Thursday, April 30, 2015

Tax Day Cotton Spinning Challenge: Halfway Point

Going from Level 1 to Level 2 in any RPG game is easier than going from Level 2 to Level 3. More experience is required. At those early levels, you're often encountering similar beasties and will receive similar XP when you smite them with your long bow or axe. So, attaining Level 3 took more monster killing than attaining Level 2. But you also began to learn some things about your character, your enemies, and the environment. Well, cotton spinning, for me, is no different. I think this metaphor applies to many of you who have been doing this challenge with me.

So, let's start off by looking at my first sample (which, if you'll remember, was made without researching anything yet):

It's rough, lumpy, has vm and noils, but most importantly, I succeeded in making yarn. My punis were soft, but the drafting was horrendous. I had to pinch and pull the fiber down to the point of contact (where the twist enters the fiber to become yarn) like an inch worm. Otherwise, my spindle would hit the ground. Sadly, my poor, Russian Bog Oak spindle, my baby, hit the floor several times. I put a towel down so it would land on something soft, but dropping a spindle is a sign I'm doing something wrong. Then I got a helpful tip from a G+ user, Andrea Schroer, that cotton needs a lot of twist. She's been spinning cotton for a long time, so that's the first change I made for my second sample.

Okay, so you can't really see the difference in this picture, but I really did add more twist to my second sample. Here's the side-by-side so you can see just how much twist was in the second sample, even after plying:

First sample, left, Second sample, right
The left sample is fluffier, fuzzier, and has a softer outline. The right sample is smoother, denser, shinier, and more sharply defined as a result; you can really see the individual plies as they twist around one another, but the loft obfuscates the plies of the left sample, so they're difficult to discern. Additionally, for the same length of skein, the left sample only made a single 180 degree turn (rotated a half turn) when I removed it from the niddy noddy, whereas the right sample made 3 whole turns. After washing and setting, using the same method I use for setting wool, they both hung in the same manner. Still, I think the singles need more twist.

Then I decided to try and spin the cotton worsted style, since some people had cotton top at hand. Now, I knew from years ago that this wouldn't be easy to do, and, well, it isn't easy to spin:

It may not have been easy to spin, but it did produce a smooth, non-fuzzy yarn which was probably stronger than my first two samples because there were no noils or vm present. I increased the twist again because my second sample still didn't look plied enough. With cotton's short staple, my fingers had to move deftly to spin far enough ahead of the twirling spindle so I could pinch and draft the fiber...and this is when I first encountered backspin. Because my hands were so busy controlling the twist and draft at the point of contact (where twist enters the unspun fiber), I let my spindle untwist. The decision between adding another spindle flick or managing the fiber/yarn dance was a difficult one. I realize that this is a small problem, but if I wanted to spin lots of cotton for hand towels or bags, this backspin would become a bigger issue and waste time. So, back to the drawing board.

This time, I carded the cotton top into a puni and spun from that:

The result was a similarly smooth and even yarn, with lots of twist, but slightly fuzzier than the true worsted sample. Over the course of this challenge, I have leveled up my puni-making:

After this sample, I decided to do some researching. I'm still in the process of reading up on cotton spinning, but here are two sources to read: Spin-Off's Spinning Cotton and a documentary about cotton spinners in South America. Because I had already spent some time experimenting and observing first, when I finally sat down to research I understood and retained more than I would have from the outset, and I may be able to fix some of my carding/puni problems from watching others.

For my fifth sample, I decided to make a larger sample. Sometimes when you make small samples, you're fingers and brain are just getting used to things, then you stop. I didn't give it an arbitrary stopping point--I just kept going until I couldn't remember what the starting yarn felt like.

Quick story time. When I first started spinning wool, I just let myself forget how I started spinning so I could find out 1) what my natural spinning gauge was, and 2) learn what gauge felt best for that fiber. I don't care that my cotton yarn will be a strange range of gauges when I'm done because I'm learning. Besides, I can use this cotton for all sorts of future projects, so I'm not wasting anything.

Here is the larger sample:

As I wind on, I'm trying to make an ovoid shape, just like the ladies were doing in the documentary video. It probably has something to do with spin time, so I'm experimenting to see if it has an impact with a different kind of spindle. The jury is still out.

The fifth sample felt like it was getting too heavy, so I decided to wind it off onto my ball winder (under tension) so the twist wasn't so active when I went to ply it:

While that sat, I started sample six. I was going to try my hand at double drafting the cotton (allowing twist to start to draft the fibers, then pinching the twist and drafting it further before letting the twist flow in again), which works well for very short stapled fibers.

While I believe it turned out to be more consistent than my first sample, it still suffered from the same kind of puni problem. In my original puni, I rolled the fiber onto size US 5 dpns in a fashion similar to the way I rolled the rolags in my blending video, but I think it made the puni too wide. I switched to a pair of US size 3, but the difference wasn't enough. I now roll the punis with a pair of size US 2 dpns, but after the fiber is wrapped around the two needles, I remove one of them and try to pack the cotton more densely around the single needle. I'll have to do a video to show you what I mean, and I'm not sure I'm even doing it right.

That said, I think it's worth experimenting with puni-making now. I have a good understanding of how to spin cotton (though, I think I'm still being timid with the amount of twist it needs), but my fiber preparation is halting me from moving forward. So, here I am, stuck at the end of the XP bar, all of my Level 3 abilities just barely out of reach. Here's my first solution experiment. I am picking open the cotton by hand, removing all of the little vm bits I can, then I'm hand blending the cotton so I can further open the fibers to remove vm and get the fibers all roughly aligned:

The result is a fluffy pile of cotton, which is ready for...well, a beating. Do you remember seeing the part in the documentary mentioned above of the woman beating the cotton? Well, I'm going to do something similar to that to see if I can prep this fiber for smooth spinning and for making stronger yarn. We'll see how that goes. :) If you want to be part of the cotton challenge, you're always welcome to join in whenever, even if you don't hear about it until we're done doing it as a group...knowledge and experiences are not ephemeral. Join us on Ravelry if you want more regular updates and if you want to share your current experiences and insights from spinning cotton.