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Spinning Cotton with a Hand Spindle


Spinning cotton is completely different from spinning wool or other animal fibers because of the twist it requires.  It is also different from silk.  Cotton is in a class all its own. :)

( For those interested in spinning wool, please see the page Spinning Merino Wool With A Hand Spindle )

Cotton is a relatively short-length fiber.  Upland cotton (Gossypium hirtsutum) has a fiber length of 1/2" to 3/4", while an average of wool fibers is 2 inches or more.  This creates some challenges for spinning, but none that can't be overcome with a little practice.  

The beauty of spinning cotton with a hand spindle is that it is a simple, age-old and universal method of creating thread or yarn, and it is accessible to almost anyone.

When you use a hand spindle to spin wool, even with a shorter-length fiber, it seems the fibers fall into place very easily.  Cotton also falls into place, but the drafting of the fibers is a little more difficult.  This is actually both the challenge and the reward - cotton fibers cling to each other very easily, making a strong yarn or thread.  That same "cling" means that the drafting of the fibers while spinning has to be even and steady, otherwise the fibers will clump together too much.

The first issue to consider is the type of raw fiber that is used in the spinning.  Below are photos of a cotton roving (on the left), and a cotton roving that has been pulled apart and lightly carded (on the right).  The roving that has been pulled apart acts similarly to cotton "off the seed" or right from a cotton boll.



Spinning with the roving, in my experience, is easier when pre-drafting the roving is done.  This means dividing the roving into slender sections that will become the yarn or thread.  Below is a photo of the roving divided into sections. The sections can be any thickness that suits the weight of yarn the spinner wants to spin.



The next step is to place the hook of the spindle into the end of the cotton and start twisting the spindle in a clockwise motion.  This starts a thread - (when it is about 12 inches long, this starter thread can be tied around the spindle shaft and the thread or yarn gets looped around the hook two or three times). The "open" end of the yarn is the end that has not yet been twisted.  The second piece of roving is laid over the top of the open end of the yarn, overlapping by enough for the threads to grab evenly and twisting is continued.  This is shown in the photos below.




This method of drafting the fibers takes more time prior to spinning because the fibers are divided, but it enables faster spinning with less clumping at the joinings of the yarn.

Below is the same way of spinning, but with using the lightly carded cotton.  This method needs a little more control over the cotton fibers at the drafting point.  You can see in the second photo that the yarn is a little less consistent in its thickness.  A close-up is in the third photo.  With practice, this becomes less of a problem.




Once a yarn is begun, and you are comfortable with drafting, the spindle can be used in the "drop position".  This means that the spindle is spun clockwise with the hand, let go of, and allowed to spin suspended in the air, while the spinner drafts the fibers.  When the spinner needs to readjust the draft of the cotton, the spindle is "parked" by stopping it from spinning and placed under an arm or otherwise held still until spinning resumes.  The spindle shouldn't be allowed to unwind, or turn in the counterclockwise direction, as this untwists the yarn.  


Cotton needs more twist in the yarn than longer fibers, and it's an individual development for each spinner as to how they start and stop the spindle in the drop position.  The yarn should be tightly twisted, almost to the point of getting kinks in the yarn.  If the twist is too loose, the yarn will break when the spindle is suspended in the air.  As the spinner spins more yarn, the yarn is moved down to the shaft of the spindle (wrapping it clockwise around the shaft) and stored there until it is removed to a nostepinde (a ball winder) or cone for future use or for plying.  


The method of "draft, spin, park"  is the same whether you are using a top whorl or a bottom whorl spindle.  Below is a photo of how a bottom whorl spindle is set up for spinning.  The lead thread is wrapped around the stem of the spindle, then down below the whorl and around the stem, and then back up to the top of the shaft.  It is held in place with a half-hitch.  The half-hitch acts the same as a hook in the top-whorl spindle, allowing the yarn to gain twist.  Some bottom whorl spindle have hooks on the top which eliminates the need for the half-hitch knot.



The most important factor in either method is controlling the draft of the fibers.  Assuming the spinner is right-handed, the left hand controls the draft.  Using the thumb and index finger, pinch the cotton that is loose where it joins the already-twisted yarn.  Let up on the pinch just enough to let the twist of the yarn run up into the fibers.  You will see a small triangle form where the fibers from both sides of the loose cotton are pulled together joining into the twist and creating the yarn.  This is called the "drafting triangle".  It is in this area that the fibers either flow smoothly or get caught up in a bunch, and it is the amount and timing of the pinch that determines what happens.  With practice, it becomes an automatic action to draft effectively.


Crocheting with bulky-weight 2-ply handspun cotton




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