Cotton: back to square one

Judith’s last class at the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat was called, “Summer Breeze: Spinning Cotton for a Summer Top”. Here’s the Description straight from the website

Thinking that cotton is hard to spin? Think again!
Judith guarantees that this will be a breeze! You will spin a wonderful
cotton novelty yarn and the blues about spinning cotton will vanish.
Come and join the fun and learn Judith’s secrets!  All the cotton fiber
needed for a summer top and pattern are supplied.  You can’t miss!


Sounds easy, right? Although Judith never  said out right that spinning cotton was difficult, it didn’t take long to figure that out.

This combed cotton top required learning a spinning technique that I’m not familiar  with doing – long draw. The idea is to let twist into the fiber supply while pulling the hand with the fiber supply away from the wheel. The other hand holds the spun cotton and pinches out any slubs that happen to form. Since  cotton has very short fibers it  needs a lot of twist to make a sturdy yarn. To put lots of twist into our spinning Judith had us put on our smallest whorl and set the drive band tension so that the intake was very light; similar to what we did for spinning lace and cashmere.

After practicing with a natural brown she handout some cotton colored light blue by bits of recycled demin mixed into it. That’s what’s on the bobbin in the top of the picture. It didn’t seem to go much easier than the brown. While the long draw is a satisfying graceful and sweeping technique, I seemed to always get large slubs as twist from the wheel first entered the fiber supply. As I pulled back with the fiber supply, the yarn would get thinner and thinner until I let it wind onto the bobbin. Then it would repeat all over again, a slub of fiber that progressively got thinner until it was wound back onto the bobbin.

I almost felt as helpless as when I first tried to spin wool on a wheel.

This week I plied the rest of the blue which I didn’t manage to finished during class. I also practiced spinning some white fiber that Judith sent home with us.


You can see a bit of progress being made. The mix skein on the left is my first attempt and the white on the right is what I did this week.

I still have a whole bag of white cotton that Judith sent home with us along with a pattern for a knitted cotton top. At this point I need much more practice before attempting to spin for a knitting project. To tell you the truth, I’m currently not all that interested in spinning cotton. Not to say it was a bad class, because some of the skills she had been teaching earlier in the week really started to click, but knitting my hand spun cotton just doesn’t appeal to me.

There’s two bits of info in my notes that I should share.

1. To finished the plied skein, boil it with a detergent like Tide. Change the water several times until the water is clear. Colored cotton will get darker each time you wash it.

2. Judith got this cotton from Little Barn.

These days I’ve been thinking about knee-high socks and mittens. Socks for me and convertible mittens for my husband.

He wants convertible mittens with a subtle design around the hand so I’ve been looking around.

At the same time I’m also looking for unique knee-high sock designs. A few weeks ago I started my “Socks that Rock” Fair Isle socks but then got to thinking – what if I make them knee-highs. How would I increase/decrease while knitting the leg and keep design repeat correct.

So, while surfing the web for more info on these two subjects, I came across Catherine Devine‘s gallery of socks and small knits. I especially like the long spiral socks.

5 thoughts on “Cotton: back to square one

  1. I was thinking I wanted to learn to spin cotton, but now I’m having secong thoughts. What wheel did you use? I have an Ashford Joy and I have trouble using the highest ratio. But since we moved to AL in December, I’m thinking I won’t want to spin wool when it’s warm….


  2. Hi Laura,
    I have a Schacht Matchless spinning wheel and used a whorl with a 15-1/2:1 ratio. I haven’t used a Joy so I’m not sure how well it would work for spinning cotton. Some of the students in class were using them, so I think you can use it for cotton. If your ratio is lower you’ll just have to peddle faster to get more twist before feeding the spun fiber onto the bobbin. Cotton needs more twist because of its short staple length.
    I’d encourage you to give it a try. Judith did say, “If you can spin cotton, you can spin anything.”
    I don’t knit much with cotton so that’s why I’m not so interested in focusing too much attention on it. Now if I was a weaver, I might have a different point of view.


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