Today we’ll hear from guest blogger Caroline Tacker, who tells us about how she got started in the fiber world with a spur-of-the moment purchase of some inexpensive cotton plants!
I grow and spin Florida Native Cotton, which at its best has a ¾-inch staple. I currently use an Ashford Kiwi and Traditional for my spinning, but I can also use a Tahkli spindle. This cotton was grown in my front yard.
The Cotton that Almost Wasn’t
Florida Native Cotton is part of the Hibiscus family, as are all cottons. It is an endangered plant in Florida. In the early 1940s a new bug was found on the cotton that resembled the boll weevil. Fearing another boll weevil-like attack, they decided to systematically destroy the plants. It just so happened that World War II broke out and those men left this project to join the armed forces. Hence some of this cotton survived… and NO new boll weevil was ever verified. There is an original strand of this cotton behind a synagogue at mile marker 31 on the way down to Key West. I can verify it’s there as I have seen it!
Florida Native Cotton grows much like our hibiscus: if left unattended it gets gangly and out of control. I do prune my plant back, to try and make it ascetically pleasing, and also to make it look like it belongs in the yard/garden. It is not cold tolerant; it prefers to grow below the subtropic line of Florida. I did lose all my plants to a freeze 5 years ago. Since then, a “volunteer” showed up.
The use of Florida Native Cotton in History
There is limited information about Florida Native Cotton; the one thing I haven’t seen about it is whether or not it was ever really used for anything. I’m sure people used it because that would be in our nature as pioneers: use what you have. As to what they used it for or on, I have not found any information. As to spinning it, my thoughts are it would be too labor intensive and not a good use of time for people who made everything from scratch, but I cannot find anything confirming they did or did not.
My Fiber Journey
My start down the fiber path started over 11 years ago in the spring when I attended a Florida native plant sale in St Petersburg, Florida (where I live). There I found Florida Native Cotton seedlings which they were selling at 3 pots for $1. I thought… if they live great, if they don’t I’m only out $1.
I was told that cotton liked full sun and carbon monoxide, so I planted my seedlings in the easement of my front yard, next to the road. As they grew over the next several months, they bloomed and then I had this white beautiful fuzzy cotton! Now that I had this lovely fiber… I had to figure out how to process it.
I did several web searches – how to clean, gin, etc. – and after a year of not finding much about how to process cotton, other than commercially. I’d kind of given up. Then someone suggested I go to Heritage Village (our local living museum). I contacted them and asked if they could teach me how to process my cotton and in exchange I would become a volunteer. In March of 2006, I met Wendy who taught me how to “gin” my cotton by hand and spin it on a tahkli spindle. I had the process down in about 45 minutes.
While volunteering at Heritage Village during their County Jubilee Festival, I met Judy of the Pinellas Weavers Guild. She was spinning on a lovely spinning wheel. We talked for awhile and she invited me to come to a guild meeting. I did and joined the Guild in December of 2006. Have loved being around other “fiber” minded people, I am currently still a member… and I am their curre
nt president. I have also been the past Secretary and Vice-President.
So to sum it up… almost 12 years ago I purchased three Florida Native Cotton plants for $1. I have since learned to spin on a tahkli spindle, purchased 2 spinning wheels, a drum carder, a loom and other associated small equipment. I “play” with lots of different fibers, and I do sell some of the things I make, but I ALWAYS come back to cotton. I just love it.
Have you ever tried to grow or spin cotton straight from the plant? Tell us about your experiences & ask your questions in the comments!
Caroline Tacker is a Florida native born in Orlando, living in St. Petersburg for the past 25 years. She volunteers with Heritage Village as a living history docent (spinning cotton by hand) and is a member of the Pinellas Weavers Guild, Bay Area Knitting Guild, and Florida Tropical Weavers Guild. Find her on Facebook for more information.