Spin Cotton

Cotton has been used as a handspinning fiber for thousands of years, yet today many people think of it as a difficult fiber to work with because of its short staple length. Once you have gained an understanding of the techniques required, you will be making your own yarn easily - and without stress!


This is the first thing you must put in your mind. Second you need to examine the fiber closely. Feel the texture, see how short the fibers are and begin thinking “cotton”. Now, how do we adjust our wheels to spin such a short staple?

There cannot be a strong pull on the fiber or it will simply pull apart before it gets any twist and strength. If you have a flyer-driven wheel with a scotch tension:

1. Loosen the drive belt so it is just tight enough to make the flyer go around.

2. Loosen the break (draw-in) so it just rests over the bobbin.

If you have a double band drive wheel then simply loosen the tension so it just allows the flyer to go around.

We also know that the shorter the fiber the more twists per inch it will take to make a strong yarn.  So that means we want to use our highest ratio.  If your wheel has scotch tension, then you need to put the scotch tension band over the whorl with the smallest diametor.* If your wheel is a double band,  then you put one string of the drive belt around the smallest groove in the whorl.* The bigger the wheel and the smaller the diameter of the whorl, the faster the flyer will go around.  The faster the flyer goes around the more twists that will go into the fiber each time you treadle.  If you do not have a high ratio then it means you will have to treadle more times to get the same amount of twist.


Assuming that your wheel is in good working order, well oiled and sitting on a solid base (not a thick springy  carpet), the easiest way to start learning how to spin cotton is to start with a puni.  See instructions for making a puni.  Make about 20 punis and set them beside you in a flat container. * Now, you are ready to start spinning cotton.

Hold the puni lightly in your hand and put the lead thread on top with your thumb resting on it. Begin treadling and hold that lead with your thumb until you are sure the new fibers are caught. Then draw back the puni ever so slightly and slowly to be sure you have a firm attachment.* Now with the front hand (one closest to the orifice), pinch the thread close to the orifice while at the same time bring your fingers back about a half inch on the puni.* Begin to draw that amount of cotton puni back along-side of you.

As soon as you have begun the draw, open your front fingers and release the thread near the orifice to allow the twist to go up into the new fiber. However, you need to re-pinch the yarn so that you have something to pull against as you draw out that half inch of the puni. Your tension should be so loose that if you do not pinch the yarn, then you would be pulling off yarn you already have on the bobbin.

Okay, so the front hand does sort of a “pinch/release” routine. PINCH...DRAW BACK THE PUNI...RELEASE SOME TWIST QUICKLY AND RE-PINCH AND DRAW. Your draw will be short each time but should be done smoothly and not jerky, in fact it is really more of a slow continuous draw until all of the half inch of the fiber in the puni is drawn out to approximately the size thread you desire. Then pinch the end of the puni with your thumb and first finger so that no more twist will get into the puni.

Keep drawing back if there are any slubs in the thread. If they are really small, you can roll them out with your front hand by rolling the slub between the thumb and first finger in a counter clockwise movement. This will open up the slub and allow the twist to even out. Keep treadling and hold this length of thread until you are sure you have enough twist in the thread to make it strong.

When it is strong enough, you can tell by feel or you can double back the spun yarn on itself and check the ply and count the twists, then let the hand with the puni come forward to within 4 to 6 inches of the orifice. The thread should wind onto the bobbin. If it doesn’t, tighten the tension just a “wee” bit until it does take the thread in.*



With practice this will all become one continuous motion.

*Adjusting Your Wheel

If your wheel is not drawing in the spun thread, then you must tighten the tension..or if the flyer is not spinning then the belt must be tightened - but only tighten it the wee tinniest bit at a time.

You should always have your belt and brake as loose as possible. For one thing it makes treadling much easier and of course with a short staple it will not “yank” the fibers apart. This is the same reason that a support spindle is better for cotton then a drop spindle, there is no pulling on the fiber with a supported spindle. Even better yet is a charka style wheel where there is absolutely no draw-in or pull. You can spin so finely with one that it reminds one of a “spider web”.

Draw back until you are comfortably back just behind your hip. With the sliver being carded, it will draw out easier as long as you do not allow the twist to go into the drafting area.

After you draw the thread back to your hip, pinch off at the end of the sliver, stopping the twist from going beyond your fingers. If you want the thread thinner, keep pinching off the end of the sliver and keep drawing back. When you are satisfied with the size of the thread, hold it there and keep treadling until you have plenty of twist in the thread. Then of course, relax your arm and move your hand forward toward the orifice and let the thread wind onto the bobbin.

After much practicing you will seldom have to pinch the thread with your front hand to use it as a break,as long as you are using well prepared cotton sliver. Even though your tension is very, very slight, the sliver will slide smoothly and evenly against the bobbin . Remember not to let the twist into the drafting triangle and be sure you are spinning from the correct end of the sliver.


1. Be sure to check the sliver for the right end to spin from.

2. Draw back fast enough so the twist does not get into the drafting area.

3. If the thread keeps drifting apart (breaking), then it needs more twist per inch.

4. If the thread is kinking up and plying back on itself before going on to the bobbin, then you need less twist per inch.

5. Change the hooks frequently and do not let the thread pile up in one spot on the bobbin.



Recently, former student Peggy Mitchell sent me an inquiry asking me to clarify the differences between a puni, sliver and rolag and whether it is possible to make a cotton sliver using hand carders. What great questions! Here is a short overview of cotton terms to help you "talk cotton" with ease.

  • Cotton is first described as a boll, that is when then it is ready to pick from the field.
  • After the seeds are removed at the gin, then it is called lint.   
  • Spinners take the lint and card it into a puni in which the fibers are rolled.    
  • Sliver is lint is processed at the spinning mill on a huge drum carder, lining up the fibers, and putting them into a narrow strip.     
  • Roving is made when a slight twist is put on the cotton sliver but so slight that you can still draft it out to spin it into a yarn. 

Because cotton fiber is so short, it is almost impossible for us to make a cotton sliver by hand. With wool, the fiber is long and we can comb it and make something similar to sliver - the fibers are then all going in the same direction.

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