Fearless Cotton Spinning (Dispelling the Roadblocks)

Fearless Cotton Spinning (Dispelling the Roadblocks) by Jill Holbrook

Jill Holbrook spins & knits in Tucson, AZ.

Jill Holbrook spins & knits in Tucson, AZ.

I absolutely love to spin cotton. It is my favorite fiber and the most soothing fiber to spin. When stressed or upset, I spin cotton. Gandhi said if everyone in the world spun an hour a day there would be no more wars. What a lovely thought! Gandhi spun cotton – a plant indigenous to his country, India.

There is a modern myth that cotton is hard to spin. The fact is, it is really easy to spin though definitely different than wool – the fiber most spinners learn to spin. Cotton does not have scales like wool. Instead cotton fibers start as a tube that becomes hollow and collapses as it matures. This creates convolutions in the fiber that assists the spinner in the same way that the scales in wool fiber does. The cotton fiber convolutions hang onto each other. They pull their neighbors along into the drafting zone. Commercial processing of cotton straightens the fibers making them slippery. The cotton sliver available to hand spinners in the past was this type of cotton. Now we have Easy to Spin cotton sliver in both short and long staple varieties. For spinners new to cotton or those who tried the slippery versions in the past you have to try the Easy to Spin. This sliver makes spinning a joy.cotton spun1

It is the short staple of the cotton fibers that causes the most significant difference in spinning cotton. The staple length in cotton can be ½ to 1¾ inches depending upon the quality and type of cotton. Acala or Upland and the naturally colored cottons are the shorter staple, while Egyptian, Sea Island and Pima cottons have longer staple. Hybrids of the naturally colored cottons are now available with longer staples. Soon we will have a lot more of Pima Brown or Sea Island Green – mmm… so much to look forward to!

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Skeins of BMC cotton spun up by Jill

Because of the short staple length in cotton, the draw in spinning has to be adjusted to get enough twist into the fiber to make a continuous yarn. The good news is the draw in cotton spinning is almost effortless. At least, that is true using the long backward draw – the best and fastest draw and the necessary draw if you plan to spin with a support spindle or a charka. The key is drafting as the twist enters the drafting zone, sometimes called the point of twist. The drafting hand moves back as the twist enters, very lightly, while the forward hand is turning the wheel of the charka or twirling the spindle. The draw is so light there is a sense that the newly formed yarn will come apart. It won’t as long as the twist is consistently going into the drafting zone. Of course, this requires practice and patience. There is a wonderful “Ah Ha! Moment” when you feel that “just right draw”.  It is easiest to learn this draw on a support spindle such as a Tahkli. The hardest part is overriding the “default draw” we have trained our hands and minds to do with wool.

Need further evidence that cotton is easy to spin? At a Tucson Handweavers and Spinners Guild meeting, a visitor came to learn how to spin cotton on a prehistoric spindle. She had never spun before. Thus, she had no preconceptions about spinning cotton. I had some carded cotton and demonstrated how to spin the spindle in its little bowl and how to spin cotton. After a two minute demonstration she thought she could do it. She could. She spun a continuous yarn not much different than the one I spun while demonstrating. Was I surprised by this? Yes, but I shouldn’t have been. The tradition of including children in household and farm chores was necessary in prehistoric and current cultures. Cotton was the fiber available to the ancient peoples of India, South America, Mexico and Southwestern United States. Children were taught to spin cotton starting at three years of age. (Children have no preconceptions either.)

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