Spinning Cotton

It has taken me a lot longer than projected to return to blogging. But I've missed sharing my adventures in gardening and other hobbies, so I need to just jump back in and start blogging again. So let's start off with what I did with the cotton I grew last year!

I grew three Sea Island x brown NOID cotton plants from seed that I purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The plants themselves were damn pretty. This photo is from mid-summer.

The flowers are pink when they're new.

And turn white as they age.

The bolls start forming pretty quickly, but they take forever to mature. I harvested most of them while they were still immature, because of a cold snap in late September.

cotton seeds
Photo by --ki---
The ones that had ripened on the plant were given to my friend Ki, who took this photo of the seeds attached to the fiber outside of the boll. I think they look like mini peanut butter thumbprint cookies with chocolate chips on top.

Ki spun up a sample skein of yarn from those few bolls--and then taught me how to, as well. She gave me a tahkli spindle--a metal pin with a metal disc at the bottom and a small hook at the top. It spins very fast--all the better to add the twist needed to make yarn from short-staple fibers like cotton.

Photo by --ki---
Before I could spin all the cotton I harvested, it had to be processed. While at Al's Orchid Greenhouse, Ki, Al, and I plucked the fiber from the bolls, removed all the seeds, and carded the cotton to align the fibers and make it fluffier, so it would be easier to spin.

Photo by dacmanj
After I spun it into a very long single strand over the course of a few weeks, I started unwinding the cotton from the tahkli onto my hand in a plying bracelet. It's one way to make a two-ply yarn from only a single strand of spun fiber.

Spun Cotton
After plying, I boiled the cotton with some soda ash to finish it and clean off the plant's waxy coating, in case I'd like to dye it at any point. Probably not, because after processing, the cotton became a deeper, complex brown.

My first-ever skein of yarn is only 45 yards--enough to make a doily, perhaps. But it opened a door to many more hobbies and projects--like the cotton trial I'm doing for Southern Exposure to grow all seven of their cotton varieties and measure the plants' average fiber length. I am doing this project at Wangari Gardens and hope to hold a few educational workshops throughout the summer.

I've also been in touch with a natural-colour cotton breeder, from whom I hope to obtain seed for cotton shades other than white, brown, and green.

In the meantime, I'm spinning wool, knitting a few sweaters, growing silkworms to make silk, helping out in DC State Fair's fourth year, participating in food swaps, and making wine--in other words, plenty of adventures to share in the coming weeks!

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2 Responses to Spinning Cotton

  1. Aloha,

    Did you ever continue your cotton experiment? This is an old blog from 2011 and it's spring 2014 and I'm kicking around online looking for a true Sea Island White cotton seed source so I'm hoping you've kept up your cotton project? Have you found a seed source for a true Sea Island White cotton? It is supposed to be one of the softest cottons as well as having a long staple. Well, long for cotton anyway.

    If you were growing all seven varieties close to each other, though, they would have cross pollinated, so seed from them probably wouldn't breed true but the seed must have been sourced from somewhere. Several years ago Southern Exposure had a Sea Island White variety and I did get some of that seed and grow it out, however the staple wasn't as long as I was hoping for and am not sure if it is just the way it is or if the seed had been crossed with a shorter staple white.

    Since then I've sourced seeds from a location in Florida and they've just sprouted with leaves that are more round, not long pointy lobes and a lot more of a reddish cast to the leaves. I'm not sure if this is an indication of a better strain or what since there's not a lot of cotton grown around here anymore.

    There is a Hawaiian strain of brown and green cotton, but it seems a lighter brown than yours.

    Lovely yarn, by the way! An excellent skein, especially for a first time effort!

    A hui hou,
    Cathy in Hawaii

  2. Aloha Cathy!

    I did continue to grow cotton, but with lots of stuff happening with the job and a move last fall, the cotton didn't fare well.

    I'm trying again this year at my new place, growing just a few plants in pots in the front yard. I'll be sure to share an update!

    I'm more interested in naturally coloured cotton than white cotton, so I haven't been searching for Sea Island White--and it's been a bear finding anything but shades of green or brown! I've heard tales of other colours--red, black, lavender, for example--but nothing concrete.

    Your Sea Island White may have been crossed with other whites, or the growing conditions may have caused shorter staple length--there are certainly any number of variables that can affect staple length! There's variability in fiber length within Sea Island White cottons, too.


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