Two Cotton Myths

Myth n. an old traditional story or legend – any fictitious story or account or unfounded belief.

*The New Webster’s Dictionary

"The Vegetable Lamb"

The first mention of cotton in the West came from the Greek historian, Herodotus who was born in 484 BC. He wrote about a tree in Asia that bore cotton "exceeding in goodness and beauty the wool of any sheep".

Sir John Mandeville, after returning from India said "there grew there a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the ends of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungry".

Sir Mandeville lived in the reign of Edward III and his account of the "Vegetable Lamb" spread through England. However, in 1641, Kircher of Avignon described cotton and declared it to be a plant. And so the story passed through many changes over the years.

In 1725, a German doctor named Breyn communicated with the Royal Society on the subject of the "Vegetable Lamb," emphatically stating the story to be nothing more or less than a myth or fable.

"Cotton is Hard to Spin"

Books on hand spinning began to surface about 1970. This was the era of the regeneration of fiber arts. It was the time when the “hippies” began spinning and weaving. The yarns spun where heavy and “textured” as was their woven pieces. The artists who wove fine linens of flax or cotton had all but become few and far between. Those weavers who were still weaving with fine yarns could buy all the yarns they wanted in the local stores and they did not have to take the time to spin the yarn.

Most of the spinning wheels got stored in the attics or thrown out in the garage to be later discarded. The new wheels that were being made had a very low ratio for wool and other protein fibers making them harder to spin short staple fiber into smooth even thin threads. Most wheels that we could purchase here in the States in the 60’s and 70’s were not well balanced or engineered to run easily or smoothly.

When spinners did try to spin cotton in the early 70’s, not only did they have wheels that were designed for spinning protein fiber but also there was no resource for good cotton fiber. Cotton was all ginned and shipped off to commercial processing plants to be carded and spun by machines. The hand spinner could only get the waste-type of cotton from the cotton gins and there was no carded sliver available. When Harry and Olive Linder, the cotton teachers, first started to teach cotton workshops around the United States in the 70’s they had to go to the local gin and purchase a whole bale of cotton, 480 pounds. They set it on their front porch and when they left to do a workshop they would take off a flake or two to bring to the class.

So needless to say, spinners across the country thought that cotton was hard to spin. Those writing about cotton spinning said little or nothing about the spinning of cotton and if they did, they made it sound hard to spin or actually stated that it was ”hard to spin”.

Today the spinning world has changed so much. The spinning wheels are so highly engineered that they almost spin by themselves. The spinning ratios of most wheels range from 6/1 to 20/1. They are designed so that you do not have to start the wheel with your hand and they are smooth and easy to treadle. As for the cotton fiber, there is as much variety in cotton sliver as there is in wool. We have cottons from California, New Mexico and Arizona that are both long staple and short but all well carded into easy to spin sliver. We have Egyptian and Israel cotton coming to us that is like fine silk with its creamy, shinny fine clean fibers that are so well carded. Sometimes we can even purchase Sea Island cotton ready to spin. We have natural colored cottons, cotton blends and even sliver made up of several different fibers such as cotton/wool, cotton/flax and much more.

Now there are the wonderful teachers across the country that are teaching good basic spinning skills. Spin Off magazine and the new spinning books are teaching proper spinning techniques. Like anything, the basic skills are most important. Beginning spinners are learning what and why we have different ratios, how to adjust tension and over all good sound spinning techniques.

So between the newly designed wheels, the availability of learning good spinning techniques and the wonderful array of fine quality cotton fiber, the truth is “cotton is easy to spin”.  Order my video or DVD, Cotton Spinning Made Easy and you will soon be saying what so many now know, COTTON IS EASY TO SPIN. 


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