Friday, April 3, 2015

Cotton Spinning Challenge: I Don't Know How to Spin It

We all have one of those fibers that we just don't know how to spin. Maybe we don't spin it because it intimidates us. Or maybe it's too expensive to mess up. A small while back, I was intimidated by cashmere and I was afraid to dig in because I was too worried that I'd mess it up. So I hoarded it like a dragon would. But one day, I took a big gulp and dived right in--and now I am much more knowledgeable about spinning cashmere and I really enjoy it now! With that in mind, I can admit it: I don't know how to spin cotton because it has intimidated me in the past. I mean, I know how to spin cotton, but theory and practice are different.

To motivate me to actually start spinning cotton, I am proposing a Tax Day Cotton Spinning Challenge! Starting April 15, take the day to begin something new. Or pick up cotton spinning again if you tried in the past but weren't happy with the experience. You're welcome to begin before April 15, but I know that some of you don't have cotton in your stash... Despite never having spun it, I have about 6 ounces of it in my stash. Here is organic cotton that I bought ages ago from Etsy:


There are small bits of the boll in here that I'll have to comb/pull out as I go, but I bought this because I wanted to practice making punis. It also served me in my cellulose dyeing days. Before I headed to Korea, I was just starting to branch off into dyeing bamboo and cotton, in the hopes that I would learn how to spin cotton so I could troubleshoot spinning questions about it. Well, this is about as far as I got with dyeing and spinning cotton 3 years ago:



With the dyeing process, much of the plant material fell out of the fiber. I learned a lot about professionally dyeing cotton during this phase, so I'm a lot better these days. But I still have a ways to go before I can start kettle dyeing it and steam setting long repeats in combed top. I was also impatient when I first got started, so here are 3 year old rolags (I tried to remove all of the plant material as I brushed the fiber!):



I also got some combed cotton top from my friend in Japan. She sent a sample along to help out with my videos (she's such a peach!), so it's time to sit my rear in a chair and learn how to spin cotton. The top is wonderful, by the way. It's soft, squishy, and I almost can't tell it's cotton...except that it completely lacks the slight sheen of other soft fibers, like angora. It's extremely lightweight:



I've heard that spinning cotton top can be an added challenge, but is completely possible, even if you choose a spinning wheel as your tool. My challenge is to start at the beginning, trying out what I know first. I know that people spin with a puni, and to make a puni, the cotton needs to be combed and tightly rolled over a dowel (or size 5 knitting needle) and packed tightly. You also need to spin it on a lighter spindle so that the short staple and high twist don't make the yarn hard--I know that many spin cotton with a supported spindle (like a tahkli) or with a charka, but I don't have those tools on hand, and unless you were already spinning cotton before this moment, you probably don't have these specific tools either. Perhaps this is your moment to break out these tools in case you already happen to have them!

Last night, I made a single puni and started spinning it. Already, I can tell you that I didn't brush the cotton enough before I rolled the puni. My first impressions are:

  1. I need to research how much twist is needed to make a 2-ply. My single is holding together just fine, but it doesn't look like a healthy, medium twist 2-ply when I ply it back on itself. I feel that if I add more twist, it'll feel too hard
  2. How much fiber is too much fiber for a puni? I started off thinking that a gram or two would be plenty, but there doesn't seem to be enough cotton in my puni to really keep the drafting going smoothly. 
  3. As a follow-up to 2, how large of a needle should I use when rolling my puni? I'm using a US size 5 knitting needle to wrap the cotton around, but is it too small? I want a nice light yarn which drafts well as it comes off the fiber supply, but I can't tell you if the size of the hollow center of the rolag makes a difference or not.

When this little puni is done, I will ply and wash it to see how it turns out. I know that this method of testing seems a little unorthodox, kind of like inventing the wheel and knowing that wheels already exist, but it can serve a purpose. In the back of my mind, information regarding cotton spinning lies latent, ready to be tapped. Additionally, I like the idea of discovering some things on my own, without the bias of the outside world--it allows me to work outside the box if I need to. Sometimes we get weighed down by rules, and this is my opportunity to take a vacation from "this is how it's done."

In the next cotton spinning post, I will share what I am using as resources, as well as a photo or two of my finished 2-ply yarn. If you would like to get on board and spin cotton with the rest of us, stop by my Ravelry group to join in. Things are always better with friends. And pirates. :)