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Monday, 10 October 2016

Step-by-Step Cotton Picking Blues

Ever wondered what 83 cotton bolls look like?  No?  Well I'll show you anyway!

These were the first bolls to open on my white cotton this year, so when I had a significant amount I started to process them ready for spinning.  Whole bolls take up quite a bit of space, so first step is to remove all the fluff from them.

I try to remove bits of dried leaf as I go so I end up with nice clean clumps of cotton. These clumps are then separated into individual seeds, i.e. each seed is attached to its own surrounding bundle of fluff (technical term!).  So far, these two processes are relatively easy and non-time consuming.

Ha ha - then comes the dreaded ginning!  Each little parcel of fluff has to be separated from the seed that it is clinging to.  I've tried a few methods of doing this - initially when I first spun some cotton I fluffed out the cotton on each seed (a bit like a halo) and spun directly from the seed.  Then I read that a pasta maker would remove them effectively if the cotton was run through the rollers with a piece of denim, and in theory (in practice too - I've seen videos of other people doing this) the seeds are left on top of the rollers after the cotton has departed through them.  Hhhmm, it doesn't work for me.

I finally found that the best (but very time consuming) way for me was to roll the seed out of the cotton using a wooden dowel on a non-slip tile.  I can show a photo of this in progress, but only with green cotton (my latest project).

The seed is the bit at the top of the dowel, about to be released, and the newly-ginned cotton is the pile at the top left of the tile.

One day, if I keep growing this amount of cotton, I would like to invest in a miniature cotton gin, but at the moment I feel I need to be sure I'll have enough cotton in the future to warrant it.  They're quite expensive.

The next step is the carding.  When I first started carding cotton earlier this year, I thought it was going to take quite a bit of effort to get the cotton nicely aligned and rolled up ready to spin, but actually this happened pretty easily.  Each carder-full was brushed three times from one card to the other and then rolled around the wooden dowel to make punis (the smaller, cotton variety of a rolag).  Easy peasy.  Green cotton again here as I forgot to take photos of the white.

Then came the interesting part - the spinning.  This has been done on my Louet Victoria because we were about to go off camping when I started and I wanted to take some spinning with me.  Also, cotton needs lots of twist and the best way of spinning it is by using the smallest whorl - the black drive band on the left has been moved to the smallest one; normally for spinning wool I have it on the largest, i.e. right next to the wooden upright.

Note : Apologies to any other spinners reading this for all the obvious explanations, but I do have non-spinners who read my blog and they probably wouldn't have a clue what I was talking about otherwise!

So, this is what 83 cotton bolls look like once they're spun.  When I started, I thought I would need the best part of two bobbins for the amount of cotton I had, but obviously it's quite deceiving.

Although I've dabbled a bit with spinning cotton, this was my first full bobbin, ever.  I started off a bit shaky, trying to work out a system of drafting that worked for me.  Long draw is supposed to be the optimal method, and I did try that, but basically I'm not very good at it.  I think I need to practice with wool.  In the end I came up with a method that I found easiest - my forward hand was about 8 inches in front of the other hand which was basically allowing a little bit of twist to enter the cotton at a time.  I got on quite quickly after that.

Even though I've been spinning for more than 26 years, spinning cotton was like starting to learn all over again, and I'm sure I've still got a lot more to learn.  One big mistake I made was taking the single thread off the bobbin, making it into a centre-pull ball on my wool winder, and plying from the two ends.  Absolute nightmare!  I had various episodes of complex knots forming because of the amount of twist in the cotton.  The first of these was impossible to untangle and I ended up cutting it out!

The offending article - it looks quite professional like this doesn't it?  No sign of the horrors lurking within.  Eventually though it was all plied up and ready for scouring.  At this point I weighed it - 130g before scouring.

This was dunked in a pan of water with some washing-up liquid and boiled for a couple of hours.  Then I rinsed it and repeated the boiling.  There was surprisingly little came out into the water, maybe because it was home-grown, not treated or sprayed with anything, and hadn't gone through commercial processing which apparently adds quite a bit of dirt. No idea really, but the water turned slightly yellow and that was it.

The final bit of processing for this hank of cotton was dyeing it.  I have lots of woad growing in the garden this year, some of which I planted, and lots which have self-seeded.  For this dye batch I used some of the self-seeded plants.

300g of washed, chopped woad leaves ready for their journey into the blue :-

Boiling water was poured over the leaves and left to sit for an hour, after which the leaves are strained out.  Then comes the chemistry!  After re-heating to 50 deg. I sprinkled in washing soda until the colour of the water changed to a greeny-brown, then whisked for about five minutes until the resulting froth on top turned blue . . . and what a blue!

I then let this sit while the froth subsided, then re-heated to 50 deg and sprinkled Spectralite on top to remove oxygen from the solution.  This then turns a yellowy colour and after about 45 minutes is ready to go.

The cotton skein was then carefully lowered into the water (don't want to risk getting any air bubbles in there) and left to soak overnight.  This is not strictly necessary - I've had good blues develop from a 15-30 minute immersion - but by the time I got to this stage it was getting pretty late.

The next morning I (carefully again - this dye bath probably still has some colour so I didn't want to introduce air) removed the skein and hung it up in the fresh air for the blue to develop.

It comes out of the dye bath yellow, then turns green, then blue.  I did have to re-plunge this because I had light coloured marks where I'd tied the skein.  You can just see this on the top right.

Finally, the finished woad blue cotton.  From seed to skein :-

Quite a journey!


  1. I SO want to do exactly what you have done..especially the growing part of this journey. Thank you for sharing your journey with us all!

    Barb R.

    1. Go for it! If you have the sun, cotton is not so difficult to grow. I grew most of mine in the greenhouse this year, but the ones outside still have bolls which are opening.

    2. Thanks for this lovely article, very interesting to me as I also grow cotton here in SW France, and for the first time in my homemade greenhouse, they got planted late this year so only a few have opened so far but I am hoping more will before it turns too cold at night. I grew only white as yet but managed to grew a few Pima plants, they are not opened yet. I have cut and brought them in several times and they finally will open in the warmth.

    3. Oh well done Morticia. If you would like any seed for the green and sienna cotton I can send you some.

    4. Thanks for your kind offer of seeds, I would love them

    5. OK, I think you can e-mail me via the blog, so if you send me your address I'll get some in the post for you. If you have any problems, let me know.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Oh you're not that far away! We're just south of Fleurance in the Gers. We have a friend in your neck of the woods who organizes music events, Mike Jones, maybe you've heard of him? I'll sort some seeds out for you and get them in the post.

    8. That is great, I am looking forward to growing the coloured as well, I don't personally know hime but I have met him just once I think, we know the same people all in the music business

    9. Your seeds went in the post box last night. Hopefully they won't take too long to get to you.

    10. Thank you so very much for the seeds which arrived today, it was very generous of you. I am really looking forward to next years crop, with some luck I will have Pima seed (none of which is ready), would you like some Pima if I am successful? my other white is Upland I think. I have now cut it all and brought it in, it has been too cold at night here, I would hate it to freeze. Thanks again

    11. Glad it arrived OK, and no problem - I do have quite a lot of seed.
      I would love some Pima if you have enough. Actually, I'm not sure if I already have it. A friend sent me some white cotton seed last year (the white bolls above were grown from them) and I've no idea if this is Pima or not. It would be interesting to compare.

  2. Wow! Fascinating! I utterly failed to grow cotton a few years back. I should re-try!

    1. Yes, you should!! Did it fail to germinate? Or did the plants not thrive? Good luck if you do try again.