Ever wanted to watch me talk about processing and spinning cotton? Well now you can!
(Scroll down for a transcript of the video. )
The video above is a more condensed and organized version of the talk that I gave at the community garden harvest party. One of our garden members is a 4th grade teacher and thought her class would enjoy the talk, but with my immune system being around children isn’t a great idea so I made a video (and a youtube channel) instead. There is a lot of room for improvement in the video and sound quality since I shot it by myself with my iPad, but I did figure out how to add subtitles to youtube videos, so yay! I hope to make a few more videos in the future, so if you have any feedback it would be appreciated.
Transcript of Cotton Processing and Spinning Video:
Hi, I’m Jen, and today I’m going to talk a little bit about cotton.
Now, cotton is a plant that we can grow here in Kansas. Our season is a little short for it; where not all the cotton on the plant will ripen before it’s killed by the cold, but we can grow it.
Cotton is related to hibiscus flowers and okra and marshmallow, the plant and not the candy. This is very apparent when it’s in bloom. The flowers look like small hibiscus flowers and the ones we grow happen to have colors such as yellow and pink. They’re very pretty.
Cotton, as you may or may not already know, is a heavy feeding plant, which means that it requires a lot of nutrients. Because of this it can deplete soils very quickly, especially when grown on a larger scale such as in agriculture. It also can require a lot of fertilizers, which when applied irresponsibly can contribute to water pollution. It is however possible to grow cotton organically. There are some very neat people out in California doing some research on this.
Now, cotton as a fiber is a very important fiber. It is estimated that maybe half of the textiles produced today contain cotton in one form or another. The fiber itself is different than other plant fibers. The other plant fibers, like hemp and linen, actually come from the stems of the plants whereas cotton comes from around the seeds. It’s a seed fiber.
This is a cotton boll. This once was a flower but now contains the cotton fiber and the seeds. Cotton also has a slightly different growing structure, the fiber itself, than other plant fibers and most animal fibers. Cotton grows in a corkscrew that changes direction depending on what part of the fiber it’s in, and the places where it changes are called nodes. This corkscrewing allows the cotton to kind of stick together which makes it a little easier to spin and also means that after a day of processing cotton my clothes will be covered in it. Cotton is also hollow, which is part of the reason it has such amazing absorption capabilities. Now compared to a lot of other fibers that are spun, cotton is very short which gives it some unique characteristics when being processed and spun.
So again, this is a cotton boll. Cotton comes in a couple different colors. It used to come in even more; there used to be pinks and reds and blues and greys but those have been lost to antiquity. Today the three most common colors are white, like this, green, and brown cotton. These were all grown at our garden.
Now, to spin cotton to make yarn to make fabric you have to process it just a little bit first, and how much you process it depends on what you want to do with it. Now first, after the bolls are ripe, and you’ll know they’re ripe when the cotton fluffs up like this. When it’s not ripe it’s kind of short and condensed and it feels damp. Once the bolls are ripe you then harvest them. You can cut them off the plant like this one, and then you have to remove the seeds and cotton from the boll. It’s easily done by tugging and you end up with something that looks like this. I don’t know if you can see but there are seeds in the cotton.
Now some cotton can be spun directly like this. There is a variety that kind of has “free” seeds, kind of like free pits in nectarines, um, where the fiber comes off very easily. Unfortunately that variety is not one that we grow here. So in order to spin it you have to remove the fiber from the seed. There are a couple different ways to do that, such as pulling, like this, which doesn’t require a lot of equipment but is a very time consuming process. There are also crank gins which don’t rely on electricity and are great for small scale, however they also take a very long time and you have to physically crank them which can be quite tiring. And then of course on industrial scales there are electric gins, that can get to be quite large.
Now once you’ve pulled enough fiber off the seeds, and I have a little cloud of fiber and a seed, you can then decide what you want to do with it. Some people like to spin just from the clouds. Personally, however, I prefer to process it a little bit more.
There are a couple of different ways to prepare fiber. The way I like the best is to make it into little rolls of cotton called punis, which is what I’ll be showing you how to do today. So to recap there’s the little fiber clouds that you can spin from, you can spin from punis, and then there is another preparation called sliver, which is kind of like a sheet of cotton all going the same direction. If you’ve ever unrolled a cotton ball it’s very similar, just the fiber is a little better quality and meant for spinning.
So to make punis you need special brushes called hand cards. They’re very similar to brushes you may get for your dog or cat. There are some metal teeth that are fairly flexible
[sound of finger running over brush teeth]
And fairly closely spaced together. I have actually used dog brushes to process cotton before so it is very possible to do that.
So after you have your two brushes
[sound of brush resting on table]
You put your fiber
[sound of fiber being put on brush]
The cotton, on the brush. You don’t want to put too much otherwise it’s hard to process, but you want to put enough that it’ll hold together. Then you have to brush it to get the fiber all going in about the same direction. Personally I like to do about three to four passes, three to four times.
So that was one time…
[counting to three with sound of brushing cotton]
That’s two times.
[counting to three again with sound of brushing cotton]
That was three times. Now as you can see the cotton ended up on both brushes so there is a way to hold the brushes and kind of pull the cotton off, or use them to pull the cotton off of each other. And then you end up with a mat of cotton. This also can be spun and is very similar to the sliver preparation.
To roll this into a puni I will then take a stick, this is a bamboo skewer that has been sanded down so I don’t get splinters,
and roll the cotton off the brush. Neaten up the ends a little bit and then slide it off the stick and you have your puni.
Punis take advantage of cotton’s affinity to stick to itself. It makes for a smoother spinning experience.
Speaking of spinning cotton, there are several different ways that you can spin it. Of course you can spin it on a normal spinning wheel. There are also special wheels called charkhas, this is a book charkha, that were developed in India for spinning cotton. The book charkha will typically sit in your lap, and then you turn the handle and it turns this wheel which turns the spindle. The nice thing about book charkhas is not only are they small and portable, about the size of a book, but they also spin very fast which is good for cotton because it has such a short length.
So there are a couple different ways to spin it on wheels, but my favorite way to spin cotton is on spindles. So there are a couple of different types of spindles. There are supported spindles like this and this, which both have cotton them, which have to rest on surfaces to spin. This is a Russian style wand spindle and this is is a tahkli, which is a spindle developed in India specifically for spinning cotton.
Now to spin cotton on a tahkli, first it’s a good idea to have a surface to rest the tahkli on because the tips are very pointy. THen you take your puni, which is attached
[sound of metal tahkli on ceramic cup]
And you just give the tahkli a little spin and slowly let the twist into the fiber.
They sometimes make a nice whirring sound which is fun.
And once you have enough twist that you can give it a tug and it doesn’t break you then wind it on the tahkli and do that all over again.
Now there are also drop spindles such as this small spindle, which is a Turkish spindle, that you can spin cotton on as well. If you’re spinning cotton on a drop spindle it’s a good idea to have a light spindle because cotton can’t support a lot of weight when being spun. Again, you want to twist it enough that it doesn’t drift apart when you pull on it, but not so much that it snaps. Cotton can snap in half if there is too much twist in the fiber.
So once you have spun your cotton, then all that’s left to do is to wash it in a little bit of soap and sometimes if you wash it in a basic solution the cotton will change color, so things like washing soda are sometimes fun to add. And then you have yarn which can be knit, woven, crocheted, and made into anything and everything that you can think of.
So that’s a little bit about cotton as a plant, as a fiber, and that how I process homegrown cotton for spinning.