This and That

Random bits of my life

Spinning Cotton by Hand

Posted by Avital Pinnick on March 16, 2010

Although I do own a spinning wheel, I chose to spin my cotton by hand because there was such a small quantity and because at the moment I need portable projects. All but the first photo were taken at work. I spun during lulls at work.

The Fiber

Natural brown cotton and tahkli
I grew this cotton myself in pots on a balcony. It’s brown naturally coloured cotton. The lint from two plants came to about 19 grams. I tried several methods of preparing the cotton, including beating it with a forked stick, but in the end I carded it v-e-r-y gently with a pair of Ashford wool cards. The resulting mass could be considered a tight rolag or a loose puni.

The Tahkli

Tahkli and some spun cotton
A tahkli is an Indian supported spindle. To be honest, I’m not sure whether it’s from India or American-made. I rest the pointed tip of the spindle on my desk (with a piece of paper underneath to provide some friction so that it doesn’t run around my desk) and spin the tahkli with a quick flick of my right hand. My left hand holds the cotton and drafts it so that the spin enters the drafting zone.

Winding Off

Improvised Nostepinne
When the tahkli gets full, I have to wind off the spun cotton. I didn’t have a nostepinne at work and — for a change — someone had actually changed the empty toilet paper rolls in the ladies’ room so I couldn’t harvest any cardboard tubes. I used a disposable plastic cup and wound the tahkli round and round to wind off the single ply of cotton.


Spinning cotton
When I had wound the tahkli off four times onto two plastic cups, I started spinning on my plying spindle. It’s a top-whorl fimo spindle that someone made for me years ago. It’s become slightly unbalanced because it got chipped on the edge. Also, the central shaft is varnished, which makes it a bit slippery for rolling along the outside of my thigh to insert the twist. It will never be one of my favourite spindles but it’s more than adequate for plying.

Plying with 2 cups holding the singles was NOT a lot of fun. They’re very light, so there was a lot of twisting back on itself. I had a couple breaks where the singles were too thin. Also, when the plying spindle started to get full I had to break the yarn, wind off the plied cotton onto a paper cup, and start plying again with an empty spindle.

Almost Done

Spinning cotton
Only two more rolags to go! The paper cup holds the yarn I’ve plied so far. The plastic cup on the left holds the single that was left over. The tahlkli is empty. When I’ve spun the remaining cotton, I’ll wind it off onto the other plastic cup and finish plying with the larger spindle.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the finished yarn. It’s a bit too fine to use in a Weavette, so perhaps I’ll crochet something small. Any suggestions?

Did I mention that I have a bag of home-grown green cotton that I have to spin? It’s about half the quantity of the brown, so it shouldn’t take very long but I think I’ll use a lazy kate for the plying.


17 Responses to “Spinning Cotton by Hand”

  1. pam said

    Ok – I would really, really like it if you would get on a plane and come over here and give me a personal lesson!

    This looks like so much fun!

    Of course, we can’t grow cotton in the NW USA! But the cottonwoods in spring deliver lots of fiber!

  2. aswirly said

    I am sooo impressed that you are growwing and spinning your own cotton yarn. How cool!!!! hmm….can you make a small bag with the yarn? Cell phone case? A scarf?

    • Avital Pinnick said

      There probably isn’t enough yarn for a scarf but a small bag would be possible. It also depends on the technique I choose. Crochet uses a lot of yarn, knitting, a bit less. Weaving, if it’s done off-loom (e.g., a homemade frame) doesn’t require a lot of yarn. I’m still spinning the last handful, so I have a little time to think about it!

  3. Jerri said

    Hello from one of your Productive Spinners buddies. I saw this on the update list, and had to come over and read about your experience. Bravo! You may have inspired me to practice spinning cotton again; I have only spun a little during workshops, and none that I grew myself. Wonderful!

  4. Jan Wiley said

    What about doing something like this? You might have enough of the brown and green to make one of each. Plus it’s a different technique.

    • Avital said

      Hi, Jan, as it happens, I have that issue and I’ve made that pouch! There’s a reason that it’s designed for a waxed linen thread. Naalbinding is very hard on the yarn because you have to pull the length of the yarn through each stitch, so you need a very hard-wearing yarn. My slubby soft cotton is way too fragile and would would get badly abraded from that treatment. I will have to use a “low-fiber-stress” technique like crochet or knitting. Thanks anyway! The size of the treasure pouch is perfect, though.

  5. Leslie said

    Looks lovely… and clever idea with the cups. I just learned how to spin cotton (after five years of wool and alpaca) and it’s addictive.

    • Avital Pinnick said

      Mother of invention and all that! Somehow I didn’t think that my employers would approve a purchase request for a lazy kate or niddy noddy….

  6. Katherine said

    Beautiful! I would love to know how you did the deseeding. I’ve a whole bagfull of seeded cotton fluff from some plants I grew and so far I’ve been deseeding by hand then carding into rolags with wool cards. (I haven’t gotten around to actually spinning it yet). I’ve heard that you can use a pasta machine to deseed faster but my attempt with that ended up with crushed seeds in the fiber that were impossible to remove.

    • Avital Pinnick said

      Thanks, Karen. As for how I did the deseeding (aka ginning), I brought a bag of cotton bolls to boring meetings and scraped the lint off the seed coats with my nails. I’ve also heard of the pasta machine method but I sure wouldn’t want to end up with bits of crushed seeds in either my cotton or my pasta! I also lightly carded the cotton with wool cards. You probably should spin it at some point, though, because otherwise your rolags are going to get a bit crushed in storage. Thanks for commenting on my blog!

  7. anastasia said

    really beautiful! isn’t it funny what we do for the sake of spinning even when we don’t have everything on hand? i’ll sometimes use two chopsticks and a box to make a lazy kate.
    i just got a couple of ounces of color grown cotton roving, i may try to spin them on a wheel. i’ve only spun some white which i grew last year using a drop spindle, so it should be interesting working with roving. for whatever reason, my color grown cotton plants didn’t do so well this year. i may transfer them to a different location and see what happens.

    • Avital Pinnick said

      Was it a dry year? Or were you trying to grow them in depleted soil? Cotton is a very greedy plant, wants lots of fertilizer and water. Good luck!

  8. Anita Hollman said

    I want to grow, spin, and make skeins of cotton. I really appreciate finding your blog. I will be searching for cotton seeds. It is early June, and probably too late for this season. I will let you know when I get ready to spin.

  9. Beth P said

    I just finished watching a DVD by whom escapes me at the moment but it was on spinning cotton. I was totally intrigued and am now on a quest to find a source for raw cotton that I can card and spin myself. Thanks for the inspiration! I love the natural brown color…

    • Avital Pinnick said

      Any source of hand-spinning supplies can help you. The Woolery has been around for ages and sells cotton bolls. I think $3 for 5 cotton bolls is rather expensive but if you don’t know any cotton farmers or live in cotton-growing country, it’s an option. You won’t get much fiber from 5 cotton bolls, barely enough to card. If you have wool carders, they might be a bit too coarse for cotton. If you want naturally colored cotton, Sally Fox is a good source. She sells the bolls.

  10. Madelyn B said

    This might be a dumb question, but how much time does it take you to spin a yard of yarn?

    • Avital Pinnick said

      That’s difficult to predict, because spinning speed is so individual. I would say that if you are an experienced spinner with good ‘draft’ technique, a yard takes a few seconds. Maybe 10-20 seconds? At the same time, a thin, single strand of cotton is too weak to be of much use. Usually you need to ply it with another strand, so that increases the spinning time, since you have to spin a second strand and then ply the two strands. Fortunately, plying is usually a lot faster than actual spinning because you’re not drafting the fiber. You just have to focus on not getting kinks or loops in the plied yarn. Because a cotton single is highly twisted, it kinks easily if it’s freshly spun. OTOH, a tahkli and a handful of combed cotton are extremely portable and you can spin almost anywhere as long as you’re sitting down. I’ve spun cotton on intercity buses. 🙂

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