Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cotton Spinning

Well, all those facts in my post a couple weeks ago really put a damper on my thought process. I suppose I will put some information like that in this blog and in my book and I will keep it to a minimum. First of all, I am not an expert on the various textiles and I am collecting the information the same way anyone else can do- searching the internet. So, I'm going back to practical stuff- the basics of creating textiles.

Since I talked about cotton last time and I had a sample of cotton fiber ready to spin that I picked up last year, I thought I'd take it for a spin! (Pun intended.) For anyone just getting in to textiles and spinning, do not start with cotton. I have "Organic Upland" sliver. It comes from New World Textiles out of Black Mountain NC. I bought it indirectly from Hillcreek Fiber Studios who visit the Michigan Fiber Fest every year.

When it comes to spinning fibers, the easiest fiber to spin in my view, is wool, especially the long staple varieties. Wool also has crimp (the "curliness" or "kinkiness" of the fiber) and scales because it's basically hair which helps the fibers stick to one another.

Cotton, on the other hand, is a plant fiber with very short fibers.

Spinning materials which have very short fibers takes lots of practice and experience. I've been spinning a number of years and have been spinning very fine thread as well. Still, it took several hours before I was able to spin without constantly losing the spun thread through the orifice of the spinning wheel. I have learned that the cotton fiber does have some twist to it. Here is a picture I found referenced from a book from 1926 called "A Girl's Problems In Home Economics".

Here is a shot of me spinning the cotton with a close-up of the fibers.

It took me about 4-5 hours to spin 1/2 a bobbin of fibers. I am spinning fairly fine thread as you can see from the next photo. This is a comparison of this cotton thread I'm spinning, sewing thread (the red one) and some purchased cotton yarn which is categorized as "4" or medium/worsted weight yarn. After I get through 1/2 of the cotton, I'll spin another bobbin, turning the wheel the opposite way. This will allow me to weave with both threads as singles with one as the warp and the other as the weft. It will be interesting to see if it's spun thin enough to be make a wearable fabric.

I just spent this morning in the greenhouse. It was beautifully warm in there- about 75F. It was time to add lots of wood chips to the chicken area and clean up many of the pots in the aquaponics system. This was probably the most physical work I've had to do since starting to wear my experimental clothes. I may have to do some quick washing of the tops especially- the off-white sweater is now a bit dirty and I still have 2 days to wear it before the next official wash day. I am thinking I'll have to make allowances for when I go out after a day working in these clothes. I'm going out tonight to Kalamazoo's Cooper's Glen Music Festival and the sweater is just too dirty!

Oh, next week, I'll be writing about two year-long experiments a couple of women have been undertaking concerning clothes. Taken together, my experiment and the other two say a lot about the task ahead of us regarding relocalizing our textiles.

See you then!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cotton and the 20,000 mile Tee-Shirt

Cotton and the 20,000 mile tee shirt.
This blog has taken me more time than I at first thought. The subject of cotton is huge and will take a long time to research the implications of peak fossil fuels on cotton and all fibers. So, consider this blog an introduction on the future of cotton. My ideas about what I wanted to say changed throughout the week or so I've been working on it so I apologize if it seems a bit scattered- I'm also still new to blogging!
Cotton- the fabric of our lives.® At least that's been the case for the last several hundred years since the  industrial revolution. The early inventions of the industrial revolution, including the cotton gin, the water frame (the first powered textile machine), spinning jenny, and the spinning mule truly revolutionized our entire culture through the changes wrought by the industrialization of manufacturing and changed the clothes we wear. Later, the industrialization of farming freed many of the farm workers (both free and enslaved) from the arduous work in the cotton fields. Fast forward to today. The advent of peak fossil fuels will change what we wear, the quantity of our textiles, and how we produce them. I hope that as we move back to more manual labor on our farms as fossil fuels become more expensive, that we can avoid the social ramifications of wealthy landowners and thousands of people in need of work and food. More on that in a later blog post. Because I have found that the subject of cotton and peak fossil fuels is a huge subject, today, I'll give a bit of background and just start on the future of cotton.
I've been hearing from several sources lately, both anecdotal and in news reports, that cotton supplies are way down and that we will start feeling those effects in the marketplace with reduced cotton quality and much higher prices for everything containing cotton. From a peak oil prospective, due to both the extremely high input requirements for cotton (pesticides, fertilizer, GMO seeds, energy, etc) and cotton's history as a highly labor intensive crop, cotton's future as a post carbon fiber is not ensured.  The other big issue with cotton and textiles in general is transportation. If you thought the "1500 mile Caesar salad" was outrageous, the idea of an 18,000 mile tee shirt is way over the top! So let's look first at the big picture of cotton.
Worldwide, cotton acreage has remained fairly stable since the end of the 1940's at around 34.8 million hectares. Yields have greatly increased from 0.2 tons/hectare (t/h) to about 0.8 t/h today.1 Water resources used in cotton production and processing are very high and are mostly borne by the countries which grow and process the cotton instead of the countries using the finished products.2 Many of the countries which grow, process, and manufacture cotton products are countries who are experiencing increasing water stress due to the combined effects of drawdown of aquifer waters, higher populations requiring more water, and climate changes. This does include the USA as most of the cotton grown here is grown in the arid southwest. Greater water stress will ultimately reduce the acreage devoted to cotton in arid regions and reduce yields in many areas. Increasing fuel costs will also affect cotton production.
Cotton production also requires large inputs of herbicides, pesticides, man-made fertilizers, and seeds (often genetically modified seeds). According to the Organic Trade Association3, cotton uses 2.5% or the world's cultivated land and uses 16% of the insecticides used worldwide. 34% of the total cotton cropland producing 45% of total production is from genetically modified cotton. It takes 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to make 1# raw cotton and it takes 1# raw cotton to make one tee shirt. (If anyone knows of a conventional cotton industry source for similar info, let me know- I'd like to have info from both sides…) I've read reports on both sides indicating both decreases and increases in the use of herbicides on cotton since the introduction of herbicide resistant GM varieties. In general, it doesn't matter exactly what the exact volume of chemicals is that are used on cotton. What matters is that it is a large amount and those chemicals are derived from fossil fuels and it is thus an unsustainable practice in a declining energy world and will have to change if we are to continue wearing and using cotton textiles.
Botanically, cotton is a warm weather crop. It has a season of 130-155 days requiring about 6 months free from frost. It also requires 24-48" of rainfall per year and often supplemental irrigation. This means in a world with reduced high volume long distance trade due to high fuel costs and reduced availability of fuels, cotton will be much more expensive and difficult to obtain in the colder and dryer regions of the world. One of the reasons less cotton is grown in wet, humid regions in the south is cotton's susceptibility to pests and disease. With future difficulties obtaining the large amounts of herbicides and pesticides in addition to a reduced ability to pump aquifer water in arid areas, cotton's geographical range will be further reduced. I will be looking into the production of organic cotton as to whether or not these methods have shown promise in more disease prone areas of cotton production. Although the fiber content of the clothes for my year-long experiment, (see posts 1 & 2), ranges from 60-99% cotton, the chances that in the future I will be wearing many clothes with such high cotton contents looks slim. Other fibers, like wool, linen, and hemp are more likely in a climate like mine (Michigan, USA)
The US is the world's leading cotton exporter (that's raw cotton, not finished goods) and a leading importer of finished cotton clothing and household goods (the US imports 83% of the total $50.9 billion worth of cotton apparel and household goods from the top 10 producing countries4. There is a high probability that the cotton for my clothes travelled at least 10,000 on it's journey from seed to finished garment possibly almost twice as long if the cotton is grown in, for example, Brazil, shipped to China to be made into a garment and shipped back to the USA as a finished product. If the summer of 2008 was any indicator, international shipping will likely be drastically reduced as oil and other fossil fuels become more expensive and in short supply. In the future, we will be forced to get more of our products, whether food, fiber, or other goods, locally or at least from vastly closer places. To me, it only makes sense to start working on that now.
Cotton is a very hungry crop. Soils, unless cared for very well with constant additions of organic matter, organic fertilizers, etc, will rapidly deplete and will no longer be rich enough to grow cotton. It is even questionable whether the current soils, which have been growing crops for years using only industrial agricultural methods, would yield sufficient crops if we were forced in a very short period of time to transition to more organic methods.
Ok, in general, I am saying that cotton will not be as common a fiber in the future. I think we will still use it as it's benefits are many- it's an extremely versatile fiber. It has been around since way before the fossil fuel era so we will figure out ways to keep using it.
I did buy a sample of cotton fiber last year at a fiber festival. I'll have to try spinning it soon! I've spun wool, flax, and silk and can see making clothes from those.  I can see it will be quite a learning process. More on that in a later post.
I finished my second week wearing my one set of cotton clothing. They've been washed twice now and aren't showing any signs of wear. I have been getting some ideas about ornamentation and will be working on that in the next few weeks as time allows. I've found the need to do some spot washing of my jeans due to a bit of duck poop while spreading more bedding in the duck house.
I look forward to your comments.  As I have found cotton and the implications of peak oil to be a vast subject and will be coming back to it many times and look forward to your comments!
Some references I used as well as some other sources of info:
5.                Difficult to tell on first look where most of the cotton is consumed. Raw cotton "consumption" refers to purchasing of the cotton bales nothing to do with any finished clothing.
6.                In the US, use of raw cotton used to be primarily domestic 40 years ago. Now most of our raw cotton is exported to 3rd world countries where processing and production of finished goods takes place. (1965 75% processed by US mills, remainder exported; 2009 only 22% used processed domestically; source:
7.                World cotton prices are at an all-time high. World cotton supplies are tight. Between 05/06 and 09/10, world acreage in cotton dropped 13% and production dropped 17%. Prices continued increasing after the 09/10 northern crop was completely harvested. (20 yr history of cotton prices:
8.                Predictions are that acreage will increase this crop year (10/11).
9.                Weather problems continue to cause problems with world cotton supplies. Floods, droughts, etc.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A week into the experiment...

I've spent a week now on my textile experiment. I've worn my set of clothes (see photo in my first post) 4 days. I decided that I'd wear my normal clothes to work and I work 3 days a week. That will give me time to wash my experimental clothes and keep myself sane. I did decide to purchase one other top- a sweater. I was finding that in a house heated by wood, my basement gets fairly cool and I wasn't comfortable working for hours on end at the computer. So, I bought a sweater at another average store for $20.67, on sale. Since I was looking for a sweater to keep me warm inside, I was really looking for something containing wool. I thought it odd that none of the sweaters in this store or at the store where I bought the rest of my clothes contained wool. Since I had decided for the sake of this experiment to purchase low to medium priced clothing at average stores, I didn't go searching for wool sweaters elsewhere. I believe that as fuel costs rise, we will be keeping our houses cooler and wool will be one of the fibers of choice.
So, hopefully, now I will be set for the year.
I have talked to a few people about my experiment so far. In general, people find it interesting which may mean they think I have at least one screw loose or that my idea has some merit. Some have agreed that the clothes probably won't stand up to heavy wear, being more designed for the mainly sedentary lifestyle of the average American. For me in January, I don't have a really heavy physical work load which would stress these clothes. I have taken care of the chickens and ducks, cleaned out the chicken coop, collected worms from my aquaponics system which I will be donating to a school for a worm composting system and a little housekeeping. In general, the stresses won't start until gardening starts in earnest in March. I'll be doing some planting in February in the greenhouse since the beds are already made, that shouldn't be too stressful on the clothes other than getting them a bit dirty.
I'll be washing everything tomorrow. The plan is to wash them at least once a week. More if they get really dirty. Now, in the world of the future with less access to fossil fuels, I would probably have to wash everything by hand, possibly using some more abrasive methods due to limited availability of modern washing detergents. For now, I'll be using my front loading washing machine, plant based detergents (my normal detergent), some "Oxy Bleach" (non-chlorine laundry booster), and drying the clothes on the line. Normally, I rarely use a dryer. I have one which doesn't work well anyway. In the winter, we hang up clothes in the basement where they add a reasonable amount of moisture to the air. This system will probably be less stressful to the clothes than in the average household, especially due to not using the dryer. I'll take a photo of the clothes about monthly to track any changes in the condition of them.
One interesting aspect of wearing the same clothes constantly that I have discovered is boredom! I’m still trying to figure out how much of that boredom has to do with our culture's habit of owning and wearing lots of clothes so that we wear different things, colors, styles, on a daily basis and how much has to do with the fact that the clothes I chose are very plain. I have this urge to add some color to my clothes and may be adding embroidery, woven trim, and other embellishments to my set of clothing over the course of the year! It's not so much that I'm bored of the clothes yet- I can just feel it coming.
Of course, I'm not the first person who's decided my clothing was too plain and needed to be spruced up a bit. Decorating clothing is a very old pastime of humans as you can see in this image of Russian peasants ( and this of ancient Greek clothing ( 
In case you are thinking that everyday clothes which will be worn in situations where they will be heavily worn weren't highly decorated, take a look at this replica of an 11th Hussar's military jacket. 

The only question I have for myself is how much I want to stand out with my clothing decoration…
And, for a peak oil/fossil fuels angle, what does boredom and decoration have to do with possible hard times ahead? Well, much of what is written about a world without fossil fuels is full of doom and gloom and how hard life will be. I believe that there are many wonderful things about life that we may be able to reclaim in the future. High among those things is an appreciation of simple things and of beautiful things. We may not have many clothes or other material possessions and those items can be well made and beautiful!

Monday, January 3, 2011

What are "Post Carbon Textiles"?

Ok. I'm sure you are wondering what exactly are "post carbon textiles"? Well, I have been following the topic of "Peak Oil" for a number of years. Peak Oil is the moment in time when either half the world's resources of oil have been used or when oil "production" reaches a maximum and thereafter, inexorably declines. Check the right sidebar for some links with more background on the subject. (more links to come soon)

Now, what does this have to do with textiles (that's clothes, towels, rugs, etc- everything made of fiber of any kind)? Producing anything takes energy- whether we are talking about food, clothing, buildings, transportation- everything. As human population has increased, we have been using more and more energy to produce all that we make and use. The discovery of fossil fuels made this much easier. We have been using fossil fuels to produce everything we use every day. The going rate, so to speak, to produce 1 kilocalorie of food is 10 kcals of fossil fuels. Now, imagine if you were to no longer have those fossil fuels available. Trouble!

Ok. In all the peak oil and fossil fuel related books I have read and most of the blogs, email lists, and other communication I have read, I have found very few comments or discussions about textiles. When clothing is discussed, there seems to be the impression that:

1) We have so many clothes already made, it will be years before we have to worry about producing more.

2) It can't be that difficult to make fabrics, etc. 

and finally,
3) Most people are SO far removed from what it takes to produce textiles, that the complexity is way beyond most people's comprehension.

So, my aim has been to write a book about the future of textiles in a world without fossil fuels. I've been working on it for a couple months and the project gets bigger and bigger! I'll have to work on narrowing the focus to get the greatest impact.

One of the first parts of this project has been to disprove the idea that we have so many clothes that we don't really need to work on textile production for quite a while. In order to do this, I purchased a set of clothes from a big box store. I bought a pair of jeans, one long sleeved top, one short sleeved top, and a long sleeve hooded fleecy jacket for a total investment of $44.47. I tried to just buy what was available- without thinking about how they would wear. I'm trying to take the clothes that are normally available and see how they stand up to hard wear.

I believe we will, in the future, have to be living a much more physically demanding life- growing our own food, fiber, and making many of the items we use in our lives. This lifestyle will put much different demands on our clothing and other textiles and I don't believe they will live up to those demands.

For a little more background, I have a small farm- I have a large garden where I raise a lot of the vegetables for my family (3 full time people and one college student who comes home to stock up on applesauce, pickles, tomatoes, jam, etc), chickens and ducks which are raised for eggs and meat, maple trees which I tap for sap, beehives, and a greenhouse in which I have an aquaponics system. All this requires a lot of work to maintain and get the greatest production. Clothes have to put up with a lot of use!

So, today is the first day wearing my new clothes. I am finding right away that I may have to buy one additional item. We heat our house with wood and it's kept fairly cool and I am thinking my jacket is not up to the task.

I'd love to hear thoughts from anyone about my project and post carbon textiles in general. I'll be blogging about many other aspects of my book project as well. Thanks for taking time to read my ramblings!