How do you set the twist in handspun cotton?

Akha Spindling KitBy Amelia

Opinions seem to vary on the topic of setting twist in handspun cotton -- I've read that you can do nothing, finish it just like your other handspun, wash it in hot or hot/soapy water, or you can boil it.

A warm bath is all that is needed to awaken the twist and let it set properly. More heat may be desirable if the cotton has been treated in processing, to remove any carding oils.

Boiling the handspun skein deepens and sets the color of the naturally colored cottons. Boil it for about 1/2 an hour at a low simmer, with a teaspoon or two of baking soda added to the saucepan. The effect on colored cotton has to be seen to be believed.

Dyed cotton skeinsHand-dyed cottons can be simmered, but don't add the baking soda -- it affects the water pH and could change the dyed color (oops!) In fact, I'd let a short length sit in the bath first to see if it was affected by the additional heat. In truth, I'd just wash a hand-dyed cotton like I do my wool skeins, since it's simpler!

Though this isn't dyeing, I prefer to keep my "cotton saucepan" separate from my food saucepans. I have used my dyepots (clean) for finishing my cotton without mishap.

Natural colored cottons.The natural browns get darker and sometimes redder. The green is practically a different color, going from soft green to almost olive.

Over time, exposure to sunlight will dull or brown green cotton (raw or handspun) -- another light simmer in a pot with a little baking soda will return it to its greenery.

The simmer doesn't do anything extra to set the twist that a warm bath wouldn't do -- its primary function is to bring out the colors.

I recommend putting quite a few, though loose, figure 8 ties on a skein if you are going to simmer it, so it won't turn into a pot of spaghetti. I'll routinely put 6 ties on a one-yard skein, or 8 on a 2-yard skein, before putting it in the pot.

Loom DressingAnd, this finishing I do on the final plied yarn -- the singles sit around until they are ready to be plied. You could choose not to finish the yarn but to weave, knit, or crochet it first, and then simmer the finished item. If (when!) I weave with cotton singles, very likely that is what I would do.

There are "boilable bobbins" -- Majacraft advertises theirs as such -- you can use these or a pierced length of CPVC (heat resistant PVC, it's almond colored) if you like. However, you will need to let the yarn and bobbin soak for a while longer than if it were a skein, to ensure the water penetrates all the yarn.

Related posts, on cotton:
How do you join cotton when spinning?
How do you spin long draw on a drop spindle?
Where can I find cotton hand cards?
How do you spin on an Akha spindle?
What spindle do I spin cotton on?
Why does my yarn drift apart when I'm plying?
How can I design my own knit dishcloth?

Related posts, on finishing yarn:
What makes my handspun yarn bloom?
How do you steam block handspun yarn?
What do I do with my very first full spindle?
Do you set the twist in handspun singles before you ply?
How do I ply set singles?
Is my yarn's twist set when I ply it?
Why do you wash the finished skein in warm or hot water?
How do you set the twist in singles yarn?


Do you have a question on cotton or on finishing yarn for me? Please post it in the comments or contact me. Thanks!

posted 2 January 2009 at


Anonymous said...

I love your blog entries. I learn something new and interesting ever time I read them. It's like having a cheery and helpful teacher right in my living room.

Amelia of Ask The Bellwether said...

@Ellen: thanks so much! Glad to know they are of use. I wasn't sure if posting about cotton in the middle of winter would be all that helpful ;-) but it is summer somewhere now, right.

Vickie said...

I'm considering weaving with cotton singles that i'm spinner on my Hansen Crafts e-spinner. The singles are fairly twisty, and it might be that I should just wind off some of the yarn and see what it does. I was thinking I should finish it under tension before weaving, but because there is a lot of yarn yardage, maybe I could wash/simmer then wind on to a yarn blocker and set the twist as it dries. I'm skeptical of weaving with the yarn with the over-twist in the singles, which I think should wash/set out ...

The fabric that got me started on this is from a Guatemalan shirt - looks like the warp is very fine, like thread, and the weft is a singles, fine-ish, but not thread.

Am I crazy? Has anyone tried something like this. I was going to use a commercial cotton weft, and maybe add some extra vertical warp strips, as well as maybe some horizontal to create a plaid. The singles I"m spinning is actually a blend of silk and cotton, hand-dyed, purchased from the dyer. It is not a dream to draft, and I'm picking out some stuff that doesn't draft well and tossing it... (just bits here and there, not huge chunks =:)

Thanks is advance for any comments. Vickie

Amelia of Ask The Bellwether said...

@Vickie, thanks for the question. I am going down a similar path, weaving with singles. My planks to "size" my singles. To do this, you wind your warp, and then treat it with a starch. I make a gooey liquid, like a runny gravy, with potato starch and then wet the warp in that. Let it dry, then warp the loom. The size holds the singles stable while they are on the loom and may also give them a little additional strength. There are many size recipes out there,

Here is a post on the topic from Weavolution:

Vickie said...

Oh Phooey!! I meant that I"m using commercial warp, and weaving with the hand-spun singles ... Any thoughts on that? Vickie

Amelia of Ask The Bellwether said...

@Vickie, this is something I did with a silk warp and wool/silk handspun single weft. I blocked the single so it would behave, and rough finished the scarf so the wool is lightly felted. It wasn't curling before the rough finishing.

So I would block the cotton weft, but sizing isn't necessary with weft. I haven't experimented too much with twist direction, but if weft and warp twist in the same direction, they lock together more tightly. So if your warp is plied S and you can spin the singles S, the warp and weft may cling to each other a little better than if the single was spun Z.

I'd love to hear how it goes.

bradmowers said...

To set the color in naturally colored cottons, after simmering the yarn for a while (a few minutes will restore the color), put the yarns in a mild vinegar bath for another few minutes. This will preserve the color for many years. The vinegar sets the yarn to a neutral pH.

ximena said...

Thanks for this ONLY bit of info I could find on cotton handspun finishing. I am using a supported spindle and having huge fun but no idea what happened next- til you. ;D

bradmowers said...

Ximena, the group "Cotton Spinning" on facebook is a great resource for this subject.