Spinning cotton is hard but not impossible. Most of the reading I have done leads me to believe you need cotton carders, a takhli or Charkha spindle and immeasurable patience. Having none of these things I just used what I had and did it anyway. I spin my cotton without all the traditional equipment; no cotton carders; no supported spindle or Charkha. I use my wool carders to prepare the fibre and spin it on my old faithful traditional spinning wheel.
The first part of the journey is to prepare the cotton. I am lucky enough to have a sister who grows cotton so she occasionally brings me a garbage bag of bolls (the ‘fruit’ of the plant; a lot of seeds with a cotton ball attached). These bolls need to have the vegetable matter and the seeds removed before being carded into submission ready for spinning.
Removing the seeds and the vegetable matter is not a process that can be rushed; I sit and pick the seeds out of each boll individually along with any large bits of vegetation. It takes about two full bolls to ‘charge’ the cards (charging the cards is a fun way of saying ‘put enough on one carder to make a rolag’). The cotton is then carded or combed from one carder to the next until all the vegetable matter has fallen away (some has to be picked off) and the fibre is smooth.
The usual method is to make punis from the carder cotton by wrapping the little mat of fibre around a stick really tightly to make firm rolag of fibre. I prefer to make mine into nests of soft and fairly airy rolags (a rolag is the mat of carded fibre from the carders rolled up into a cylinder).
Carders and cotton, ready to go (and a drop spindle that photo bombed the shot)
The cotton boles; the brown stuff is vegetable matter
The lump in the middle of the cotton ball is the seed; there are between two and ten of these in every bole
The cotton all loaded onto my carders and ready to be tamed
I don’t make traditional punis, I just make the usual nest, the same as wool.
It takes 26 nests to fill a bobbin on my spinning wheel, so the preparation takes a long time. The next step is spinning the cotton, which has its difficulties too.
This is the final step in the making of a tote bag from scratch; felting (or fulling). First let me explain the difference between felting and fulling; felting is the actual process of entangling fibres tightly together to make a solid material, raw wool is felted. Fulling is the process of partially felting knitted items to provide a stronger bond between stitches, knitted items like my bags are fulled. The process for felting or fulling is the same; everything your mum told you not to do with knitted clothing in the laundry. If you are interested in wet felting wool, follow the link to a good tutorial. If you are interested in fulling pure wool knitted (or crochet) items, follow this link to a good tutorial
My licorice allsorts bag, all ready to be fulled.
The bag is knitted up and looks just like licorice allsorts to me, so that’s what I called it. The exciting thing about fulling knitted items is that you can never be sure how much or how fast the felting process will go, so the results are infinitely variable. So here’s how I go about it… First I fill the washing machine with cold water and add some shampoo (which seems to make fulling go faster) I only just cover the items to be fulled so the water level is low. Then I switch the machine on (after fueling and starting the generator as we have no 240v electricity) and let it wash for a while. In the meantime I boil a big pot of water on the wood heater. Once the water is boiling I carefully carry the pot into the laundry and tip the hot water into the washing machine, this temperature change is generally enough to ‘shock’ the wool into felting. I then spin out the item and hang it to dry while stretching it into the shape I had intended as far as possible.
My bag after fulling, hanging in the sun to dry.
An example of the unpredictability of fulling; the dark blue and black stripes didn’t felt as much as the other colours.
That is the end of the journey from fleece to tote bag. As you can see; it takes a while to get there, but the results are worth it.
Did you enjoy this series? Should I do more of them? What else would you like to read about?
Now I have some dyed skeins of homespun wool to knit with, its time to cast on and start.
When I have an order for bags I ask the client some questions; What bag shape? What colours? What stitch pattern?
In this case, my client has chosen the petite bag, in black and rainbow colours with the Asthore stitch pattern. So I dug out my bag of reclaimed embroidery wool and saved scraps of pure wool and spliced them together using the Russian join to make two rainbow balls of wool.
My reclaimed scrap wool pile.
Joined together to make…
Huge balls of rainbow wool
Now I have everything I need; black homespun, reclaimed rainbow, circular needles and coffee. Away we go.
I then knit the base of my bag by increasing stitches every second row., as indicated by the pattern. Once the base is big enough I choose a slip stitch pattern and start knitting. So far I have used these slip stitch patterns to make bags; Asthore Dog’s tooth cross Yin Yang Fretted mosaic
The base of my bag is started. Eight stitches on each side have been increased to twelve.
The entire base is done; a total of 154 stitches. I am using the Asthore pattern so I needed to add a few stitches to make the number a multiple of 16 (Asthore is a 16 stitch pattern).
And the colour knitting begins.
The pattern is beginning to emerge.
This is the quickest part of making felted bags, I can take my knitting anywhere and fill in free moments and I can settle down to a quiet evening watching a movie while I knit too.
Next step; felting. Stay tuned.
Note; I do apologise for my photography, most of the photos are taken in the evening with my phone so they don’t show true colour and are not well focused.
Spinning can be seen as a science, an art or a craft. I like to think of it as a craft; I don’t get too scientific or precise about it, I just spin. So..I sit in my crafting nest in the lounge room and spin while I watch a DVD or just sit and enjoy the quiet. It takes me about four hours of spinning (broken up into movie length lots) to fill a bobbin. Then it needs to be plyed into a strong yarn.
All ready to spin…coffee; check….rolags; check…..spinning wheel……
Spinning wheel; check
A half spun bobbin of singles.
A full bobbin
There are so many ways to ply yarn, it would take me all day to explain them. I usually use a Navajo ply method which uses a single bobbin rather than two or three bobbins.
Once the yarn is plyed, I wind it onto a niddy noddy to make a skein which is then tied together and washed again to set the twist. This part is fun as I take the yarn out of the bath (as described in part one), squeeze the water out of it somewhat and then whack it against a post with some vigour. This gets my dogs all excited (maybe they think I’ve gone mad) and they all start barking like loons and jumping around.
A bad photo of me plying
Half a bobbin of plyed yarn
My niddy noddy
The finished skein (badly over exposed, but you get that with the flash)
Once the excitement dies down, I hang the skein on a contrived rack (on my wool cupboard) to dry, or I may decide to dye it first.
Part three is the yarn dying process…. see you then.
Glossary Ply- Twisting two or more strands of yarn together to produce a stronger, thicker yarn. Single – A single length of yarn, spun onto a bobbin, prior to plying. Niddy noddy – A tool used by spinners to wrap wool around when making a skein. Skein – A neat parcel of yarn, made by looping yarn in equal rounds.
Lately I have been selling a few of my hand knit and fulled/felted bags and I have run out of pure wool yarn in base colours (black, brown and grey). Looking around my bomb site of a craft room I spied my fibre cupboard and found about half a fleece of old merino (probably from a sheep long departed) and decided to clear some room for more fibre, spin some yarn for knitting bags and tie up all available free time for the foreseeable future in one neat package; I will wash, spin and dye the old fleece.
So I invite you to join me in the adventure.
The process is as follows; Pull the bag out of the cupboard………
Dusty and dirty bag of wool. A memory of a sheep long past.
Merino wool is known for its crimp, or the number and size of the waves in the wool. Before wool diameter could be measured with lazers (microns) it was common to judge the quality of a fleece by the number of crimps.
Close up you can see the crimp in this fleece (and the dirt and vegetable matter). This was obviously an aristocratic sheep.
I wash the wool before spinning, although many people spin ‘in the grease’ and wash the yarn after spinning. I like the feel of the clean, soft wool slipping between my fingers so it’s worth the extra work for me. Washing or scouring wool is easy; all you need to do is soak the wool in detergent (I use cheap shampoo) and fairly hot water. At this point you have to be careful not to felt the wool by changing the water temperature suddenly or agitating it too much. I use a small tub and wash about 100g at a time. That way I don’t waste too much water as I wash the spun wool yarn from the last batch first (to set the twist) then I soak the next lot of wool for spinning. I spread my wool out on cake racks to dry before spinning.
A pile of washed wool, ready to card and spin.
You can still see the crimp in the locks.
Now it’s time to card the wool into usable rolags (a rolag is a little roll of carded wool). I got my carders second hand with my wheel. They work really well and probably will continue to be usable for several more decades.
Loading the carders
Carding involves moving the wool from one carder to the other while combing out the vegetable matter and knots.
The carded wool is then rolled up into a rolag
And finally curled up to be stored as a ‘nest’.
Next step is to spin up a reel of singles….but that’s a story for the next post. See you then.