Spinnerside: on cotton with spindles

This is the first post on a brand new topic, ‘Spinnerside Chat.’ This will be a longer look at parts of my spinning practice that are under construction. Cotton is a fibre that fascinates me. Spinning cotton in the forms that I have explored was always a challenge to begin with, and can be still if I am not settled.

It helps any other self-care efforts that I have going. A good deal of this happens when I have no brain for anything else at the time. That for me is the highest praise for a craft – it will raise you up after a long, hard day in a series of them.

A support spindle with a red painted bead is in an abalone shell with the working yarn wound in a plying ball in a small calabash bowl.  A domestic short haired tuxedo cat is resting on the round wood table in a sunbeam.

Relaxing with cotton

Plying Pima from Fibergal’s gift of seed cottons.

The spiritual significance of cotton reaches back to prehistory in the Americas. For Jamaica where I was born, raised, it is believed that the island was inhabited after AD 600 by ancestors of the Taino, and that cotton (Gossypium spp.) was introduced from the Amazon basin of South America with other domesticated flora (“The Earliest Inhabitants: the Dynamics of the Jamican Taino”, ed Lesley-Gail Atkinson, 2006, UWI Press, p. 3, 107).

Jamaica is part of North America in terms of physical geography, and the modern English-speaking Caribbean. Archaeologists now use the term Western Tainos for the contact period peoples of Cuba & Jamaica.

Questions twisting

Jamaican Tainan artifacts include a wooden spindle recovered at Image Cave, Manchester, & spindle whorls from 2 other named sites in the island. Cotton is named as, “an essential multifunctional product for Tainos.” (ibid, pp. 102, 103).

Book the Earliest Inhabitants by Lesley-Gail Atkinson and Spin Off magazine summer 2020 issue on black silk cloth.

The book on the left presents 14 papers, including 6 reprints of seminal articles. The remaining 8 papers are based on more recent archaeological research. Its introduction by editor, Lesley-Gail Atkninson, outlines factors impairing further research. As a Jamaican-Canadian cotton spinner it read to me as true precarity for undoubted national treasures recovered & unrecovered.

With net sinkers but not spinning equipment illustrated, I looked at the British Museum online collection for Jamaica. There are few pictures, and none for either spinning or weaving equipment. I did see “beads” shown that are pierced shells, and not what I know of a Huari cotton spindle. It was good to finally answer a question.

References given, the Institute of Jamaica may hold more answers. The topic is one that I would like to research further. I was inspired by work that Louie Garcia, a Tiwa/ Piro Pueblo textile artist has published via Long Thread Media in the Summer 2020 Spin-Off magazine (cover article, shown to the right of the book, above), and their new podcast.

Natural brown cotton seeds grown by Fibergal and spun by irieknit are in a small sized glass jar with the hinged lid open.  A small wooden tray is to the right of the jar with the unspun seeds and a calabash bowl is to the edge of the image with the tips of two spindles showing.  The items are in front of a glass vase with flowers, and are all on a glass top side table.

In “Arawak, Spanish and African contributions to Jamaica’s Settlement Vegetation,” John Rashford states that cotton would have been spread by “human incidental dispersal and nonhuman dispersal” in pre-Columbian Jamaica (1991. Jamaica Journal 24, no. 3: 17 – 23, p. 19). The Spanish made contact with the Jamaican Taino, and in 1509 settlers established a colony ‘New Seville’ on the north coast.

Which of the 2 major cotton-producing Gossypium species was exploited in New Seville for export? In school we learned of Sea Island cotton, and it is still a minor export crop of Jamaica, today: Gossypium barbadense. In “A Sea Island Cotton Tale,” Stephanie Gaustad echoes my school history lessons on cotton. In 1942 Columbus landed on Hispanola – subtext the first European contact with Taino peoples – and saw cotton growing there.

It was unlike the Old World cottons he knew back home. This New World cotton fiber was long (1 3/4 to 2 1/4 inches), lustrous, strong, and very fine. Columbus, a weaver’s son,brought home cotton treasures he found in the New World.

Spring 2020, Spin-off magazine, p. 36

Was it a white-only cultivar? What I spin today was grown by Fibergal and is the other New World cotton species, Gossypium hirsutum. It is hairy, shorter-staple natural coloured cotton. Did either or both of these predominant species become naturalized in Jamaica? I would love to know.


With questions twisting as I spin cotton with a long history of cultivation, I have the responsibility to acknowledge that I am a newcomer to the lands surrounding the Great Lakes and in Jamaica. I would like to include a land acknowledgement page for the Knit Knack’s blog.

Of the texts that I have read, Stephanie Gaustad has noted:

Some First Americans of the Southwestern U.S. believe that cotton is life-giving rain clouds come to earth, and is evidence of the covenant between the people and their maker.

“The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp”, 2014, Stephanie Gaustad, p. 18, footnote 3

Cotton Practice

Yes, there are only spindles in my cotton practice. At the end of 2015, I decided to save my wrist tendons more repetitive overuse, and that meant a strong limit on my long-draw spinning. This spindle technique is incredibly gentle on body mechanics if you keep within the range of motion. That decision, and a failed attempt to buy a modern charkha from an Etsy seller in India led me to find a group of vintage Indonesian spindles.

Rosewood supported spindle of the Atoni culture of East Timor Indonesia with irieknit handspun natural brown cotton resting in a carved Calabash bowl from Jamaica on a wood log.

This is my favorite of the Indonesian group: a small beautifully carved Rosewood spindle from the Atoni people of East Timor. I am spinning Fibergal’s brown seed cotton, and it has gone slowly over the years. More on the cotton spindles that I use are in the archives here if you are interested.

On this short, notchless support spindle, I use the ‘temporary cop’ method. I spin holding the seed, and move from one section across until I am at the shortest linters.

Natural brown cotton seeds grown by Fibergal and spun by irieknit are in a small sized glass jar with the hinged lid open.  A small wooden tray is to the right of the jar with the unspun seeds and a calabash bowl is to the edge of the image.  A takhi and an Indonesian Atoni spindle with handspun yarn spun by irieknit are in a calabash support gourd bowl in front of the wooden tray.  The items are in front of a glass vase with flowers, and are all on a glass top side table.

With the takhli, I never wind a ‘temporary cop.’ The metal shaft just does not lend itself to this, and the hook notch at the tip would get in the way. The jar’s seeds fed what you see on the table + a 118 yard 2-ply skein from 9 g of singles in the plying ball.

Other cotton lovers give tips for spinning faster, yielding more yards efficiently. The Atoni and some of my other spindles are neither fast nor featured often. With a limited supply of seeds, I thoroughly enjoy this way of avoiding the linters (weak singles).

I am not tempted to gin by hand or tool. The modern spinning culture traditions that I see in videos or described in text do separate from seed, willow and spin. The approach that I am using is simply preference rather than a purist notion.

Naturally coloured cotton handspun yarn by irieknit wound on two metal coin takhli spindles that are resting  horizontally in an olive wood dish on a side table.

Yarn plans are slowly gathering. It have been packing my patience as we say in Jamaica. It’s a good thing because I am also steadily putting more care into my weaving.

Support bowls

As I have said before the right bowls were key. The ones that help me feel the right level of twist for these fine yarns that I spin give gentle haptic feedback.

Evidence of my favourite gourd bowls across archaeological sites, and modern times from Mexico to highland and coastal Peru date back from 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Rashford (1993) names bottle gourd/ calabash, Largenaria siceraria as one of the home garden plants of Jamaican Tainos (p. 18) introduced from the tropical lowlands east of the Andes. I have been thrilled to see that these gourd bowls are a modern Indigenous technique in parts of Mexico.

This year, I have started to use an Abalone shell for plying with the Louet Apple support spindle, and sometimes for spinning with the takhlis.

  • Tip: A good support fits where you want it, has shallow walls, and a flattened dip in around the centre of its spinning space. Look closely!

The total plied from the Cotton Clouds’ kit brown slyver top is approx 146 yards. I ply relatively larger amounts on a Peruvian medium-sized Pushka (not shown here but a much-loved plying technique). They are light – even with the high-twist insertion I can achieve in a hand-roll the yarn rarely snaps on me.

A Louet Apple supported spindle is resting in an abalone shell on a brown cushion.  The spindle has natural brown cotton 2-ply yarn handspun by irieknit wound in a cone-shape on the shaft of the spindle.  A DVD of Cotton Spinning with the Takli by Joan Ruane is leaning on the rattan side of the arm of the chair.

This DVD by Joan Ruane & streaming (title in alt text for image) is available on Taproot Video. I also saw the DVD on Cotton Clouds. It is excellent in content and most of all her range of inspiring finished cotton textiles.

Yarns, if on the slow side

Last weekend, I scoured and set the twist on these small skeins. I also have a 10 g ball of organic cotton ready for plying.

Scouring handspun cotton yarns in a pot of boiling water with soap and soda ash by irieknit.

Did not expect so much residue to scour off. It must have been the 2 skeins from the conventionally grown cotton. On last scouring the seed cottons had much less if I am remembering correctly.

Five skeins of wet handspun cotton by irieknit lie on a white cotton towel on a patio table outside for drying.

The 2 off-white skeins are Pima from Fibergal’s seeds. They are flanked by the Cotton Clouds’ brown cotton, and the skein on the far right is the 9 g from the brown seed cotton.

Check out the texture on the brown seed cotton (first from the bottom, below). It set from very active twist and now the skein is the same length as the others (phew!).

Detail showing close-up of textured handspun cotton by irieknit.  The five skeins of yarn are all wet and lie on a white cotton towel on a patio table outside for drying.

So much for short & sweet blog posts. This one covers a lot of ground!

A length of organic brown cotton slyver top is wound on a glass top table.  In front of the fibre supply is a carved cherry wood bowl with two metal takhli spindles that have yarn handspun by irieknit.  A purple decorative mask made in Jamaica is to the upper left of the image.

Although spinning cotton is niche, I find these images elsewhere on the internet when I post them. Please respect the copyright is all rights reserved on the images. You can contact me via the email given on the blog’s about page. I see them, thanks!

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Lara is a spinner, knitter, natural dyer, weaver who also loves reading. Jamaican-Canadian; she/her in the Greater Toronto Area; Mom to a young 'un, and Spark is our Double Doodle. A spindle is usually close to hand!

One thought on “Spinnerside: on cotton with spindles

  1. This is so interesting. I’ve been mulling over starting to spin cotton on a supported spindle (I had an awkward experience trying it with my wheel). I’ve bookmarked this page and will return to it once I’ve tried supported spindling with an easier fiber. By the way — my mother’s family is Jamaican; she grew up in Kingston and now lives in Vancouver (B.C.). I have a lot of relatives there still. . .I rarely come across other Jamaicans online! I’m glad to have discovered your blog.

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