make your own clothes opens up many opportunities you probably never knew existed. If your fiber is not homegrown, you can source it from projects that take care in how they treat the people and the soil that are involved with the growing. The textile industry does not have a good record doing that. You can use naturally colored cotton or learn to dye your own fiber with plants. Of course, then there is the weaving or knitting to learn, but I’ll only deal with the spinning here.

Cotton is a very short fiber and needs to be spun at a high rate of speed to put in sufficient twist. The spindle needs to be lighter weight than the spindles you may see used with wool. I use a tahkli spindle, which is made of metal and weighs about a half ounce. Since the fiber is so short, even a lightweight spindle needs to be supported. When I bought my tahkli from it came with a small dish specifically made to be used with spindles. I usually prefer to rest the bottom of my spindle in a personal-sized wooden salad bowl (straight from my kitchen cabinet) because it is larger and does not slip around on my lap as much.

Homegrown cotton can often be spun right off the seed. If you want to take the seeds out first, it can easily be done by hand. I had heard of using a pasta machine to take out cotton seeds, so I borrowed one from a friend and tried it. It was slow going, not all the seeds came out easily, and the cotton was getting compressed. I decided it was better to do it by hand.

Whether I am spinning it off the seed or taking the seeds out first, I am spinning with rather loose fiber. If it becomes compacted, I will use cotton cards to card it before spinning. Dog brushes work just as well and that is what I used when I first started working with cotton. I found some at the pet store that had a button on the back that pushed the fiber forward to the edge of the bristles. How handy!

A spinning wheel for cotton is the charkha. One charkha design is called a book charkha because it comes in a wooden box that folds up like a book. When I was ready to move beyond the spindle I bought a book charkha from Eileen Hallman of New World Textiles at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina where she had a booth. I had met her there in 2014 and by 2015 I was ready to make the move. Even though I had gotten pretty good with the spindle, learning to use the charkha took some concentration at first.

The thread or yarn that you will produce from your spindle or charkha is known as singles. Most likely you will need to ply two singles together to make a 2-ply yarn, which is stronger. You can learn more about spinning cotton and some hints about plying at HomeplaceEarth. Learn to spin your homegrown cotton and join the seed to garment movement.

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.

 All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.