(Very) Small Scale Cotton Growing and Processing – By self sufficient guru Nev Sweeney

I am interested in processes, how things are made from start to finish like growing the wheat to grind to make flour to bake the bread sort of thing and I suppose that this is where this idea started out. Being your average city slicker, I had never seen cotton growing, except in those old movies set in the deep (American) south, although I did know that we produced a fair bit of cotton here in Australia. Having worn cotton undies for years I assumed that it gave me a unique insight into the growing of the raw material, well perhaps not, but knowing nothing about its cultivation I was ready to give it a go!

Getting Cotton Seeds

The first question I suppose is where on earth to get hold of cotton seeds? They seem to be notably absent from all of those organically grown and open pollinated seed catalogues. I was lucky, and a couple or years ago there was a stand at the (Sydney) Royal Easter Show in one of the agricultural pavilions that had a big container of cotton seeds (and a couple of sorry specimens growing as examples), so I quite cheerfully pocketed half a handful. Otherwise it might be worth contacting a produce merchant by posing as a wealthy land owner and ask for samples, or be honest and slip them a couple of dollars for a hundred grams worth.

Growing Cotton

Now if you own half of Queensland and wish to grow 3 billion hectares of cotton there are a number of texts that will tell you how, what the sowing rate is, what fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to use to get the most out of your crop (the Manual of Australian Agriculture, edited by R. L. Reid is like that but provided a bit of background information). Try asking someone from main-stream agriculture   about small scale and/or organic cotton growing? – “are you having a lend of me or what?”. Thus began my search to get a bit of info on how to turn my seeds into a tuxedo.

I came across a book which helped a bit: Rita Buchanan’s “A Weaver’s Garden”, an American book that was not overflowing with data but at least it took the concept of small scale cotton seriously (even Jackie French’s “Backyard Self Sufficiency” had let me down this time). Rita Buchanan talks about how to grow upland cotton; there are a number of varieties of cotton, but if Manual of Aussie Agriculture says that upland is the only type we grow in Australia, I thought that it was a broad hint that the seeds I had were of that variety. Her comments are that –

  1. You need a long hot growing season
  2. Full sun is essential
  3. Plant the seeds where they will grow (as opposed to raising them to seedling stage, then planting out),
  4. and you need a patch about twenty feet square to get enough cotton for a blouse.

Well in typical fashion –

  1. I live in Sydney, which is considered temperate, and the cotton grows OK in my garden.
  2. I was very reluctant to give over space in the veggie garden to growing a fibre crop so I stuck two plants in amongst my herbs near the house in the front garden, they get full morning sun but afternoon shade. That was last year, and this year I installed a couple of plants right next to the house, but they didn’t do so well, plants in the original spot are growing like a ripper!
  3. I have started all my cotton plants in punnets in my small plastic house and they seem to transplant OK.
  4. Out of the original two plants I got a shopping bag full of cotton bolls, so I think she is being a bit pessimistic here. Mind you, this is yet to be spun up into yarn!

Having decided on the only area that I could fit in a couple of spare plants, I then dug the area through and incorporated some poultry and horse poo to make ’em grow. Apart from watering the plants every few days, they did not need much care, in contrast with the commercial stuff. A friend of my brother’s has grown cotton and reckons that all it takes is a bit of a mark on an immature boll to prevent the cotton from forming, so they spray the living daylights out of them. So far the only nasties for show interest in the cotton has been snails, and they go for the leaves and not the bolls, so much for the dreaded boll weevil! When grown as part of main-stream agriculture though due to their sensitivity and not being a food crop, they are one of the most heavily sprayed crops, but that, I suppose is the price of monoculture.

The plants were in for about 6 to 8 weeks before they started to flower……and what flowers! My ability to describe flowers is not the best, but the cotton plants produce a progression of yellow,   white or purple tipped whorls about 5cm long and about the same in circumference when fully open. To my mind the plant is worth growing for its flowers, let alone the fibre it produces. Once the flowers are fertilized (they seem to be self fertile or at least I haven’t seen any insects take interest in them) the petals fall off and the boll grows over a few weeks and then bursts to give the familiar cotton wool ball appearance over a day or two. The flowers open and then form bolls continuously up until the frosts kill the plants. This staggered harvest causes me no problems, I just pick them every week or so but it must really irritate the commercial growers, who I am sure would rather have one big harvest.

After the opened bolls are picked I store them on a board in my garage to keep them dry until processing. If a boll is freshly opened and the cotton hasn’t had a chance to puff out, any water from irrigation or rain will cause the cotton to stay compressed in the boll and not expand out, so pick any open bolls if you can before rain is expected. If this happens the cotton cannot be spun directly from the boll, but must be removed from the boll and carded prior to spinning (see processing).

Processing Cotton

The bolls are fun to play with, but I want make fabric out of them! So I did some research and found out that cotton is spun in the same way that wool is although it is a bit more difficult due to the smoother fibre and lack of crimp, so a faster speed is used when spinning. Prior to being spun the cotton needed to have the seeds removed and then be carded (to get all of the fibres lying in the one direction ready for spinning). This was all very well in theory, but it was soon made abundantly clear to me why cotton spinning remained a cottage craft up until the invention of the cotton gin. There were plenty of seeds distributed through the boll and they were stuck like the proverbial! Just the sort of job you want after a hard day in the salt mines…sitting in front of the TV picking the seeds out of your cotton.

As an aside here, I had decided to make my own spinning wheel to process the cotton, having been given a wood lathe and I also having accumulated a number of plans over the years. This takes considerable time and effort, so it is still on the drawing board, but one day we saw a complete spinning wheel in good nick in an antique shop for $120 (new they can fetch $500-$600) so we thought, “what the hell?” and gave the credit card a caning (again). Our wheel is of indeterminate breed but has a dual drive band, which I was informed by the lady who knows about such things is the hardest to learn on. Bugger, I’ve done it again. It is a nice looking piece of furniture though and it is particularly suitable for spinning cotton.

Even if it was more difficult to learn to spin on, it is our spinning wheel so I was determined to learn to spin using it, but it’s one of those crafts where you watch somebody who knows how to do it and think, “that’s easy!” and then you give it a go and realise that considerable skill is required to make it look easy. Anyway, Jenny of the Virginia Farm Wool works in the Northern Sydney suburb of Annangrove taught me how to spin wool, which is easier to learn on. This took about three or four weeks of Thursday night classes and some weekend practice before I was producing a nice, fine thread instead of 6mm thick ropes. She knew that I wanted to learn to spin cotton and showed me how it was possible to spin direct form the boll without removing all of the seeds and without carding. This looked mighty impressive when she first showed me, but what surprised the living daylights out of me was that once I could spin the wool effectively, I found that I could do it too! The trick is to keep hold of the seed and spin the cotton off from around it, so you are left holding the seed, then start off the next boll and so on. (My thanks to Jenny and her husband Phil for their hospitality and patience).

It is still quite time consuming to spin this way and so, if you have the right gear, it may also be worth considering processing the cotton further before spinning. Jenny got hold of a second hand pair of carders for me and then taught me how to use them. The trick is to apply the cotton to only half of the first carder and then stroke the second carder across the first to align the fibres, if the carders get stuck together, you are going to deep. The second bit of kit, a cotton gin, is less easy to come by, so the options are –

  1. Get one from the States via the net for several hundreds of dollars
  2. Make one
  3. It’s back to pulling out the seeds while watching the tube.

My next project is to design and build a small scale cotton gin, so I will keep you informed.

My job now is to grow enough cotton and then spin it into thread and ply it and wind it into skeins so that I will have sufficient cotton thread to weave into cloth, from which I will make a garment of some description, or at least a nice cotton hanky! It is fascinating to be part of a craft that goes back for such a long time, and you also get some idea of what work was required to produce clothing before the industrial revolution. I now understand why most people before that time only had one or two sets of clothing.

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1 Comment on (Very) Small Scale Cotton Growing and Processing – By self sufficient guru Nev Sweeney

  1. Fantastic to read about this.

    I also grabbed a handful of the same cotton seeds from the Easter Show years back (the urge was irresistable!) and only now have the opportunity to grow them. I hope they’re still viable.

    Apparently the petals of the cotton flower are edible, so there’s yet another great feature!

    Recommend passing on spare seed through the seedsaver network.

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