Spinning cotton on a Tahkli spindle

I have a new video for you! In this video I spin cotton on a Tahkli spindle. I shot the video on a windy September day at our allotment. Handling the cotton rolags was really challenging and I had to twist and turn to avoid the rolags getting caught in the twist in the wrong place.

This is the third post in my cotton blog series. Previous posts have been about my opinion of the cotton industry, and about cotton processing. So, here is my video about spinning cotton on a Tahkli spindle.

There are different spellings of the word, both Takhli and Tahkli are common., Tahkli seems to be the most common spelling and I will use this throughout the post. However, I didn’t know this when I made the video, so I refer to it as the Takhli spindle there.

The Tahkli spindle

The Tahkli spindle is a small Indian supported spindle. It spins very fast and is a good choice when you want to spin a short stapled fiber like cotton. The whorl has a smaller circumference than your average Tibetan supported spindle and the shaft (or the whole spindle) is usually made in metal. A metal shaft is easier to make thin than a wooden one.

A spindle with cotton yarn
Tahkli spindle by Malcolm Fielding

The thin shaft and the small whorl circumference are both very helpful in making the spindle very fast. The Tahkli spindle I’m using in the video however, is made of wood, but it has a metal tip.

Cotton behaviour

The properties of cotton

The properties of cotton are very different from the properties of wool. This means that spinning cotton is a very different experience from that of spinning wool.

Since cotton fibers are very short, the ideal preparation for cotton is hand-carding, either as rolags or punis (which are a lot denser than rolags).

Like other plant-based fibers, cotton fibers have no crimp. This means that cotton yarn has no elasticity. This is important to have in mind when you make a project with cotton yarn.

Cotton has no memory. If you compress cotton fiber it will stay compressed. If you wear a heavy cotton sweater, it will eventually sag.

Cotton fibers have a very strong will to catch on to neighboring fibers. This makes cotton very easy to draft. You hardly need any twist at all for cotton to draft.

Spinning cotton

When spinning cotton you need to have these properties in mind. To be able to spin the short cotton fibers you need to get the short fibers into the twist. This means that you need high speed on your spinning tool and you also need a lot of twist for the fibers to stay in the yarn.

Since cotton has no memory and no crimp, it is not nearly as forgiving as wool. Therefore, cotton needs to be spun with a lot of focus. You need to make sure the yarn is strong and durable in every inch. Spinning cotton on a spindle is a good idea, since you have a lot of control of the quality of the yarn. You also have the yarn right in front of you and the chance to check the quality inch by inch.

With no memory in the fibers you need to be very gentle when you handle the rolags. Through trial and error I have learned that prepared fiber is best fresh – an old rolag or hand-combed top will eventually get tangled and slightly compressed. This is especially true for cotton. When you have carded your cotton the best thing is to spin it right away. If you store it, make sure it doesn’t get compressed. The same goes for when you hold the rolag – pretend you have a newly hatched chicken in your hand – don’t compress your rolag.

A person spinning on a small spindle
Hold your rolag very gently.

Spinning cotton on a Tahkli spindle

The technique of spinning cotton on a Tahkli spindle is basically the same as spinning on a Tibetan supported spindle. There are Tahkli spindles with a little hook at the end of the shaft which makes it possible to use the spindle suspended to add extra twist. As with other very short fibers you need to spin cotton with a long draw.

I spin my cotton with a double draft. This means that

  • I flick the spindle and pull the fiber back to make a first draft. This is kind of a preliminary draft to make sure the twist goes all along the drafted part. At this stage the yarn is probably bumpy and uneven.
  • Then I make a second draft to even out the yarn. To do this I untwist the yarn slightly. This allow the fibers to become mobile for a short while and rearrange themselves into a more even yarn.
  • When the yarn is even all along the spun length I add more twist to make sure the yarn is strong. Twist is crucial in yarn with such short fibers and you need to get used to adding a lot more twist than you would on your regular wool yarn.
Close-up of a person spinning cotton.
Bumps in the yarn in the first part of the double draft.

Feeling the spinning

When you spin cotton you need to listen to the yarn and hear what it tells you. Spinning cotton on a spindle helps you to do that. When you spin cotton on a supported style spindle you have both your hands on the yarn and fiber. Your hands are in sole control of the quality and the tension of the yarn. This is a superpower you need to take advantage of.

  • When you work with drafting, untwisting and keeping the tension, you will feel how the fibers work their way into the yarn.
  • On the second part of the double draft you will literally feel which bump that lets go and rearranges itself into the twist. This is truly fascinating.
  • When you see no more bumps to even out, you tug lightly on the yarn. When you feel no give there are also no more uneven parts to even out. All fibers are engaged in the twist and you can say that the twist is balanced.

Learning and improving

Spinning cotton is very good for learning and improving your spinning superpowers. You need to be active all the time and watch, listen and adjust to the whims of your cotton master. By this, I don’t for a second imply that spinning wool is a walk in the park. However, the properties of wool and cotton are so vastly different that you can’t not learn new skills when you spin cotton. Even if you are not a cotton spinner, go ahead and try it! I dare you not to learn from it.

A spindle in a piece of hollow wood
I found the perfect spindle holder in the wood shed!

Happy spinning!


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