Really Obvious Lessons Cotton Is Teaching Me Again

Clockwise from upper left: A dish of cotton seeds, a cotton boll, fiber still attached to the spindle, and wasted cotton.

As part of my daily practice, I spin cotton on my charkha for a while, as meditation. I don't set a time on it. Instead, I stop when I have screwed up enough that I'm frustrated instead of meditating. I'm slowly getting enough better that I go can for about half an hour before I hit that point, but there's still a fair amount of cotton wasted.

I'm out of the cotton roving I had turned into rather crappy punis, as I mentioned before, so I'm spinning straight from the cotton bolls I had stuffed in a closet, that a friend picked on the roadside years ago, and gave me when she realized she'd never use them for whatever she'd thought of when she picked them. It's actually easier, overall, than spinning from the punis, which is probably because I prepared them and they were uneven and crappy.

They are, however, teaching me some of those lessons that I really ought to know by now, but that I just keep having to learn again.

Cotton bolls are a bit like dandelion puffs. The seeds are attached to lightweight fibers that help the seeds be carried and spread. But cotton, unlike dandelion, has been cultivated for those fibers for a good 7000 years now, bred for long, strong fibers. They're really good for people to pick and use and sow again, but no longer as good as dandelion seeds for spreading far and wide. Of course, they still spread well enough that ditches and uncultivated land near abandoned cottonfields are often covered with cotton growing wild, like the spot my friend picked these.

Left: A teased-out boll, with some of the buried seeds circled. Right: A still-bunched-up boll. Wine cork for size comparison. Because it was handy.

Cotton bolls are analogous to individual puffs of dandelions, and each boll contains several seeds. There are two types of fiber in each boll: the long staple fibers that are spun and woven, and the finer, much shorter fibers that cling tightly to the seeds, called linters. Linters aren't good for spinning, being less than 1/8" long, but they are used in papermaking, and give paper strength and texture. They're also used to make cellulose and cotton balls and cosmetic pads.

Cotton seeds with both linters and spinning fiber clinging to them.

If you can see the obstacle, you can usually go around it. Usually.

If you can spin around the seeds, pulling staple fibers from the loose stuff around the seeds, it's great. Very smooth pull. But the seeds can be hard to see (which is why I had to circle them in the picture above), and the staple fibers can cling tightly to the seed, or the linters can get caught in the twist, and then the thread gets hung up. If you can see the seeds, you can generally stick to the staple fibers, and move around where the thread is drafting from, and then all the long fibers around the seed spin away and the seed pops free easily. Sometimes you don't see them until they're already stuck, or can't move fast enough to move the drafting triangle, or it just gets caught despite your best effort. Sometimes, obstacles are unavoidable.

Thread hung up in the linters.

Once you're caught up on an obstacle you can't go through, break it off and try again from another angle.

For the above picture, I just picked out a seed with a little puff of fluff, and spun that until it caught, but usually spinning from the boll, you've got a much larger puff with several seeds, and there's more cotton to work with. So you pull loose the thread, lap it over another spot in the puff, and start spinning again. Just turn the crank and pull and -- if it works right -- the fresh fibers just catch on the thread and away you go.

A loosely-wadded accumulation of one day's wasted cotton.

Sometimes you can't pick up where you left off. Sometimes you have to scrap some of the work you've done, and pick up before you left off.

Sometimes, though, the fibers just won't catch on the end of the thread. It's twisted too tight, or the fibers snapped off too short, of whatever. Actually, I don't know what causes it. It just happens. And then it won't catch no matter how many times you try, or you'll get four or five inches in and it'll snap at the same spot. Ugh. Then all you can do is back up the thread a few inches, untwist the thread until it comes apart without snapping any fibers, and try again.

That happens to me several times a day, which accounts for about half the wasted cotton above. The rest is where I drafted unevenly, and there was a thin spot which snapped, or a thick part that doesn't have enough twist to hold together, and it gave out. Those piles are getting smaller, though.

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

The only way to get good at something is to be bad at it until you get good at it.