The Cotton Project

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

The fact that you can grow something and turn it into fabric for clothes with simple hand tools is fascinating to me. That’s what led me to grow cotton in my garden and learn to spin. Growing colored cotton, specifically green and brown, is much more interesting than growing white, so that is what I did.

At the time, I didn’t realize the distance that was needed between varieties so they wouldn’t cross and I had them separated by only 100 feet. The isolation distance recommended for home use is 650’ and for commercial production a half mile or more. I was only growing it for fun and concentrating on learning to spin, so at first I didn’t notice just how much mixing was going on in the garden when I planted back the seeds I saved from one harvest to the next. Once I took notice, I realized that my original colors that you see in the name tag I wove from my early cotton would be lost if I didn’t pay attention.

It appeared that what had crossed, either in the green bed or the brown bed, produced a light brown fiber. The colors pop once the fiber is boiled in soapy water during a process called scouring. I spin my cotton and wind it into skeins, then scour. Following Stephanie Gaustad’s advice in The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp, I fill a 2 gallon pot with water and add 2 tablespoons of washing soda and a bit of soap. Gaustad recommends 1 tablespoon of dry laundry detergent, but I usually substitute a squirt of dish soap. My skeins go in that for a 45 minute simmer, then I give them a good rinse, roll them in a towel to take out excess water, and hang them to dry. Some shrinkage occurs in the process, which I like. Better to get that out of the way before I weave with it.

Color of Seed Indicates Variety

I decided to see if I could separate out the colors. The light brown that I found in both beds was an indication of an F1 generation of plants. F1 characteristics can be predictable and it is F1s that you see offered as hybrids in seed catalogs, the first generation following a crossing of two pure varieties of the same crop. You have probably heard not to save seeds from hybrid, or F1 generation, plants. The reason is that they can be unpredictable. There is much diversity of genes wrapped up in those seeds and it will express itself for years to come. In 2016 I carefully sorted out the colors and the seeds and asked five family and friends to each grow out a subset of seeds. You can find the details of that at The Cotton Project.

Besides looking at the colors of the fiber, I was also noticing the amount of lint on the seeds. The dark brown cotton had seeds with no lint, or naked. All the rest had fuzzy seeds. There is also a slight difference in the feel of the fiber. A silky feel originates from the green cotton and is passed on to the light brown fiber. This project has been interesting and has brought more questions to be worked on in the coming season. What surprised me the most was that it was so hard to find green. The seeds that I had harvested from the green plants did not necessarily grow out to green. However, I know it is in there and we will continue with the project this year.

You could do something like this with any hybrid crop. Characteristics come to light in the F2 generation and beyond that you can choose to work with to produce a variety specific to you and your garden. Essentially, you would become a seed breeder. I once grew out seeds saved from a hybrid zucchini and got all sorts of shapes of squash. That is when it realized that zucchinis were so closely related to pumpkins.

When and if I settle on a green and brown, it will probably not be the same shade of green and brown I started with. Besides producing colors not found elsewhere, spinning your own fiber allows you to blend colors, producing a product specific to you. There is a lot of fun to be had in this world. Whether it is working with cotton or something else, I hope you join the adventure.

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.

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