Processing cotton

As I wrote in an earlier post, I was given newly harvested cotton from a fellow spinner in Stockholm. I have never handled cotton for spinning before. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to investigate a fiber that is new to me and that I have avoided for environmental reasons.

This is part 2 of my cotton blog series. The first post was about my thoughts of the fashion industry in general and cotton in particular.

Ginning

After the blossom has withered, the seed develops in the cotton capsule (boll). Fibers are attached to the seeds to make it possible for the seeds to be swept away by the wind and start a new plant. Compare it to  dandelion seeds. They wait for a gust of wind to catch them and transport them to a new home where they can start a new plant.

Each cotton boll has from 10 to a gazillion seeds, cozily wrapped in soft cotton fibers. Deseeding, or ginning the cotton is a time consuming process when you do it by hand. On the plus side, ginning by hand yields more clean cotton fiber than ginning mechanically. The fiber (lint) is also less compressed with hand ginning than with mechanical ginning.

When I researched cotton processing I stumbled upon this beautiful and very smart and efficient way of ginning cotton with a flat stone and a metal rod. I tried to do it with what I had at home – a wooden rolling pin and an equally wooden cutting board. I realized quite quickly that it wouldn’t work at all and I was frankly quite embarrassed by my naïveté. Instead I stuck to my original plan and ginned by hand.

The lint is quite strongly attached to the seeds and ginning by hand is a challenge. It took me quite a while to finish the whole 150 grams of cotton. 75 g of it ended up as seeds and the remaining 55 g was spinnable cotton lint.

A bowl of cotton
Cotton!

Willowing

When I read up on willowing wool for a previous video and blog post, I learned that cotton also has a willowing tradition. So naturally I wanted to try willowing cotton as well.

Willowing means to open up the fiber by whipping it with willow sticks. Cotton is prone to compress itself if you handle it manually. There is another way to open up cotton bolls that I haven’t tried yet. You can open up your cotton with a bow-like tool. You place the bow close to a pile of cotton and strike the bow repeatedly. The string snaps the cotton, which opens up. Quite neat if you happen to have a proper bow. I have yet to try this.

I must say I wasn’t as impressed by willowing cotton as I was by willowing wool. Perhaps I did it wrong. I did willow on quite a soft surface. Or perhaps cotton don’t need as much willowing as wool. Either way, the cotton opened up in the beginning, but after a while nothing really happened. I have seen videos where people willow cotton with a lot smaller sticks, more like twigs, and keeping two twigs in one hand for willowing. Another thing to try.

Walter, the neighbor’s cat watched and hung around. After so many videos where I have looked for a cat to make an appearance on my set, I finally got a cat extra! I think he did well and he is welcome back.

The sweet thing about the cat appearance is that spinning and purring is the same word in Swedish: Jag spinner (I spin). Katten spinner (the cat spins).

Josefin Waltin sitting on the ground, looking at a big and furry cat
A dear moment between two spinners.

Carding

I used my regular cards. They are quite fine and work well for cotton. I have read that you need cotton cards for carding cotton, and I am sure the result will bet better with cotton cards. But wool cards are still better than no cards at all.

I use short and very light strokes for the short cotton fibers. Basically, I use the same technique as for wool carding, and finish by rolling the carded fiber into a rolag. I could of course make a pretty cotton puni as well, but I honestly didn’t think about it at the time.

Make sure you don’t make lots of rolags and then store them compressed. Cotton is not elastic and won’t spring back into shape after being compressed. Any kind of fiber preparation is best fresh, and that certainly applies to cotton.

Josefin Waltin carding
Cotton carding in the September sun

The vest I am wearing in the video is the Ivy League vest by Eunny Jang. The yarn is my own handspun (the ones that are not naturally colored are my own hand dyed), mostly of rare and endangered Norwegian sheep breeds.

Happy spinning!


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6 Replies to “Processing cotton”

  1. I don’t know whether it was the cat appearance or you just having plain fun at beating fiber, but you for sure looked very happy when willowing! 😉 I learn so much from you – I had heard of ginning mills in the US, but I never knew what they were for (and for some reason never got around to looking it up). Now I know! Looking forward to finally learning how to spin from a rolag in the next step and how to do it with short fibers in particular. Sunny greetings!

    1. Vielen Dank Stefanie! 😀
      What can I tell you, my are videos always better when I have company, whether it is four or two legged. And even if I don’t particularly like cotton as a fiber, I learn a lot from processing it!

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