Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tax Day Cotton Spinning Challenge: Results!

The Cotton Spinning challenge is over, and I'm really glad ya'll motivated me to try out cotton. Many of you who began with me were beginners, and we all learned something new: a love/hate relationship was formed, in some cases, and others realized that cotton spinning isn't for them (yet). This challenge didn't seem to breed any new cotton lovers, but I'll talk about that later.

First, let's talk about my rationale when I approached this topic. As I mentioned before, I didn't want to do much research about how to prep, spin, and set cotton yarn, since I wanted to rely on my spinner's intuition. You can read more about this in my first and second posts. When I combined my spinner's intuition and my research, I got my seventh (and final) sample for this challenge. It represents how I have implemented all the things I learned about spinning, but it also shows me that I was mostly on the right track from the get-go--I was just missing  a few helpful tips.


In the seventh sample, I started with a well-beat wad of cotton and rolled it up into a ball. The cotton beating whipped air into the whole mass, effectively separating the fibers (attenuating the fibers) so they wouldn't mass up together during the spinning process. To do the beating, I took the cleaned, hand picked cotton (last pictures of the second post) and placed a firm pillow between my knees. I grabbed a long dowel and literally just beat the cotton with it. When the mass got too big, I folded it over on itself and beat it some more. If you make things like pastry dough, you'll understand my process. Eventually, it became a smooth, even batting. I folded it into thirds and rolled it up into a ball.

The resulting yarn was a bit fuzzy, but still quite smooth and even:


Here's the 'cotton ball' I ended up making. Notice how clean it is? This beating method did an excellent job reorganizing the fibers into a disorganized mess. The drafting for this sample was the easiest of all and took the least amount of spinning time.


So, I spun a grand total of 1 ounce of fiber. Not a whole lot of fiber, but I learned much from it and I can apply this expertise to project-oriented goals. I still want to make a tea towel! :) Here's what cotton needs, but this is neither an exhaustive list nor the only way to spin it.

  1. Cotton likes twist like we like fiber. To wit, it needs a ton of twist. Do you think you have enough? Better add more twist. All of my samples improved when I added more and more twist. I spun and plied my samples very tightly and by the time I made it to my seventh sample, I finally grasped how much twist my cotton needed.
  2. Plies are your friend. If you want a thicker yarn, make it so by adding plies rather than spinning thicker singles (as a side note, though, Stephanie Gaustad talked about setting twist in the issue of PLY I recently reviewed, and the cotton sample they showed was a soft spun cotton single...which knitted up into a beautiful swatch). If you're having trouble working with your cotton yarn, try plies instead of thicker yarns first.
  3. Boil the yarn! That's right, cotton loves it hot hot hot! In my first samples, I set it like I would wool yarn because I wasn't sure what it needed. After further research, I learned that cotton needed to simmer in very hot, soapy water for 30-40 minutes, and only after that would it be considered set. As a side note, you could steam the yarn, though it would still take a bit longer than if you steam set wool yarn. It also brightens the color of the yarn.
Commence the slideshow! I was often frustrated with spinning cotton, but I also had a lot of fun too. I'll point out my favorite bit and worse bit of each sample--if I didn't have any fun, I probably wouldn't have stuck with cotton spinning this whole month. I made an effort to spin a little of it each day. 

Sample 1:




This sample was made before I did any current research. The stuff I learned several years ago was what I had to go by, but at least I succeeded in making yarn. :)

Thing I loved: It is an incredibly soft and squishy yarn. It would definitely keep you warm and snuggly if you had a whole bunch of this yarn woven into a blanket. Thing I disliked: It was hard stopping the spinning to remove the vm, so I spun it into the yarn anyway. It also likely weakened the yarn.

Sample 2:



This sample was similar enough to sample 1 (though it certainly has more twist!) for me to have the same likes/dislikes as sample 1. It's only slightly more tightly spun than sample 1...I was still very timid about the amount of twist it needed.

Sample 3:



This third sample is noticeably rounder than the first two samples, and that's partly because the singles are a bit thicker. I had a hard time spinning a thinner worsted spun single because it was difficult to keep up with the twist while I was drafting it thinner.

I love the smoothness of this sample, but it doesn't have the 'cotton' texture I come to expect from cotton yarn...it doesn't look as organic as the above samples.

Sample 4:



It may not look like it, but this sample was spun with more twist than all the other samples so far. As for the drafting, it was easier to make it thinner than with the worsted technique, but I suffered from clumping as the cotton drafted from the puni. This is when I decided to experiment a little with the puni-making process. For this one, I carded a fair amount of cotton onto a small dog brush, then rolled it around 2 size US 5 knitting needles. Maybe the punis were just too big somehow?

I love the nubbly texture that this particular sample made, but it really wasn't what I was going for.

Sample 5:




This sample was also the one I chose to make larger, so I could see what spinning cotton for a larger project would be like. I also took this opportunity to experiment with rolling up punis. I finally settled on 1g of fiber rolled around a pair of US 2 dpns. Before I was done rolling, I would take one of the needles out of the puni and roll it tighter so it was just the diameter of the single needle. I was able to draft a little smoother from the smaller punis (though, I think for a different reason that I originally thought), so I concluded that puni density mattered at this point.

I love that I as able to make a larger sample and compare my skills throughout just this single sample, but you can tell where my cotton spinning needs more practice (the parts which look extremely loose). I thought I had spun the singles with enough twist so that I could ply it easily from a center-pull ball, but I was wrong. The yarn snapped in about three places and drafted apart in two places. I'm not sure what caused the yarn to snap because it would seem that it didn't have enough twist to cause a snap in the first place--maybe I yanked on it too hard when I was giving each single even tension?

Sample 6:



This sample was the first to combine the various techniques I had learned during this process. I went back to my organic cotton and set out to clean it really well so that I could make smoother punis and spin and smoother yarn. I also threw timidity out the window and went for broke with twist...This turned out to be the tightest of all the samples so far. It's cleaner, tighter, and even smoother than the other samples (except the worsted-spun sample). I still missed a few noils and bits of vm, so I think I could have done even better when I was scrutinizing the cotton before I carded it. Those bits are a pain to remove as you're spinning. I also switched to setting the yarn in roaring hot soapy water. The result was a soft, bright, and completely comfortable cotton yarn.

I love the nobbly texture of this cotton (and its whiteness), but I still wish I could have made it smoother.

Sample 7:





For this last sample, I spent much more time during the preparation stage than for any of the other samples. I think the result is telling. It's smooth, clean, and just looks like cotton yarn. I also opted to Navajo ply (chain ply) it because 1) I needed to have something other than a 2-ply in my sample book for cotton; and 2) my cotton bud Angela was having trouble with it. I think the key is to start with a smooth cotton yarn if you plan to N-ply with it. If it isn't smooth, the bumps will get caught on the crochet chain loops, and as you pull it through, it could snap more easily.

Using my spindle, I just literally stopped adding any twist, made about 3-4 chain loops so I could make the N-ply, then I added my ply twist to that bit. I found it extremely difficult to chain ply as the spindle was actively spinning, so this stop-and-go method worked well for me. It's probably the case that I'm just so new to working with chain-plying cotton that I encountered so much difficulty keeping the spindle turning. This stop-and-go method seems to be best for beginners.

I love how this sample turned out. It really is the culmination of everything I have learned this past month spinning cotton. Many of my spinning intuitions helped me along in this process, and what I couldn't just figure out on my own, I learned from reading and watching people use culturally different techniques. I'll continue working out how to make these cotton balls in the future so they don't take quite so long to make. If I can make them faster, then perhaps I'll always keep some cotton on a spare spindle.

I also wanted to share how different the white cottons I was using were. The top one here (sample 7) is made from the loose, organic cotton, and the bottom one (sample 5) was made from the combed top cotton:


The top one is considerably whiter than the bottom one, which is more pinkish-yellow. I have read that setting cotton yarn in hot soapy water for 30-40 minutes will also lighten the final color. Because the bottom yarn was set like wool (warm soapy water for 10 minutes), it could be exhibiting its original color. I should break sample 5 into two pieces and set one of them in hot water, then compare again.


I really have come far since sample 1. They look like they were spun by two different people!

There you have it, the Tax Day Cotton Spinning Challenge is now complete. I have a more intimate rapport with cotton today, and I couldn't have done it without the motivation from all of you, my friends and fans in the community. Thank you to everyone who spun a little cotton with me, and even if you found that cotton wasn't your thing, I'm glad you had the courage to dive in head first with me. Really, I appreciate your willingness to try new things with me!