From Boll to Yarn: Teaching Kids About Cotton

by Ariyah Chambers April, EMGV intern

Extension Master Gardener Volunteers commit to spreading research-based gardening practices within our communities. One of the ways we share knowledge is by teaching kids (grades K through 5) in afterschool 4-H programs across Durham County.

I spent most of my own grade school years in South Carolina. Teachers took us on field trips to nearby cotton fields to learn about the state’s socio-political and agricultural histories. Holding cotton stalks in my young hands—gently, because we all know what happens if not—my appreciation developed for the intense drudgery required to pick and process cotton before modern machinery became widespread.

It occurred to me to create a cotton lesson for the local 4-H kids, replete with actual cotton stalks, bolls, and fiber samples (after all, show-and-tell is much better received than a PowerPoint presentation… no matter the age group). A few email exchanges later with the North Carolina State University Textiles Building staff, I drove out to Raleigh to pick up some samples they kindly offered to fortify my cotton lesson.

NCSU’s Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE)  manages five world-class “TexLabs,” all critical to the textile and apparel industries by enabling cutting-edge research and product development. Experienced professionals and faculty at each lab assist students and industry partners in reaching their academic or industry goals.

The Spinning Lab—one of ZTE’s five TexLabs—is designed to help meet the needs of the textile industry in applied research. The lab’s state-of-the-art machinery converts cotton fibers (less than 65mm) into spun yarn. Lab services include evaluating the processability of various fibers and running trials to determine optimum machine settings and speeds.

I recently joined Senior Lab Operations Manager Tim Pleasants for a tour of the Spinning Lab. Our time together provided the opportunity to reflect on the major changes modernization has made to the U.S. textile industry. Tech advancement has streamlined equipment, fully automated much of cotton processing operations, and tremendously increased machine speeds. Tim is both an expert and an enthusiast when it comes to cotton, hailing from a Durham-based cotton family himself.

So what are the steps of modern cotton processing, from boll to yarn?

Step 1: Ginning is the opening, cleaning, and carding of cotton bolls. The opening of cotton bales at most mills is fully automated. Lint from several bales is mixed and blended together to provide a uniform blend of fiber properties. To ensure that the new high-speed automated feeding equipment performs at peak efficiency, and that fiber properties are consistent, computers group the bales for production/feeding according to fiber properties.

The blended lint is blown by air from the feeder through chutes into cleaning and carding machines that separate and align the fibers into a thin web. Carding machines can process cotton in excess of 400 pounds per hour.

The web of fibers at the front of the card is then drawn through a funnel-shaped device called a trumpet, providing a soft, rope-like strand called a sliver (pronounced SLY-ver).

STEP 2: Drawing, or sliver processing, is when as many as eight strands of sliver are blended together. Drawing speeds have increased dramatically over the past few years and now can exceed 40,000 feet per minute.

STEP 3: Combing makes cotton fibers nice by making strands more parallel and removing short fibers. This process can add light crimping for more surface cohesion of fibers. 

STEP 4: Spinning, or yarn making, can happen in one of several ways:

Ring spinning is slower than more modern spinning systems—and the end resulting bobbins don’t hold a lot of yarn in comparison to the output of other spinner types—but is a dependable process for producing high quality yarn. Ring spinning first requires roving, which draws the slivers out even more thinly and adds a gentle twist; this process makes the fiber tighter and thinner until it reaches the yarn thickness (or count) needed for weaving or knitting fabric. The yarns can be twisted many times per inch.

Open-end or rotor spinning uses rotors that, totally automated, can spin 10 times as fast as a ring spinning machine. Rotor spinning is becoming more widespread as it eliminates the roving process; yarn is produced directly from sliver, saving time. The result is a cone of yarn that goes on to create cotton fabric that is coarser than yarn from ring spinning creates.

Air Jet & Vortex spinning (not pictured) eliminate the need for roving, similar to rotor/open-end spinning. Air jet and vortex spinning also address the key limitation of both ring and open-end spinning: mechanical twisting. This method uses compressed air currents to stabilize the yarn, faster and more productive than any other short-staple spinning system. The Vortex spinner at NCSU is its newest spinner and became commercially available in the 2000s.

STAGE 5: Twisting happens after spinning, when the yarns are tightly wound around bobbins or tubes and are ready for fabric forming. In case you’re wondering, ply yarns are two or more single yarns twisted together, while cord is plied yarn twisted together.

You can see this and more machinery in action on the Spinning Lab’s website. The equipment’s humming brings a Zen-type comfort that the resulting cotton fiber does, too.

For the 4-H cotton lesson, Tim Pleasants kindly gave me sliver and other samples representing the different phases of cotton processing. I have no doubt these samples, held in the hands of the students, will awaken them to the complexity of textile production. It’s not simply magic that the cotton cultivated in fields turns into their sweatshirts and jeans—it’s thanks to necessity, technology, and human ingenuity we have the cotton to create everything from dollar bills to baseballs.

All photos were taken by Ariyah April.

Resources & Further Reading

Tim Pleasants, Senior Lab Operations Manager for Zeis Textiles Extension at NCSU

https://textiles.ncsu.edu/zte/

https://textiles.ncsu.edu/zte/spinning-lab/

Durham County Cooperative Extension Improves Lives

Durham County Cooperative Extension creates opportunities for lifelong learning and connects residents with resources to improve quality of life. It is a part of NC Cooperative Extension, an educational partnership between counties and our land grant universities – NC State and NC A&T – and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring forth research-based knowledge and services.

The mission of Cooperative Extension is to partner with communities to deliver education and technology that enrich the lives, land, and economy of North Carolinians. The Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, writers of this Blog, represent just one part of one program of Durham County Extension. Get to know the others so you can point your family, friends and neighbors to services that might be useful to them (or to you):   

4-H Youth Development – The 4 H’s stand for Head, Heart, Hands and Health. The program offers youth clubs, summer camps, special interest programs and life skill activities for  children and youth ages 5 to 19.  4-H works with organizations that request services or education workshops and can fine-tune their approach to the needs of the group.

Family and Consumer Sciences – Food and nutrition are the keywords for this program. The FCS agent helps some 60 families at Briggs Avenue Community Garden in East Durham to grow their own food in a safe and enriching environment. She also conducts workshops like Cook Smart Eat Smart where people learn better home-cooking techniques and trains food service industry workers via NC Safe Plates. Engage with FCS and learn to make sensible choices for a lifetime of health.

Welcome Baby – This family resource center offers emotional and practical family support, child development education, and prevention services designed to strengthen families and caregivers with young children ages 0 to 5 years. All services are offered in English and Spanish.

Transportation / Durham County ACCESS – County residents who are senior citizens or individuals with disabilities, as well as residents going to work or the general public in rural Durham County are eligible to receive safe and accessible transportation through ACCESS.

Community Outreach – This program serves youth and adults and builds community capacity that encompasses all program areas. Key programming includes: a multi-week training series that supports parents in navigating their public schools to help their child succeed (offered in English and Spanish), Kids Voting Durham which helps young people understand and believe in the power they have as active citizens and informed voters, and customized training and family services in caregiving, financial resource management, grandparent support, decision making and more.

Agriculture & Consumer Horticulture – Plant and animal producers and green industry professionals receive ongoing support in the form of direct consultation, workshops and classes and professional pesticide certification. Extension Master Gardener Volunteers educate consumers on plant care, landscaping, soil testing and management by answering specific questions via email or telephone, and conducting free workshops, classes and being present at community events.

“Through these program areas and the workshops, training, and services they provide, Cooperative Extension helps strengthen families and communities. We are dedicated to improving the quality of people’s lives,” says Donna Rewalt, Durham County Extension Director.

Contact Durham County Extension:  Located at  721 Foster Street in downtown Durham; Phone 919-560-0525; Website durham.ces.ncsu.edu. Facebook.com/durhamextension. Instagram @durhamextension. Twitter @durhamextension. Programs are open to all Durham County residents and many are free or low cost.

Special Event: Breakfast in the Garden

Are you curious about the role of Durham County Cooperative Extension Services? Join us for breakfast at Briggs Avenue Community Garden on Friday, May 31, 8:30 – 10:30 a.m. for our 2019 Report to the Community.

Enjoy a fresh garden breakfast, tour the garden, see our new greenhouse, learn about Extension’s work in Durham County, meet our new director, Donna Rewalt, and receive a small gift of appreciation for your support.

Photo by Andrea Laine

The event begins at 8:30 a.m. and a short presentation will take place at 9:20 a.m. The event is free but registration is required so we know how much food to prepare.

Register online or call 919-560-0521.

Briggs Avenue Community Garden is located at 1598 S Briggs Avenue in Durham, NC. Get Directions.

NC Agriculture Awareness Day: March 20

Come celebrate North Carolina’s biggest industry, and help educate NC Legislators and lawmakers of the importance of NC Agriculture and how we can grow stronger together.

Meet elected officials, see ag-related exhibits and celebrate the tremendous contributions agriculture provides to North Carolina and the world.

For more information click here.

The event will occur on March 20th at the Bicentennial Mall and Legislative Complex in downtown Raleigh. Participants will meet at the NC State Fairgrounds and will take a free bus to the event.

To register, click here.

 

Resources:
http://www.ncagr.gov/ncagday/