How Is Cotton Made Into Thread?

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Fluffy white fields of cotton still on the boll don’t look much like the spools of thread lined up in the fabric store. The process of transforming the fibers to filaments seems complicated, but machinery in gins and textile mills speeds things up considerably. You can try spinning fiber to yarn and thread at home with some surprisingly simple supplies.

Field to Thread: The Commercial Process

While the machinery’s appearance has changed since the water frame and spinning jenny, the steps are the same as those followed during the Industrial Revolution.

Cleaning the Cotton

First, the cotton fiber must be removed from the hull and all of the leaves, stems and dirt removed. Cotton gins perform this step, using blowers and cleaning machines. Historically, this involved willowing, scutching, and lapping. During willowing, the cotton was placed in a revolving drum and forced air separated the cotton from waste products. Then, the scutching machine beat the cotton with blades and pushed it over cylinders with spikes to clean it more. This step is done today by circular saws that have small teeth that separate out the seeds, leaving what is called “lint.” Lapping squeezed the fibers into a sheet for carding.

Carding and Drawing the Cotton

Originally done by hand using wire-bristled brushes, spiked carding machines remove the last of the waste and dirt and pull the fibers parallel to each other. The high-speed, wire-toothed rollers turn the fibers into what is called sliver. Next, the sliver is pulled between rollers to create slightly twisted roving, which is wound onto spindles.

Spinning the Cotton

Contemporary spinning machines, which replaced the spinning mule, pull, stretch and twist the roving 2,500 revolutions per second to take the cotton to the thread stage.

Spinning Cotton at Home

Spin your own cotton thread with a drop spindle made from ordinary home supplies.

Things You'll Need

  • Cotton roving (available at many craft stores)
  • Chopstick
  • Radish

Step 1

Slide the radish about 1/2 inch above the pointed end of the chopstick.

Step 2

Pull the roving gently to spread it into a web. Don’t pull it enough to separate completely.

Step 3

Pinch a small amount of the roving and twist it, pulling it slightly away from the rest of the roving, keeping it taut as you twist.

Step 4

When you have about 5 or 6 inches, tie it around the chopstick just above the radish on the long side. Roll all of what you have twisted onto the chopstick, which will act as a spindle.

Step 5

Hold the spindle in your dominant hand and the roving in the other. Twist the spindle sharply clockwise to start it spinning.

Step 6

As the spindle spins, pull the roving slightly up and away from the spindle. Periodically, wrap your spun thread just above the radish.

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