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Archive for the ‘cotton’ Category

tahkli and cotton--green-brown-bolls and skeins - BLOG

Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green cotton with a tahkli spindle. The fiber is lighter at harvest, as you see in the bolls, and darkens once you scour it.

I love to spin cotton, but I will be the first to admit that it is not an easy thing to learn. I had no knowledge of spinning any fiber when I took on cotton, but I wanted to learn to spin fiber that I grew in my garden. Wool spinners had told me it was hard to spin cotton because it was such a short fiber. However, since I would learn on cotton, I figured that would be my normal.

Cotton is a short fiber, being only about an inch or so long, more or less. You are probably familiar with seeing drop spindles that spinners use. You see them hanging from the fiber in front of the spinner while she/he works. Short fibers, such as cotton, require a lighter weight supported spindle. The tip of the spindle rests in a small dish while spinning. I needed to acquire a spindle and instruction, so I turned to Joan Ruane in Arizona. I didn’t make the trip there, but learned from her video, which came in a kit that included a tahkli spindle, support dish, bobbins, and cotton sliver. It took much practice to go beyond something that resembled rope to something that resembled thread, but I kept at it. Eventually muscle memory kicked in and things got easier. Joining a handspinning group helped tremendously.

When you look for cotton fiber to spin, most likely what you will find is cotton sliver, which is a long rope-like preparation. You might come across roving, which is a thinner preparation of sliver. I often use the words sliver and roving interchangably. I learned when working with sliver that, by dividing it lengthwise into several strands, it was easier to work with if I only used a strand at a time. You might also find cotton in the form of punis, which is cotton that has been carded and rolled into cigar shapes. I have never spun from punis.

lazy kate-bobbins and carboard box - BLOG

Box holding tahkli for winding off; plastic, wood, and homemade bamboo bobbins; lazy kate that holds two bobbins for plying.

None of those preparations are quite like what you will be working with from your homegrown cotton, but it is something to learn from. I believe that anyone learning to spin should learn to spin with a spindle before progressing to a wheel. For one thing, it is cheaper to get started. Also, you gain skills that will help you with any spinning. With only one tahkli spindle I was able to spin enough cotton to make my vest, which you can learn more about here. Once the spindle was full, I would wind it off onto a bobbin and fill the spindle again. In the photo you can see the cardboard box I used to hold the spindle while I wound off onto bobbins. I bought plastic and wooden bobbins and even made some from bamboo. With 2 bobbins on a lazy kate, I could ply the cotton on a larger spindle made with a dowel and 2” wooden wheel. I used 2-ply cotton for both warp and weft when I wove the fabric.

book charkha-cotton-seeds-mat - BLOG

Indian book charkha from New World Textiles.

After the vest, I made a shirt. By this time I had acquired an Indian book charkha from New World Textiles and used that to spin all the cotton for the shirt. I had also acquired a Louet S10 spinning wheel. I used the spinning wheel for the plying, but I needed to get a high-speed bobbin to do it. No matter how fast I treadled, the regular bobbin did not go around fast enough. Cotton requires a high spinning ratio. Plying with the wooden spindle worked great, but using the spinning wheel for that job was faster.

I can spin off the seed with the tahkli, but find the charkha is so fast that it is better to take the seeds out first, which I do by hand. However, when I first started working with cotton I thought I would need to card it. Cotton cards cost more than I wanted to spend for a project I was just getting into, so I bought dog brushes at the pet store. They worked fine. I’ve since acquired regular cotton cards, but the lighter weight dog brushes are great for starting out. I only card the fiber if it has become compacted. I’m working with some cotton right now that I didn’t grow. This cotton had the seeds removed with an electric cotton gin and I find that I need to card the fiber before spinning. Some spinners card cotton and roll it into punis. I find that unnecessary. The fiber that I’ve taken the seeds from is loose enough to spin as it is and the fiber that I’ve carded is also loose enough. Of course, spinning it off the seed is the easiest way and that can happen with your homegrown supply.

Sliver, roving, and punis are fiber preparations that are better for commercial transactions. They can be manufactured, measured, stored, and shipped easier than working with cotton fluff pulled from the seed. Actually, in manufacturing, the fiber isn’t pulled from seeds, it is cut from them in the ginning process.

balls of cotton for shirt and swift - BLOG

Swift with skeins and balls of naturally colored cotton for a shirt.

When I made the vest, I worked with one spindle at a time and put the fiber on bobbins. From there it went into skeins. Since three spindles came with the charkha, once I had three spindles full, I wound the fiber from all three spindles into one skein using my swift. Lacking a swift, you could wind it around anything that you could remove it easily from. I scoured the skeins by boiling them in a large pot of water with washing soda and a bit of soap. That is when the color pops. The fiber was then wound into balls over a core of crumpled paper. The balls you see of cotton in this photo are what I prepared for my shirt.

The cotton you grow in your garden is a premium product. Hand picking ensures that the fiber is never subjected to the harsh treatments that commercial cotton is. Take care in the picking to not also gather leaves or other bits of the plant that will dry and be hard to pick out later. Removing the seeds by hand is not hard. You can take a small bag of seeded cotton with you anywhere and work on the seeds while you are waiting for whatever you need to wait for. It is good to keep your hands busy. Save the seeds to plant next year.

For spinning, I have recently moved up to a Bosworth attache charkha, which is wonderful. As much as I like it, I would hope that you start your cotton journey with a tahkli, like I did. I still use my tahlki and spin with it in public whenever I can. Spinning in public is a great way to meet people and spread the word that this is actually something you can do, not something out of the history books. Have fun spinning!homeplace earth

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Brown cotton ready to harvest.

This year I am on a mission to encourage gardeners to grow textile fibers and take them all the way to clothes to wear. The last post was devoted to flax for linen and this one is about cotton. Not everyone lives in a climate where cotton thrives, but even if it doesn’t actually thrive where you live, you might get a few bolls to play with. I know of someone who grew some cotton in her greenhouse in Northern Ireland in 2016 and harvested 21 grams of fiber. That’s the amount that would fill 3 spindles from my Indian charkha! Not enough for a shirt, of course, but enough to experience what it is like to grow and spin your own cotton. You could buy fiber someone else grew and spin it, adding yours into the mix, and make a garment from that.

You will need full sun for cotton, along with hot weather. Cool nights will diminish your harvest. I generally tell people to plant cotton like they would tomatoes. That means start the seeds about 6 weeks ahead and transplant out around the time of the last spring frost. If you live in a hot climate you may have a long enough growing season to direct sow the seeds, eliminating the need to grow out transplants. The soil temperature about the time of our last spring frost is 60°. Even better for cotton would be a soil temperature of 65°. For a more in-depth look at soil temperatures, I found Development and Growth Monitoring of the Cotton Plant from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Good germination depends on warm conditions. You can grow cotton in pots. If you do that and live in a not-so-favorable climate, you could bring the pots inside toward the end of the season.

red foliated cotton in the garden 3016-BLOG

Red Foliated Cotton in the garden–red foliage, white cotton.

When I first grew cotton I purchased seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia. Now I save my own seed to plant back each year. Southern Exposure is local to me and a great company to work with, and I’m not just saying that because they put a photo of me wearing my homegrown, handspun cotton vest in their catalog. The Southern Exposure catalog suggests setting cotton plants 18-30 inches apart in rows 5 feet apart. Cotton requires a good long season—120 days or more, depending on the variety—and it needs every bit of that. I’ve found it usually takes longer for most of the bolls to mature than the days to maturity that are listed for the variety. It all depends on the number of heat units the plants experience over the season. Refer to the Texas A&M article above for more on that. By the time frost hits here there are often bolls that have not opened yet. They can be brought inside and left in a basket to ripen at their own pace into winter. Sometimes I have put those unopened bolls in my solar food dryers and let them pop open there.

Susan--G-B-2016 - BLOG

Part of the Cotton Project. All these colors were grown in the same bed in 2016 from seeds of cotton that had grown in a bed I thought would produce green fiber, but had light brown fiber.

I start cotton seeds in my coldframe, as I do everything else, and set the transplants out a few weeks later than the last spring frost date, since the preceding cover crop is usually rye that is cut at pollen shed and left as mulch. I often transplant on 12 inch centers in my 4 foot wide beds. Varieties will cross with each other, so if you want to keep the variety you are planting pure, the best way to do that is to grow only one variety a year. Southern Exposure suggests isolating varieties by ⅛ mile (660 ft.) for home use, and ¼ to ½ mile or more for pure seed.  I have experienced the mixing of colors when I grew both green and brown cotton in the same year. Even if it crosses, the harvest is still great cotton to work with. In fact, that’s what made my homegrown vest so interesting. In 2016 I carefully sorted seeds from a previous harvest according to fiber color and if they grew in either the green or the brown bed. Some of my friends and family grow them out. We called it the Cotton Project. I’m working with the harvests now and will be writing about it at some point.

If you live in a cotton growing state you may need to get a permit to grow even a small amount of cotton in your garden. Each year, here in Virginia, I contact the Office of Plant Industry Services of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). If I lived closer to the cotton growing areas of the state I would be required to pay a per-acre fee and VDACS would place a boll weevil trap at my place, to be monitored by an inspector throughout the season. The boll weevil, once a scourge to the cotton industry, has not been seen in Virginia since 1995, nevertheless monitoring for it continues. The boll weevil is still alive in Texas.

I checked information online about Georgia’s Boll Weevil Eradication Program and see that few permits are given for non-commercial cotton, and those involved heritage farms that had educational programs, but you could still inquire what it would take to get a permit for you to grow cotton. States that are part of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, which is any state with commercial cotton production, would have a policy for non-commercial growers, such as yourself. In my case, all it takes is an email explaining where I am growing cotton again this year for educational purposes and how much area will be in cotton production. I measure the area in square feet, not acres. I receive a waiver by return email, no problem. The program is taken so seriously because the fear of the boll weevil making a comeback is so strong. Boll weevils can move around via our interstate  highways as fast as our cars and trucks can carry them as hitchhikers, and could find a safe harbor in your garden if not watched for.

green spun cotton, seeds, spindle - BLOG

Erlene’s Green cotton. Seeds plus fiber total 1 ounce. Fiber is 25% of weight.

I like to grow cotton so that I can spin it and make clothes—a vest and shirt, so far. It is fascinating to plant a seed, harvest the fiber, and produce thread. I think it should be part of every school garden that has the right climate for it. History can come alive for the students when they harvest the cotton bolls, take out the seeds, and learn to spin. If the students don’t spin it themselves, someone should be on hand to demonstrate that for them with their very own school-grown cotton. Most likely, the cotton that will be harvested in the fall will have been planted by the previous class. The harvesting class will save the seeds from their harvest and plant them out as a gift for the next class. What a great way to live!

Planting for fiber is the easy part; learning what to do with it is another thing altogether. This year I will be leading the way for you with my blog posts about cotton and flax, with directions for what’s next. In fact, since cotton and flax fiber to practice on is available for purchase many places, I hope to have you spinning while you are waiting for your harvest.homeplace earth

 

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black-walnut-shirt-and-homegrown-vest-blog

Homegrown cotton vest with black walnut-dyed shirt.

Fibershed is the name of a non-profit organization started by Rebecca Burgess in 2010 in California. Her goal was to “develop and wear a prototype wardrobe whose dyes, fibers and labor were sourced from a region no larger than 150 miles from the project’s headquarters.” Since then her work has expanded and other Fibershed groups around the world have signed on to explore textile production in their own regions. You will find their Facebook pages and activities on the Internet. It is a fitting name for a group looking close to home for their fiber sources. Just like watershed is concerned with where the water comes from for a region, and foodshed looks at our local food systems, I can see the word fibershed becoming a buzz word anywhere someone is talking about clothing themselves locally.

On the Fibershed website I found the term soil-to-skin. I have often used the term seed-to-garment, but I like soil-to-skin, since it takes the concerns further. I also found soil-to-soil used on the website. If your clothes will compost, just bury them at the end of their useful life and let them replenish the soil. Twenty years ago not so many people were as concerned about the source of their food as they are presently. Now, I hope they start talking more about where their fiber comes from—their fibershed. As with their food, it all starts with the soil to produce cotton, flax/linen, and wool. Synthetic fibers are not part of this conversation.

cotton-brown-openboll-copy

brown cotton boll

Many of the Fibershed groups deal heavily with wool. That could be because there are more farmers with small herds of fiber animals than there are farmers with small plots of cotton. I don’t say much about wool because I have my hands full with the cotton and flax/linen from my garden. So much of the cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified that you might think that non-GMO organic cotton is not available to the consumer. I sew my own clothes and set out to see what I could find. It would be wonderful to have sewn a whole wardrobe by now from my homegrown cotton and linen, but so far I have only a vest and a shirt. Spinning the fiber takes time, but it is mindful and enjoyable work. I have learned about the toxic effects of textile dyes and have been exploring those, also. There is a black walnut tree in my backyard and I eat lots of onions from my garden. Walnuts and onion skins are both terrific for dyeing.

onion-skin-shirt-blog

Shirt dyed with onion skins.

I like to use Kona cotton for shirts because it wears so well. When I did some checking I found that it met the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX certification for human-ecological requirements. That doesn’t mean it is organic, but they are moving in the right direction. You’ll find Kona cotton in fabric stores and quilt shops. I wanted to make a shirt to wear with my homegrown cotton vest, but couldn’t find a color in my fabric store that would do. However, this fall I had experimented with the black walnuts and realized that produced just the color I needed. Furthermore, I discovered that Dharma Trading Company sold Kona Cotton PFD (prepared for dyeing); meaning that it was not treated with optical whiteners. I bought enough for two shirts. You can see the black-walnut dyed shirt in the first photo at the top of this page and the shirt dyed with onion skins here. Obviously, this shirt took the color well from the onion skins. I’ve already rinsed out any extra color, but it may fade a bit over time. The buttons were in my stash from previous projects or cut from old clothes.

I needed a new turtleneck shirt to wear with my new homegrown cotton shirt. It is hard for me to find cotton turtlenecks in the weight of fabric I want (they all seem to be too thin) and ones that have cuffs and enough length in the body and in the sleeves. My search for organic cotton led me to Organic Cotton Plus, a company started in Texas by organic cotton farmers to sell directly to people like you and me. It has since entered the global marketplace. I found nice organic cotton interlock for my turtleneck shirts! You can order swatches (99 cents each) of the fabrics you are interested in if you want to see and feel it first, like me. I bought enough fabric for two shirts and made a pattern from an old turtleneck that fit me best, making adjustments as necessary. I love this new shirt. It is a recent project, so sorry, I have no photo to show you of the turtleneck I made, but you’ll see it eventually. I will make the second shirt when I decide what I want to dye it with. Organic Cotton Plus had this interlock in colors, but none that matched what I needed.

I initially took an interest in Organic Cotton Plus because I was looking for organic cotton grown in the U.S. I had already bought naturally brown denim for jeans from Sally Fox at Vreseis.com. Although that’s how it started out, not all the cotton for fabrics sold through Organic Cotton Plus comes from this country. I see that the organic fabric for my turtlenecks came from India. Maybe I’m helping to support the Indian farmers that Vandana Shiva worked with to overcome their experience with Monsanto and GMOs. That would be a good thing.

3-pair-homedyed-socks-blog

I knitted three pairs of wool socks this past year from yarn I bought from Kathy Oliver of Sweet Tree Hill Farm. Kathy is a shepherd and we are both members of the same handspinning group. I bought the first two skeins at the Powhatan Fiber Festival in April and knitted the first pair in the natural color. I grew Japanese indigo last summer and used it for my first dyeing adventures, resulting in the blue socks. It was so much fun I bought a third skein when I saw her at the Fall Fiber Festival in October. I used that skein to play with indigo, onion skins, and black walnuts to make variegated yarn.

I applaud the groups that are working to develop textile systems that are environmentally safe and people friendly. It is when we take a closer look at our systems that we can detect ways we can change them—or, maybe do without. You probably know that I’ve worked with growing food and looking closely at what it would take to grow a complete diet. In my blog posts on Homegrown Fridays I share my experiences of limiting what I consumed on the Fridays in Lent to only what I grew myself. That was definitely an eye-opener, so I can see that if someone decided to limit their clothes to what could be produced naturally in their region, they have an adventure ahead of them. Rebecca and her group are working to change the system. I am on a personal journey to produce my own clothes as close to home as possible. If I have to buy fabric or yarn I want my purchases to do the most good they can. Meanwhile, I hope that by sharing my experiences, others will start a journey of their own. There is so much fun stuff to do in this world on our way to making it a better place!homeplace earth

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have completed another garment with my homegrown cotton! You may recall that I made a vest from my homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton in 2015. For the vest I used my green cotton. I had grown green and brown in separate gardens, but they crossed. There was some brown and a bit of white (although I wasn’t growing any white) mixed in with the green and I spun it all together. It was easier that way since I was spinning it off the seed.

book-charkha-cotton-seeds-mat-blog

Indian book charkha

This time I carefully separated out the colors and took the seeds out by hand before spinning. Examining the seed and noticing the feel of the fiber helped with identification, since sometimes the colors are so faint at harvest that it is hard to tell them apart. Once the fiber is spun and boiled to set the twist, the color pops. As for feel, the green feels a bit silky compared to the brown. The green fiber is also a little longer than the brown. The Nankeen brown seed I was working with is naked seed with no lint on it. Everything else had fuzzy seeds. I spun all the cotton for the shirt on my Indian book charkha that I bought from Eileen Hallman at New World Textiles.  I plied the singles on my Louet10 wheel. I had Nankeen Brown, Erlene’s Green, and light brown. When I got right down to it, I didn’t have enough green and brown fiber for my project, so I used the white cotton I had grown in the late 1990s. I didn’t know how to spin then and had put it away in a box, seeds and all. That first homegrown cotton is now in my new shirt.

loom-with-fabric-for-shirt-blog

My loom with fabric for the shirt on it.

I spun the brown, green, and white separately, then plied brown and green together and brown and white together. I used the same 12″ table loom as I used for my vest, resulting in 9½” wide panels of fabric to work with. There are 2 panels on each front and back and ½ panel on each side. Each sleeve is made from 2½ panels. I wanted to conserve as much of the fabric as I could, cutting only the lengths apart. The only shaping was for the neck. The color of the cotton that had crossed expressed itself as light brown, whether it was in the brown bed or the green bed. I used the light brown for my warp. My loom has 8 spaces per inch on the beater bar and enough string heddles for 8 ends per inch (epi). I could have made more heddles and doubled up the warp ends through the beater bar, but I didn’t. The 8 epi made for a weft faced fabric like my vest. I used my homegrown 2-ply cotton throughout.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wove four full length (30½”) panels for the front and back. The change of color from brown/white to brown/green is woven in, not pieced. The side panel was woven at 22” long. The sleeve panels were woven at 14” (10½” brown/white ply and 3½” brown/green). The hem is 1” plus an additional ⅜” turned in from there. I had to make sure to allow for shrinkage when I determined my measurements for weaving. Shrinkage in the length amounted to about 8%.

Most of the seams were ¼”. I made facing for the neckline from cotton fabric that had been dyed with black walnuts. There is a ⅜” seam at the shoulders. I designed this pattern myself and made a shirt from pieces of denim saved from old jeans to try it out before cutting my homegrown cotton. The shirt fit beautifully. To make more room in my hips, especially when putting my hands in my pockets, I did not bring the seams where the front and back panels connect to the side panels down all the way to the hem, leaving a few inches open. Those edges were faced with the walnut dyed cotton.

yarn-for-shirt-blog

Cotton used in my shirt. I didn’t need the green/white ball.

The hardest part of this project was estimating how much fiber I needed. I had the calculations of how much 2-ply yarn it took to make my vest, but now I was using a charkha to spin. That, combined with having more spinning experience, my yarn was finer, requiring more yards per woven inch. I needed to calculate carefully because I had a limited amount of fiber. By keeping careful records and weaving a sample, I estimated that I needed 43.65 yards of raw singles for each 1” of weaving. This cotton would get boiled twice—once after spinning into singles and again after plying. I estimated about 12.5% total shrinkage for that. Once everything was plied, I needed a figure for how much 2-ply yarn necessary to finish my project. I estimated 22.2 yards of 2-ply yarn for each inch of weaving. My calculations from actual weaving were 18.1-22.2 yards of 2-ply for each inch of weaving. Thinking back to the 43.65 yards of raw singles, taking out 12.5% for shrinkage and dividing it by 2 to make the 2-ply yarn, I would end up with 19 yards of 2-ply per inch of weaving. There are many ways to calculate and I wanted to use generous estimates to make sure I had enough fiber. Periodically I checked my 2-ply yarn for wraps per inch (wpi) and found it to vary from 29-35 wpi.

I loved doing this project, although, at times I thought I would go crazy doing the calculations. I wanted something appropriate to wear it with, so I made a pair of jeans from naturally brown denim I bought from Sally Fox at Vreseis.com. I’m wearing those jeans in the top photo.

I am enjoying wearing this shirt everywhere I can. It is so comfortable! The design allows freedom of movement and that contributes to the comfort, but I think all the good energy it embodies contributes even more. Knowing I grew it from saved seeds, spun, wove, and sewed it gives me a great feeling of satisfaction. I want to encourage other spinners out there to do the same. This shirt weighs 14 ounces. To give you an idea of how much space you would need to grow that much, in my Grow and Spin Cotton post I gave yields of 12-16 ounces per 100 sq. ft. Your yield could be higher or lower, depending on where you live. I hope you give it a try!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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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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