Cotton: an exploration of texture and primitive fiber arts

Cotton from a local community garden (I think it is Gossypium barbadense)

A crafter friend of mine and I meet up every other week or so. Our kids play together and we always end up getting into something. We share the joy and enthusiasm of working with plants and other treasures of the natural world.

One week I showed my friend’s kids a large, tangled bush of cotton near a community garden. I had simply marveled at it in the past and satisfyingly touched the cotton… My friend’s 9-year old daughter and her friend, however, started plucking as much cotton as possible and started talking about how fun it would be to try and spin the fiber.

My curiosity was ignited and picked cotton, too.

We spent the day talking, laughing, and steadily separating the seeds and leaf litter from the fluffy, raw cotton. I couldn’t help but think that this is how women spent some of their days not so long ago…working together…making meaning from their hands as the stories flowed.

Processing, cleaning, and sorting the cotton…

When I got home, I found a simple video on how to process raw cotton by hand. I felt that I could do it.

I took an old wooden spoon and cut off the spoon part. I then attached a small key hook that I had in a drawer and screwed that onto the end. A woodworker friend of mine, then, added the wooden piece around the wooden spoon handle. That’s it. I was ready for action.

(Actually, I made a short video on how to process and spin raw cotton, as well.)

I had been told that it is easier to learn how to hand spin wool than it is to hand spin cotton. From what I experienced, I have to agree. Hand spinning wool is a little different. You use the weight of the wooden spindle (and the weight is usually on the other end of the dowel) to spin your wool. With cotton, you have to draft (or gently pull) the cotton to the desired width before spinning.

Anyway, best to not get it in your head that something is harder as that thinking will just mess with you. I didn’t know any better and just jumped in (such is a trait of mine). I acquired the feel pretty quickly and soon I had a ball of raw, cotton yarn.

The next step would be to place the yarn on something that you can dip in hot water to set the yarn and keep it from unraveling. However, I opted to just work with the yarn the way it is. I need to watch some videos or talk to someone in the local fiber guild to get clear on that step.

Even without dipping the yarn in hot water it worked out just fine. It was a little awkward to work with at first, but as the project developed, the yarn was easier to work with as it held its twist better.

My gloriously raw, warm, soft cotton bracelet that I crocheted

I decided to crochet a simple cuff bracelet with the local, raw yarn. It’s as if Wonder Woman, Wilma from the Flinstones, and a Granny Knitter all got together and dreamed up a bracelet. It’s rustic, yet at the same time, elegant. I even got a very high compliment from a vendor working at the local pistachio stand at the farmer’s market. He thought I should sell bracelet’s like this. Then, I told him what went into it and he reconsidered his idea (smile).

I do plan to make my 3-year old daughter a small bracelet. She definitely feels left out. I will make a bracelet for my other wrist, as well. Glad I got out there and picked the rest of the cotton before the rain got to it!

And, little did I know that Distaff Day was a thing in Old Europe. Apparently, the fiber arts community is steadily bringing this observance back.

Just like many women experienced years ago, I was grabbing my wooden spindle and doing handiwork. It makes sense that Distaff Day would fall the day after Epiphany (Catholic observance) as that was probably when the raw fibers were commonly harvested, cleaned, and prepared for spinning.

My final thoughts on cotton are this. I couldn’t help but think of the history of cotton. Apparently, cotton was independently domesticated in the Americas as well as the Old World. I really don’t know what species are commonly used in the US and how they got here. However, being from Mississippi, I am well aware of the brutal reality of chattel slavery, the invention of the cotton gin, and the industrialization of a plant fiber.

It’s a lot to ponder. And, I have been doing just that as the fiber moves through my hands.

It’s so soft and so beautiful. Truly, the plant, itself, stands in stark contrast what people have done to it and each other.

A humble member of the mallow family (Malvacaea, the same as okra), this plant’s roots is also a medicine…an oxytocin synergist…making the pituitary more receptive to the oxytocin produced by the hypothalamus. As far as I know, West African women brought over the tradition of using the root to bring on labor if labor was lagging (among other uses).

My last two years at the apothecary in Mississippi, I ordered some cotton roots from an organic cotton grower in Texas each Fall. I peeled the bark off the root and tinctured it. I then reached out to a number of local midwives who began using cotton root, reviving the tradition. Cotton root is an extremely safe herb, by the way.

Fiber. Medicine. Beauty. Brutality. So much wrapped up in this plant. It has been an honor to work with it in this new way. It’s been very rewarding to explore plants so deeply as medicine and to see them with new eyes as a beginner fiber artist.

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