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Archive for the ‘Crops’ Category

lettuce washing Cindy--BLOGOnce you have gotten quite good at producing food for your table, it is natural to think of providing for others. You could casually share with your neighbors and the local food bank, but many want to take it further and exchange their extra veggies for cash. If that is where your thoughts have been leading you, I would like to offer some things for you to carefully consider before becoming a market gardener. There is a big difference between doing what you love when you have the time and turning doing what you love into a business. During my time as a market grower I grew and sold a lot of lettuce. This photo shows me washing it for a restaurant delivery.

On January 29 I gave the presentation Scaling Up from Homestead to Market Garden at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference. It was well received and people who heard me speak approached me that evening and the next day to thank me for the presentation. Those who had already been selling said that my points hit home. I became an organic gardener so that I would have a healthy family. In order to also have a healthy community I became a market gardener in 1992 and sold to area restaurants. The farmers market network was not yet established at that time. In 1997-98 I had a small CSA in addition to the restaurant sales and in 1999 I was a founding farmer at our local farmers market. I left selling produce and eggs for others after the 2001 season to concentrate on teaching and researching so that I could put more knowledgeable consumers and producers at the markets.

Selling to others on a regular basis highlights the need for good record keeping. You need to plan for how much to grow and to plan for how much money it will bring to your business. No matter how good you are at growing some crops, such as broccoli and cabbage, the income from the same amount of other crops, such as specialty lettuce mixes, will exceed it every time. If you have already been a home gardener and have kept some records of your yields you will be able to anticipate how much you can produce from the space you have. Keep in mind, however, that if you have to break new ground for this endeavor, it may not be as productive as the garden you have been building the soil in for years. Some crops might surprise you. Onions turned out to be a good crop, as well as potatoes, winter squash and garlic—all crops that are not as labor intensive as lettuce.

You need to know what your crops will sell for before you even grow them. Notice what they are being sold for in area grocery stores and farmers markets. Start now and make a chart of the stores and markets in your area with a list of vegetables you might want to sell. Record the prices for them each week throughout the year, noting if they are sold by the piece, pound, bunch, etc. If by the piece, how many pieces make a pound? If by the bunch, how many items make a bunch and how heavy is it? Also record the origin of each crop. This list will be invaluable to you as you move forward with your plans.

Cindy's booth at 17th street--BLOG

Potatoes in wooden boxes were sold by the pound. Small potatoes in pasteboard containers were sold by container.

Although prices might fluctuate in the greater marketplace, I decided on a price that was fair for both myself and for my customers for each crop and kept it the same throughout the season. That said, there are a number of things you could do to vary the price. If you have an abundance of something, you could offer a larger quantity of seconds at a cheaper price per pound. I sorted my potatoes and displayed the smaller ones in pint and quart containers at a higher price per pound than the larger potatoes that were sold by the pound. The price displayed for the containers was by the container size, not by the pound. Nevertheless, the prices remained the same for the abundant seconds (cucumbers), the pints and quarts of potatoes, and everything else for the duration of that season.

Know your produce. People often comment on how much more expensive the colored peppers are in the grocery store compared to the green ones. Well, you need to leave the green peppers on the plant for a few additional weeks to ripen to red, yellow, or orange and anything can happen during that time. I priced my colored peppers at twice as much per pound as the green ones and had no complaints. Besides the prices, you need to know the nutritional value of everything you have and what to do with it in the kitchen. The more information you can pass on to the buyers, the more sales you will make.

I sold a limited variety of produce to the restaurants; primarily leaf and romaine lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and onions and the chefs did not need me to suggest what to do with it. For the farmers market I needed a larger variety of things for my booth and my customers welcomed my suggestions. The greater population has gotten away from cooking from scratch at home and need some instruction as they move back to that. If you package all the ingredients for salsa, for example, plus the recipe, many are more likely to try it. Packaging all the colors of the peppers you have together will entice your customers to buy the package, rather than just the one or two peppers that they had in mind.

Your passion and enthusiasm will go a long way to making sales, but keep in mind that you need to tend to your family first—and to your soil. If you feel you can grow more than you alrFeed the soileady do, maybe it is time to expand what you are growing for your own table, rather than grow for others. How much of your staple crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, and grains do you grow? Are you growing enough cover crops to feed back the soil and provide all your own compost?

The first DVD I produced was Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden and I was excited that I could show people how to manage cover crops in their gardens with hand tools. I knew it would be a tremendous help to small scale market gardeners—those gardeners moving from growing for their family to growing for others. The garden plan DVD followed which shows how to put together a notebook with your complete plan. I wanted gardeners to have a good foundation to help them plan to feed their families and others. Through my teaching I met folks who were ready to jump into growing for the markets with little experience of getting their hands dirty, let alone an understanding of what is going on in the soil when things grow and in our bodies when we eat the food. By the way, you will get dirty, sweaty, and tired. So tired that you will fall into bed at night thoroughly exhausted, only to get back up early in the morning to do it all again. It is not an occupation for the fainthearted.

I want gardeners to understand all of that before they ramp up to feed others. I expanded on what was in the DVDs when I wrote Grow a Sustainable Diet. It includes an additional worksheet (How Much to Grow), and information on nutrition, food processing and storage, garden washing stations, sheds, fences, and more on garden rotations with cover crops. With that book and the DVDs it is like taking a class from me. No matter how many people you are growing for or how much land you are using, my teaching materials apply. I’ve been talking here about determining how much money you could make, but sometimes the profit in this is not so much about the money you make, but the life you make. You become an integral part of the community around you and you can’t put a dollar value on that.homeplace earth

 

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corn sheller box

Corn Sheller Box

Corn is a wonderful crop and I encourage people to grow varieties for cornmeal. In order to do that, you need to grow it out until it has dried on the stalk. The stalk will have dried, also. If you have grown only a small amount you can use your thumbs to push the kernels off the cobs. It doesn’t take much to make you start thinking of easier ways to do that job. I have a corn sheller that I found at an antique mall years ago. Corn shellers need to be attached to something to use them properly. I have mine on a box that I made from scrap wood. Painting it makes it not look so scrappy.

ejecting the cob

The sheller is mounted close to one side so the cob will be ejected away from the box.

My corn sheller box measures 18” wide, 21½” long, and 12” high. I would use different dimensions if I were making a new one and I’ll be telling you about that. You can see that I framed the outside of the short sides in wood, in addition to the plywood for the box. That provides extra support and the top piece is a nice edge to hold onto when I’m carrying it. I carry it with the corn sheller against my body and my hands grasping that top strip on each side. It is more manageable than holding the box by its bottom. There is a 1” x 1” nailing strip on the inside bottom edge of the long sides. This is a sturdy box. The sheller is mounted close to the end on one side so that the cobs are ejected to outside the box. I suppose you could hang a basket on the side to catch them.

corn sheller

When I travel I enjoy stopping at antique malls. It used to be I could find corn shellers for $25 – $30 dollars. I would take them apart and add the necessary bolts and wingnuts, give the moving parts some grease, and resell them to my students at the community college for $30-$35 dollars. One hole for the bolts to attach the sheller to a box is usually accessible, but the other is not. The wheel needs to be removed to be able to put a bolt there.

corn sheller on box

Bolts and wingnuts attach the sheller to the box.

One year I turned over five corn shellers to my students, putting them into the hands of people who would bring them back to life. The price may have gone up some by now, but there are still some good ones out there. Two things to look out for are the tabs that allow you to bolt the sheller to the box and the handle. Sometimes those tabs are broken off and you would have to find an alternate way to attach the sheller to a box—maybe with a clamp. It is nice to have a good wooden handle. Some of the corn shellers I have seen have lost the wood on their handles, leaving only the metal rod. The handle could be replaced with a handle that you can buy to put on a file. You can find old corn shellers on ebay. You will have to pay shipping, but if you aren’t in the mood to shop around at antique malls, maybe you don’t mind that.

The box for my corn sheller is easily stored in the barn with other seed processing equipment in it. Since I shell my corn all at one time in the fall it is only used seasonally. After shelling, the corn is stored in half gallon jars in the pantry. If you have grown corn to feed to livestock and have your year’s supply stored in the corn crib, you might be shelling it out through the year as you need it. At our state fair one year, I saw a corn sheller mounted on a box that had legs tall enough to get a bucket under it. The floor of the box was slanted toward one end. The side at that end had a hole that was covered by a piece of wood that could be slid up to allow the corn to flow into the bucket. That is a handy design, especially if your sheller is used regularly and needs to be a stand-alone piece of equipment.

pan inside corn sheller boxYou do have to think about how to get the corn out of the box. You could tip it on end and pour it out, which is awkward to do. You could reach in with a large kitchen spoon and scoop it out. Flat pancake turners also work to get the corn out of the corners. I used those things until I realized I could put a large pan in there to catch the corn. In the photo you see the pan I use to roast a turkey in at Thanksgiving. It has many other uses, but I bought it for the turkey long ago. It is larger than a large cake pan. If I was to build a new box I would decide what pan I would use to catch the corn and size the box accordingly. A plastic bin would work, also. (Maybe I should look for a pan that fits the box I already have.) In the photo you can see my Bloody Butcher corn in the pan and some kernels that escaped it. After I took the pan out I had to round up those wayward kernels with the pancake turner. The photo shows just how the corn dropped. If the box more closely fit the pan, those stray kernels would have landed in the pan.

Corn shellers are still made, so there are new ones available; but if you can find an old one at a reasonable price, don’t hesitate to get it. Don’t let a little rust on one deter you from buying it. Keep your eyes open and you will find a good one that you can use. Happy shelling!homeplace earth

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Fall Fiber Festival WinnerI entered my homegrown handspun cotton vest in the Fall Fiber Festival that was to be held at Montpelier Station, VA on October 3-4, but because of impending weather conditions, it was cancelled. However, the judging for the Skein and Garment Competition had already taken place the week before. In order to show off the wonderful entries, Clothos, the handspinning group sponsoring the competition, decided to display them at their already scheduled meeting on October 10. It was an opportunity for everyone to come and see the exhibit and for the exhibitors to pick up their entries. As you can see from the photo, my vest was a big winner!

My vest won its class of Handspun Handmade-wearable, Best in Division, and Best in Show. It also won the Gladys Strong Memorial Award for Handweaving. I was thrilled! There were so many wonderful entries. As you know from previous posts, this vest has been a long time coming. I began learning to spin in 2011 and joined Clothos in November that year. I was definitely a newbie at this. It seemed to be slow going for quite awhile, especially since I became sidetracked writing two books. But I kept at it.

This vest was a personal challenge. I wanted to see what I could do with my own homegrown cotton. The festival was not even on my mind when I completed it in June. It was at the urging of Clothos members that I entered it in the competition. On Saturday several of them expressed their pleasure at how well my vest had done—to the extent that they felt that they had won also, and rightly so. They remembered me coming that first time with my spindle and cotton in hand. Month after month, they would be working on all sorts of projects and there I was, still with my spindle and homegrown cotton. I had so much to learn and the Clothos members were very giving with their knowledge and skills. Each month I gained just by watching and listening. The chairs are set up in a circle in the large room at the fire station where we meet and I make a point of going around the circle to find out what each one is doing. Many use spinning wheels, which I’m learning about now. There is always someone ready to answer any questions I have.

If you have wanted to learn something, be it spinning and weaving, playing a musical instrument, fixing your car, gardening, or some other skill, it is not too late. Find people who know about that and jump right in. Take classes or join a group. You will meet new people and make new friends along the way. It is nice to know that my interest in homegrown cotton is valued by others and is not just a quirk that I have. I will never top my winnings of this year in the competition. Nevertheless, I am excited to try new things and keep pushing the limits of what I can do. Maybe one year there will be a division or a class in the competition requiring the fiber used, whether animal or plant, to be grown by the artist. That would be fun.

It you want to see my vest, I’ll be wearing it at the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, Kansas on October 24-25. Come and see me there!homeplace earth

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cotton in field

Brown cotton ready to harvest after the frost,

Fall is the best time to plan your garden for the coming year. If you manage cover crops with hand tools, like I do, when you plant them you need to carefully consider what goes in next. With this type of management, tilling them in anytime you choose is not an option. Some cover crops will be in the ground longer than others. That’s why, if you are going to grow cotton and flax in your garden, you need to plan for that now. Having a harvest of cotton and flax will open up a whole new world for you of growing your own textiles.

I wrote about cotton when I told you about my homegrown handspun cotton vest. Cotton needs long hot days to mature. Plant it after the last expected spring frost when you put in tomatoes. It will be in the ground until the first fall frost, and maybe a bit beyond, so plan for that, also. The varieties I grow are listed as 120-130 days to maturity, but it seems to take longer than that for the bolls to open.

red foliated cotton

Red Foliated cotton. Fiber is white.

I can transplant cotton into a mulch of rye and Austrian winter peas that has been cut when the rye is shedding pollen, which here in zone 7 is the first week in May. Cotton transplants would go in two weeks later, after the rye roots have had a chance to decay somewhat. If I wanted to plant closer to the last frost date, which is about April 25 here, the preceding cover crop would be Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, or hairy vetch. These legumes can easily be pulled out at that time and added to the compost pile. The soil will be ready for the transplants without waiting the two weeks. The pea, clover, and vetch plants could be cut and left in place as mulch; however, it would be a fast-disappearing mulch—much different than the rye mulch. The cotton plant in this photo has a mulch of grass clippings.

Flax, on the other hand, needs to be planted early in the season. Using Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich as my reference, the time to plant flax seed is mid-March to early April when the soil is about 43-46°F (6-8°C). Planting in soil that is too cold will set you back. It will mature in about 90-100 days, so be prepared to harvest sometime in June or July, depending on your planting date.

As with any early spring crop, to be ready for flax, you would need to have a cover crop there that has winterkilled, such as oats or radish (oilseed or fodder). It is getting late to plant those crops now and have the best benefit. Late August into early September is the optimal time for that. You could plant Austrian winter peas now. Although it won’t have put on too much growth by the time the flax needs to go in, it would have put on some, and the plants could be pulled out for the compost. The easiest cover when anticipating early spring crops is to mulch the bed with leaves. That provides a good habitat for the earthworms over the winter, leaving you with friable soil in the spring. Pull the leaves off the bed about two weeks before the flax will go in to allow the sun to warm up the soil.

You will want to plant a variety of flax suitable for fiber production, which is different than varieties best for culinary uses. Flax for fiber is planted at close spacing so the plants grow straight without branching. The plants are pulled (not cut) for harvest before the seeds are mature, so if you want to have a seed harvest for fiber flax, plan for that in another spot. For mature seed the plants would be spaced farther apart to allow branching and the harvest would be about two weeks later than when the fiber harvest occurs.

I usually write about food production, but obviously my garden interests have broadened to include fiber. I believe that, just as people are concerned about where their food comes from now, sometime in the not so distant future, they will also be concerned about where their textiles come from. There are some pretty bad things going on within the globalized networks that bring us cheap clothes—way too many cheap clothes. If we want to be free of that, we would need to look for textiles closer to home, grown in a way that everyone and everything benefits—from the soil and the lowest paid worker to the consumer.

Red Foliated cotton blossom

Red Foliated White cotton blossom.

I don’t expect that all of you are going to start clothing yourselves from your gardens, but it could be fun to learn about the production of textiles from seed to garment. Just growing a little of it and learning how to process it can start the conversation with others about our present textile industry. From an historical point of view, growing cotton and flax in school gardens would definitely add to the curriculum. Besides that, it looks so good in the garden. Even if you can’t grow cotton in your area, you can probably grow flax. If you don’t grow it, you could buy the fiber and learn to spin it. Of course, that leads to learning to knit or weave it. The opportunity to learn new skills is boundless.

Maybe you are not ready for this, but you find it interesting. If you don’t have sewing skills yet, you could start your fiber journey there. Learn to sew and you will increase the production of your household. Besides learning to use the fabrics you buy (start inquiring about where they come from), you can bring new life to textiles that are finishing their first life, such as clothes, sheets, and towels, by turning them into something else.

unretted flax

Unretted flax from the Heirloom Seed Project at Landis Valley Farm and Museum.

Cotton is something I’ve already been growing, but 2016 will be the first year for flax in the garden. I’m not waiting to grow my own to start learning about it, though. I’ve bought flax fiber to spin into linen thread using a spindle and a spinning wheel. The results will be used for weaving. While we were in Pennsylvania recently we visited the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum. They grow flax there and have a textile barn dedicated to showing you how it was processed in the past. Unretted flax straw is available through their Heirloom Seed Project. I bought some and am learning about that, too. Right now it is laid out in the grass being dew retted. I’ll be writing about that one day.

So many fun things to do! If you want to join me on this fiber journey, plan now to plant cotton and/or flax in your garden for next year.homeplace earth

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garden clipboard and veggies

I hope you have been making notes from your garden and your kitchen about what you have been growing and eating this summer. Being able to eat as much of a meal as you can from what you have produced is a feeling of accomplishment. Even if you don’t grow everything you eat, supplementing your meals with items from local growers can give you the same good feeling. It is very satisfying to sit down to a meal and know where everything came from and how it was grown.

If you are striving to produce meals with only (or mostly) homegrown ingredients, what would you have to provide, in addition to what you already grow, to make that happen? For example, you could make sure the ingredients for salsa or spaghetti sauce are in your garden plan. In my Homegrown Friday posts you can read how I only consumed what I’d grown for the Fridays in Lent. If you run out of ingredients in your favorite dishes long before next year’s crop comes in, plan now to plant more if space allows.

I know that garden space is at a premium for many and that careful choices need to be made. In that case, think of local growers as an extension of your garden. Whatever they can supply in abundance is something you can take off the list for your garden if you have limited room. You could devote your garden space to the things you love that there is never enough of at the local markets, whether it is sugar snap peas, potatoes, or a special winter squash. Maybe you want to eat from your garden all winter. Those crops need to be planned for, since they will be planted while the traditional summer crops are still in the ground. You will find a three-bed plan for winter eating in my post Winter Food Crop Rotation.

cover crops in late winter

Cover crops in late winter.

Now is the time to be planning for next year because as the summer crops fade away and space opens up, cover crops need to be planted. Which cover crop to plant in each bed is determined by what crop will follow next year. If you are managing cover crops with hand tools, as I advocate, the cover crops have to be finished before the next crop goes in. By finished I mean winterkilled, cut at the proper time to lie down as mulch or compost material, or harvested at the end of its life cycle. A handout that will help you with cover crop decisions is available as a free download on the resource page on my website. In Grow a Sustainable Diet there are sample garden maps showing how to include cover crops in your rotations, the reasoning behind the cover crop choices, and thoughts on what other choices could be made. Getting cover crops planted this fall is your first step to having a great garden in 2016, as long as they are planned with the next crop in mind.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Just so you know, the perfect garden plan doesn’t exist. You will always be changing it as new ideas come your way. Also, the weather has a way of encouraging gardeners like us to look at new varieties and new crops to add to our plans. Cowpeas came to be part of my garden after a couple years of serious drought. I put my mind to what grows well in dry times here in the mid-Atlantic region and came up with cowpeas, sometimes known as Southern peas. That first year with the cowpeas was another dry one and they did great. Don’t you know, the following year was the wettest year I have ever experienced. The cowpeas did great then, also, and have been part of my garden ever since. I save seed each year, ensuring I will have adequate seed for next year that is already acclimated to my garden, no matter what the weather brings.

If eating a substantial part of your diet from your garden and local sources is a goal for you, participating in the 10-Day Local Food Challenge can be a gauge to measure how far you have come. The formal challenge is taking place October 1-10, but you could determine any days to be your challenge. The formal challenge suggests you eat food grown within 100 miles for 10 days. Acknowledging that humans have been trading for eons, 10 exotics are allowed to augment your local/homegrown diet. The exotics are things not grown within the 100 mile limit. So, if you really can’t exist without coffee and chocolate you can include them in your exotics while you think about weaning yourself off of them a bit. Maybe you could experiment with herb teas from your garden rather than having another cup of coffee. I don’t have any suggestions for the chocolate other than to experience all the flavors you can from your garden, which will fill your belly and your soul, lessening the need for something like chocolate.homeplace earth

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salsa ingredients for one batchWhen I was first learning to can back in the 1970’s salsa was not on my radar at all. That might be because the canning books I followed didn’t have any recipes for it. Fast forward to the 21st century and there are lots of salsa recipes in the canning books. Salsa is a form of relish and is as easy to make as pickles. It does require some chopping, which I do with a knife; although some people prefer to use a food processor. I can salsa for use later and include vinegar, as you would for other relishes. Recipes for salsa to consume fresh might not include vinegar.

salsa ingredients-choppedThe recipe I use is for Zesty Salsa that I found in the Ball Blue Book from 1998. You can find the same recipe here. The main ingredients are tomatoes, peppers, and onions which I have in my garden. The vegetables you see in the first photo are the ones shown chopped in the second photo—all of which made the 6 pints of salsa in the last photo. Besides tomatoes, peppers, and onions, the recipe calls for cider vinegar, garlic, cilantro, salt, and hot pepper sauce (optional). I always have garlic available from my garden. Instead of cilantro, which I don’t grow, I used celery leaves and parsley from my garden. One of the reasons I like making salsa is that it is so colorful when you have everything chopped up together.

Although the recipe includes both green sweet peppers and hot peppers, I am not into hot so I used sweet peppers only and no hot sauce, although I have added some mildly hot peppers in the past. You have to be careful with canning recipes. You can sometimes make substitutions, but you need to do them wisely. The salsa was canned in a hot water bath which is used for high acid foods, so care must be taken to maintain the acidity. Tomatoes are high acid foods, but onions and peppers are not. Vinegar in the recipe contributes to the acidity. You can substitute different kinds of peppers, such as sweet for hot, but be careful to not have more than the total amount of peppers called for in the recipe. The same goes for onions. They could be any combination of red, yellow, or white, but the total should not exceed the amount in the recipe. The Complete Guide to Home Canning has great information about this and other substitutions. You can find it online at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website as a free download or order your own hardcopy at Purdue Extension’s Education Store.

jars of salsaBesides tacos, salsa can be used as an addition to many foods, including potatoes and eggs. Of course, it can be eaten as a dip just as it is. I grow cowpeas out to dried beans, store them in jars in the pantry, then cook them as needed. We have found that salsa goes great with those cooked cowpeas. If you are growing your own staple crops, salsa and other relishes can add interest and taste to your meals. Last winter friends gave us two jars of relish. One was corn relish, but I don’t remember the name of the other. It was all delicious on cowpeas. If you are putting up pints for your table, make sure to can some half-pints (jelly jar size) to give as gifts. The time, energy, and produce that went into making the salsa now will be appreciated by the recipients when gift-giving time rolls around. It will also make your life easier to have something on hand to share with your friends anytime the mood strikes. If you are wondering about those white lids on my canning jars—they are reusable lids. I like to use them on high acid foods and only on jars that I won’t be giving away. I’ll have to make another batch with regular lids for gift jars.

Salsa, canned in jars, is a convenience food for me. I have not tried fermenting it, but according to Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation, you could do that. Reduce or eliminate the vinegar and use plenty of salt. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic are available at the farmers markets now. If you haven’t grown your own, you could still do this. The 10 Day Local Food Challenge is coming up in October. If you plan on taking part, having a supply of salsa put up will enhance your meals. The 10 Day Local Food Challenge allows ten exotics in your diet, which are items not local. For me, that would be the salt and vinegar in the recipe. I haven’t made vinegar, but I suppose you could make your own from local apples. Then vinegar would be off the exotic list. Maybe you could find a vinegar maker and saltworks within your local food shed. It is something to think about.homeplace earth

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Cindy in her homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Cindy in her homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

My new vest is finished! In the photo I am wearing my new homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton vest. It has been a long time in coming. Growing the cotton and sewing the vest are skills and knowledge I already had. The spinning and weaving were things I needed to learn.

Homegrown cotton and takli spindle.

Homegrown cotton and takli spindle.

In February 2013 I wrote of my cotton spinning journey in my blog post Grow and Spin Cotton. I’ll repeat the photo here of my Nankeen Brown cotton, Erlene’s Green cotton, and takli spindle. All the fiber for the vest was spun on that spindle. Since cotton has such a short fiber length, it is helpful to use a support spindle, which is what a takli is. A small bowl supports the bottom of the spindle while it spins. Once the cotton was spun into singles I plied two singles into 2-ply yarn, which is what I used to weave with. The plying was done on a drop spindle that I made from a dowel and a small wooden wheel.

Small table loom with fabric for homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Small table loom with fabric for homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Joining Clothos Handspinners has been an important part of this fiber adventure. I learn so much from attending the meetings and interacting with the members. Every two years the group holds a swap meet which is an opportunity for members to sell extra equipment, fiber, and books and for others (like me) to acquire it. Some of that trading also goes on informally at the regular meetings. The swap meet was where I bought my loom. Then I had to learn to use it. This vest has not been an easy project. The loom is 12” wide, but my resulting fabric was only 9½” wide. I made a pattern from the quilted vest I wear, and from that, designed a pattern that used 9½” wide fabric. Since 9½” is not wide enough for a full front or back panel, there are side panels that make up the difference.

Erlene's green and Nankeen brown cotton spun and woven.

Erlene’s green and Nankeen brown cotton spun and woven.

I used brown for the warp and green for the weft. As you can see, the weft is dominant in the weaving. I grew both colors in the garden and, although they were a good distance apart, there was some crossing. I didn’t notice green in with the brown, but there would be some brown in with the green. Maybe brown is the dominant color when it comes to genetics. When I was spinning I didn’t separate the off-color fibers, so there was some brown spun with the green, just as it was harvested. The fiber from the green cotton plants also had bits of white. It made for a pleasant variation in color in the finished fabric. Although I did do some carding, mostly I spun the fiber right off the seed.

As noted in my 2013 blog post, my 2012 yield (fiber only, no seeds) was .75 lb (green) to 1 lb. (brown) fiber per 100 sq. ft. The weight of my vest is 11.5 oz. (.72 lb.) including lining and buttons. Frequently people assume I would have had to grow cotton on a larger scale to produce an item of clothing, but this can be done in a garden. I used cotton osnaburg fabric for the lining—a piece I had left from a previous project. Osnaburg has an earthy appearance and seemed right for the vest. Besides, I already had it.

Button made from a shell on the homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Button made from a shell on the homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Although I usually don’t button my vests closed, I wanted to have buttons and I wanted them to be special. My first thought was to make wooden buttons, but then I remembered the jar of shells our children picked up at the beach many years ago. I used small vice grips to nip the edges of a shell off—going round and round until it was the size I wanted for a button. Then I drilled two ⅟₁₆” holes in each button. I didn’t want to put buttonholes in my new fabric so I made loops by braiding my brown cotton yarn to close the vest, if I should want to. This was my first time making buttons from shells and I am pleased with the results. In the photo you can see a bit of the osnaburg lining.

Now that I know how to spin and weave, the possibilities for unique yarns and fabrics are endless. I will be learning about natural dyes and eventually learn to spin wool and to use a wheel. When I was at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC in April I bought a book charka from Eileen Hallman at New World Textiles, but I haven’t used it yet so as not to distract me from finishing the vest. Once I learn how to use it, the charka will speed up my cotton spinning. For this vest I wanted to use the least technology that I could, not only because it was the least expensive way to go (which was a consideration), but because I wanted to relate to how people down through the ages worked with fiber to clothe themselves. I’m sure in some places people still depend on these methods and, you can be sure, I kept them in my heart while I worked.

When I first grew cotton I had no idea what to do with it and put it away in a box for at least ten years. It has taken some effort to learn to spin and to get to the point of making a vest with my homegrown cotton. I might have finished the vest earlier if I wasn’t sidetracked writing two books during that time. You might not be into growing and spinning your own cotton, but there is probably some other adventure that has been rolling around in your head for awhile—maybe even ten years or more. I want to encourage you to go for it. If I can learn to do this, you can learn new tricks, too.

I’ll be wearing my new vest at upcoming events this year, which are listed here. First up is the Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro, Vermont on June 3-5. See you there!

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