Adventures in Cotton!

There are several good reasons that a Blending Board is not the right tool for cotton fiber, and the Impetuous Weaver has ignored all of them in her latest fiber-y venture. Here are the resulting tips and observations.


the empty blending board is angled back, with the rainbow of cotton fibers lined up in front, with the dowels and brush ready at the side




I am a fan of the "use what you have" mentality in fiber arts. And what I had, one fresh spring morning, was an enticing rainbow of leftover cotton sliver, a blending board, and a glorious idea!


The idea involved preparing the fiber in streaks of rainbow, backed with black, and a liberal sprinkling of sparkle. The leftover cotton from the rainbow bag was just burning a hole in my stash bin, plus there was some black cotton that was completely unused. I also happened to have some Angelina fiber in colors to complement this rainbow gradient. What a delightful rainbow-sparkle cacophony this could be!


What I don't have is cotton carders. I don't even have wool carders. I do have a blending board, though! The Ashford Blending Board has standard carding cloth, which is meant for wools and therefore too coarse for cotton. It also has a large surface area, which is way more space than is needed for the short cotton fibers, and would only lead to compressing and clumping of the fiber. So the common knowledge goes.


In the relatively low-stakes world of fiber arts, I am much more inclined toward "what if" than "should," and I know there are very few wrong ways to accomplish a thing. So, off we go! What's the worst that could happen?


For the first layer on the blending board, I made vertical, even stripes of the rainbow colors in order, then added a few wisps of angelina fiber, then brushed into place. The second layer was entirely the black fiber, mostly covering the rainbow, then brushed. This way, the finished rolags would have the exciting colors on the outside, with the angelina sandwiched in between layers to keep it in the yarn and off the floor.


the blending board has the first layer of cotton fiber, in vertical stripes of six rainbow colorsThe layer of black fiber has been added, with the rainbow subtly peeking through



As I removed multiple rolags from the board, I improved my technique: you are really doing three things at once when you separate the rolag. Having rolled up the fiber about one-and-a-half times around the dowels, you then need to be pulling towards yourself to draft the fiber, also pulling up from the board to leave yourself an edge to begin the next rolag, and still be turning the dowels so that as the drafted fiber separates, it is also still wrapping around the dowels.


the dowels are being held at the bottom edge of the board, just beginning to roll up the first rolag The botton one-fourth of the fiber is off the board and wrapped around the two dowels  the same fiber has been rolled more firmly around the dowels the four finished rolags are off the board and dowels, laying in squiggly lines in front of the blending board


Each full board yielded four pretty rolags, but not quite as smoothly as if they were wool. The shorter cotton fibers didn't want to stay wrapped around the dowels, and had to be rolled between the hands quite firmly to enforce the tube-shape. The densely-packed areas of fiber were especially resistant to staying rolled. Once the rolags were pulled off the dowels, they were quite delicate and had to be treated gently. They especially wanted to come apart at the color-changes.


But they are so pretty!


the completed batch of rolags are lined up in a long narrow basket


My main pitfall was adding too much fiber to the board, which is a problem I also have with wool, so that was familiar. The relatively thick rolags had quite a few "burls" where the fiber ended up folded, making it harder to draft a smooth thread. But for the most part, the rolags were not terribly hard to spin. If you are used to the traditional long backwards draft for cotton sliver, rolags like this will feel different. There was some pinching required to smooth out the compressed and "burled" areas, and care had to be taken to overlap the color-breaks a bit, to avoid very thin areas where the rolags were coming apart.


close-up of the yellow-green-blue portion of rolages, showing burls  the in-progress spinning, showing the rolag coming apart between the green and yellow


a group of rolags are twisted like cinnamon buns, with the in-progress drop spindle in front



My preliminary conclusion is that this fiber preparation is not for those who would like smooth, fine yarn. But it's great for wild and textured yarn, and really fun to make a cotton yarn with these qualities! To keep my rainbow distinct, I spun another single in pure black straight from the sliver, and plied this with the rainbow strand.


the larger spindle is being used to ply the yarn from a single ball with the black on the inside and multi on the outside of the ball the plied skein is loosely arranged in a tidy pile the finished skein is laid out in a long loop to show the colors and thick-and-thin texture


The result is this soft, squishy, sparkly, wool-free yarn, and I am very happy with it. We all have a loved one who can't wear wool, but still deserves a beautiful handspun gift, right?


After making the first skein, I wanted to delve deeper by changing up a couple of variables.


As mentioned, I tend to put too much fiber on the board, so I made a point to keep it light this time around. Also, the worst of the burl-blobs happened at the top of the board, where the fringe of fiber sticks out and then becomes folded when brushed, so I avoided adding fiber to the top couple of inches of the board. I overlapped the streaks of color a bit more, to keep the rolags intact at the color-change.


the blending board with the lighter layer of fiber, and the smaller dowels beginning to roll the first rolag the first roalg from the second batch is rolled around the dowels cute little rolag from the second batch just resting on my fingertips


The last change I made was to find thinner dowels for removing the rolags, essentially making something more like a traditional cotton puni. The thin dowels (actually a pair of very long double-point knitting needles) were a much more successful way to remove the fiber from the board, and resulted in four very cute little rainbow punis. Adorbs!


the four thinner punis are rolled into wheels and lined up in front of the empty blending board


These thinner, lighter, and better aligned fibers held together better, were somewhat easier to spin, and involved a lot less pinching and manipulation than the over-loaded first rolags. The yarn came out finer, which is the expected result of holding less fiber at once, but it still had lovely slubs and variation, and more blending at the color changes for a subtle gradient effect. This dainty little skein was also plied with the pure black single, is overall more uniform than the first skein, and is fine and soft.


the second batch spun up on the spindle
the finer yarn on the spindle before plying


the two skeins are laid side by side with the thicker one on the left
the two finished skeins, larger/thicker on the left and smaller/thinner on the right


But the first skein is still my favorite for a textural, colorful art-yarn. The thicker strand makes a bolder statement, and will knit or weave up into a fun accessory item at some point. I wish the photos showed the sparkles better, but you will just have to imagine.


Though the subtler nature of the finer skein is not what I had in mind for this particular project, ideas are already forming for a gently-shimmering monochromatic lace yarn. And the potential for spinning gently heathered cotton yarn is quite enticing!


If you have cotton carders, definitely use them- they are the right tool for the job, and your work will go smoothly. However, I can also recommend using your blending board for all sorts of exciting cotton yarns, and am glad I took the chance. I love the idea of taking cotton to a place that it doesn't usually go, and expanding the potential of the tools that I already have!


both skeins are twisted into hanks, with the smaller skein above the larger


Thanks for reading!

Until next time,