In my five-plus years of spinning, I’ve never worked with cotton. Dissuaded by other people who called it a difficult fibre (and my own dislike of the feeling of the cotton stuffed in pill bottles–such a dislike turns out to have its own name, haptodysphoria), I always avoided it and instead stuck to animal fibres. Then I got an email about a writing assignment and without revealing too much just yet, I’ll say that I suddenly had to learn a lot about this fibre that has shaped history.

No one knows exactly when humans first began to cultivate cotton, a plant whose hairy-coated seeds could be carried by the wind and therefore dispersed a greater distance. The earliest cotton growers, possibly in the Indus Valley, selected for plants with increasingly long and fine seed coats that could be spun into thread and woven. Cotton harvests around the world can make or break national economies, and its production has led to previously unknown luxuries as well as astonishing cruelty (its history in the American South being one of the more well-known examples of the latter). As an agricultural product, it is exceptionally vulnerable to pests and requires more pesticides than any other crop. It is ubiquitous: clothing, tires, home furnishings, medical supplies, bookbindings, and fertilizer all can claim cotton as a base material. It rivals wool in its importance to civilization.

Soon after finishing my research, I received a package from Cotton Clouds, a large retailer of cotton yarns and fibre in Arizona. Irene Schmoller, the owner, had sent me samples of all the cotton she carries and an amazing cotton spinning kit (and a generous handful of coffee caramels–thanks, Irene!). Cotton, like wool, comes in several different preparations. The sample card had sliver (combed and carded), top, raw cotton, and a small puni:

Those are all natural colours, by the way. Cotton is usually white or cream but green and brown strains also exist. I touched the samples a little hesitantly, but the feel was entirely different than the vitamin-bottle variety. SuPima, the longest and finest type of cotton (think high-end dress shirts or bedsheets), feels almost like silk. The kit contains a few types of sliver and quite a lot of raw cotton, which I’ll eventually make punis out of with my cotton cards, which up until this point have been reserved for alpaca and fine wool.

The real test was in the spinning. The kit included a Tahkli spindle from India, which is a small supported spindle with a heavy brass whorl for building up lots of twist. Spinning cotton longdraw isn’t actually all that difficult, though I suspect my previous experience with wool helped. It does require a lot of twist–even after the yarn is formed, you must add more twist before winding on. My first attempts are lacking in consistency but as I tell my students, don’t expect perfection on your first go at it.

Six ounces of cotton is a surprisingly large volume, and I’m looking forward to experimenting more with the various preparations. More posts to come, for sure.

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