Spinning Cotton

handful of white cotton bolls
Sea Island White Cotton Bolls

This is about five bolls worth of, what’s the term for cotton picked off the plant but still has the seeds inside?  ‘Picked cotton’ perhaps?  This is Bleak Hall Sea Island White cotton and it typically has three lobes per boll.

close up of a cotton leaf
Bleak Hall Sea Island White leaf

This is a close up of a typical Bleak Hall Sea Island White cotton leaf.  It typically has three lobes that are deeply cut.  I wonder if lobes on leaves indicates number of lobes on the bolls?  I think a short staple cotton plant has much shorter lobes on their leaves, but this is the only type of cotton growing here so I can’t post a picture to compare.

close up of yellow flower and cotton boll
Flower and boll of Bleak Hall Sea Island White cotton.

The flowers are yellow with some red in the center.  It makes bolls with three lobes instead of what I’ve heard is the more usual four or five on the short staple cottons.

Folks also talk about it being painful to pick cotton, something about stickers on the bolls or something.  Bleak Hall Sea Island cotton doesn’t seem to have the same sort of stickers.  There’s a point at the tip of each section of the pod around the cotton fibers, but that point isn’t sharp or even particularly hard.  It usually is somewhat soft and curls back on itself.

The cotton fiber and seeds pull easily out of the bolls and the fiber comes off the seed easily and cleanly.

pile of cotton bolls, some seeds with fluff pulled off and a pile of fluff
picking seeds

Removing cotton seeds from the fluff, (which is usually called ‘lint’, I think), anyway removing the seeds is called ‘ginning’ although there’s no gin or even rum involved.  I don’t have any mechanical means to remove the seeds since Eli Whitney’s famous cotton gin uses these sort of toothy saw blades to get the lint off the seeds.  Which doesn’t work for a really long staple cotton since that method tears the fibers into short strands.

One of the reasons for the decline of long staple cotton may have been a lack of machine ginning for it, I think.  It would take a roller gin instead of a saw toothed gin to keep the staple long, I’m not sure if there were a lot of roller gins or what.  There was also the boll weevil and the Civil War that took it’s toll on the cotton fields of Sea Island cotton.

This particular variety of cotton, Bleak Hall Sea Island White, was last commercially grown in 1922, I think.  It did sell for a much higher price than the other varieties of cotton but what with the weevils and war, it wasn’t commercially grown after that.

The USDA collected seed from it in 1934, I think it was, and a friend of mine, Joey on Maui, got some cotton seeds for some genetic experiments he was doing in the late ’70s.  He chose ‘Bleak Hall Sea Island White’ because he thought the name was interesting, at the time he didn’t care about staple length or quality of fiber.  He did his experiments in collage and then put the remaining cotton seeds in the refrigerator.

At some point, he grew out some of the Bleak Hall cotton and then came to get an angora bunny for some matching fibers to go with his cotton.  As part of that, he brought me six plants.  I gave two of those plants to one of my rabbit wranglers to have a reserve in case something happened to my plants.  The remaining four have been planted here for 697 days now (just under two years) and are still growing and producing bolls.

It’s a tropical cotton so it likes water and grows for at least several years.  I’ll see if it dies off after another year or so.  So far it’s grown into a medium sized sort of spindly shrub.

seeds with cotton fluff pulled away from them
Lint pulled on seeds

To ‘gin’ the seeds by hand, I just pull the ‘lint’ out from the seed and then pinch the seed out from the middle or pull the fibers off, which ever is easiest at the time.  Occasionally, a seed with at least a portion of crazy long fibers shows up, sometimes I’ll plant that seed.

cotton seed with a portion of four inch fiber

This particular seed is the last one I planted.  Not all the fiber is as long as that one section, but that one section is crazy long.  From what I hear, most cotton has a staple length of about three eighths to maybe half an inch.  Most of the fiber length from Sea Island cottons are almost two inches but if I can grow cotton with a four inch staple, that would be amazing.

pile of cotton fluff from the four or five bolls in the earlier picture
fluff from four or five bolls

This is the fluff from the four or five bolls that were picked yesterday.    I should have put the ruler in the first picture, I guess, but oh wellos!  These things aren’t scientific, just making yarn from cotton in hopes of maybe growing a shirt someday.  There’s enough now for a washcloth, not sure if I want to make a washcloth first, though.

three skeins of cotton yarn, one dyed blue
Bleak Hall Sea Island White yarns

The smaller white skein on the bottom is the one made from the four or five bolls picked yesterday.  The blue skein at the top is one which has been dyed with fresh indigo.  Indigo grows as a weed around here.  Next time it flowers, I’ll pick a bunch and dye all the yarns blue.

So there’s still some more work before a shirt has been grown, but it’s got a start at least.

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