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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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green and brown cotton bolls with spindleI usually write about food crops and soil building, but today I’m talking about fiber. I have begun to grow cotton and have learned to spin it using a spindle. Growing and using cotton is more than just a new craft for me. It adds diversity to my garden, which is important in a permaculture garden, and it helps me connect with factors beyond the garden. Plants are grown around the world for more things than food. If our gardens are to provide for us and if we are ever going to be free from corporate domination, we need to consider everything. From our plants we can get food, fuel, medicine, fiber, dyes, and so on. The movement to make available food grown in a sustainable manner to everyone is gaining momentum. What about obtaining our other needs from sustainable sources?       

When India was a colony of Britain, Indian cotton was shipped to Britain and the Indians had to buy it back as fabric. Gandhi promoted spinning as an act of independence. If the Indians spun and used their own cotton, they would be free of British control of that resource. In fact, Gandhi had a contest to develop a small spinning wheel that was portable enough that people could easily spin in public and the box charka was born. What better act of nonviolent protest but to spin cotton into thread and yarn in public! Unfortunately, today Indian cotton farmers face another peril with the introduction of GMO cotton seeds. In 2000 I heard Vandana Shiva speak about the number of suicides among cotton farmers in India. They had been convinced to grow GMO cotton by Monsanto and things were not going well. The problems continue to this day. Please take the time to listen to her tell you about it here. Shiva’s organization Navdanya goes into these areas with open pollinated seeds to help the farm families recover.

In doing some research for this post I was heartened to find that there are projects underway to promote the sustainable growing of cotton around the world and in the U.S. You can find more about that at http://www.sustainablecottons.com/. Where is the fabric coming from for your cotton clothes? Begin looking for a Fairtrade label for cotton. Also, consider how the cotton you buy gets its color. Cotton grows naturally in more colors than white. Pakucho is the brand name of cotton from a project developed in Peru to revive the growing of colored cotton on small farms.

green cotton fiber and seeds--BLOG

1 ounce green cotton fiber/seeds

In 2004 I came across an article in Spin-Off magazine about a woman who had grown the cotton that she then spun (with a spindle) and wove into fabric for a shirt. You can read “My Cotton Shirt” here. At least I knew that my idea of growing cotton and making a shirt out of it wasn’t totally crazy. I did grow some cotton around that time, but I didn’t know anyone who was spinning cotton and I was busy with other things, so the harvest was stored away. The only spinners I knew worked with wool and said that, since cotton had such a short fiber, it was really hard to spin. I figured that if spinning cotton was all I knew, spinning cotton would be my normal and that wouldn’t be a problem. After all, people have spun cotton down through the ages so I should be able to learn this. For the past two summers I grew both Erlene’s Green and Nankeen Brown cotton. The seeds came from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange the first year and I saved them after that. There are a lot of seeds in cotton. In one ounce of green cotton that I weighed, 75% of that ounce was 185 seeds and 25% of that ounce was fiber.   

I turned to Joan Ruane to learn to spin the fiber into yarn, once I found her video Cotton Spinning With the Takli. A takli spindle is what is recommended for cotton and that’s what I’ve been using. My husband gave me her kit with fiber, spindle, and DVD as a gift and it was a great way to get started. It was very slow going at first, though. I had to remind myself of how it was when I taught myself to knit—only this seemed harder. Clothos Handspinners, a group of wonderful folks into handspinning, came to my rescue. At the first meeting I attended in November, 2011, Judith spent time teaching me some basics and I will be forever grateful. Most of the members show up with their spinning wheels, but there are some, like me, who are using a spindle. Most work in wool, but not exclusively. I am not interested in getting a wheel right now because I want to master the spindle. Besides, I want to see how much skill and knowledge I can gain with the least money spent. Another DVD that has helped me is Spinning Cotton by Stephanie Gaustad. If my garden DVDs have helped people as much as these cotton DVDs have helped me, I will be happy. My goal is to make a vest out of my homegrown, homespun cotton, so I’ll be learning to weave next. After that comes the shirt.

seeds and green spun cotton from 1 ounce fiber/seeds--plus spindle

seeds and green spun cotton from 1 ounce fiber/seeds–plus spindle

Cotton needs hot weather and a lot of sun. The varieties I grow take 130 days to mature, but it differs by variety. Sea Island White  requires 160 days. Start the seeds and set out transplants as you would tomatoes. I’ve heard of growing cotton in containers and bringing it inside when the weather turns cold if you live in a marginal climate. In my 2012 garden I harvested 2.5 pounds of green fiber and seed in an 80 ft.² bed. That works out to about .75 lb. fiber per 100 ft.² (and lots of seeds). The brown cotton harvest was equivalent to one pound fiber per 100 ft². I had 7-12 bolls on each plant. Now that I’m paying attention, I believe that I can better that harvest. The U.S. average is 1.7 pounds fiber per 100 ft². You could begin with just a few plants among your flowers.

knitted homegrown cotton sampleGrowing colored cotton has been really interesting. After cotton has been spun, it needs to be boiled to set the twist. When you do that, the color deepens. The green spun cotton shown with the spindle and seeds is the same cotton that is shown as fiber in the other photo with the seeds. In the sample that I’ve knitted, the deep green and brown colors are the natural colors after boiling the spun fiber. The white is what I grew years ago with only an inkling of an idea that I might want to do this sometime.

In 2007 a new charka was introduced in India. This e-charka allows the spinner to produce electricity while he/she spins. A battery stores the electricity to operate an LED light and a transistor radio. Spinning cotton by hand is still important in rural areas of India and elsewhere and this new charka will increase the quality of life for these spinners. Gandhi would be proud. For now, at least, I’ll stick with my spindle. Growing cotton and learning to spin it is a wonderful project. Doing it with children gives them a great glimpse into history. There are so many things you could talk about with them when you are working with the plants and fiber. As you spin your own homegrown fiber, keep in mind all those farmers who are keeping the old skills and seeds alive. Every good thought we have goes out as a ripple that eventually connects us all.Homeplace Earth

For more thoughts on growing and spinning cotton see http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/grow-spin-cotton.aspx#axzz2LRWabZ00

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