Driving up through the state of Georgia last November was to experience a different kind of economy. In western Georgia industrial agriculture holds royal court and Cotton is king. November is the end of cotton season, and between towns and patches of forest the fields are white. Tractors tear through them at high speed, leaving a wake of naked stalks. Mysteriously this process ends with cotton bales the size of freight cars patiently awaiting pick up. They prissily wear plastic cover proclaiming farmers names, while leaking their essence at the corners. White fluff litters both sides the highway all through the state. A small sliver of unharvested stalks beckon at the edge of the road, and I jump out to pluck bolls from them and fill my shirt. They have the smell of green pecan hulls, acrid and slightly sweet.
My dad used to pronouce "Oh lordy pick a bale of cotton" after a hard day landscaping another client's yard, and it's not till I get home with my meager cotton pickings that I look up the song sung by slaves and then by Leadbelly in 1945. ( I watched that video at least four times, with my mouth hanging open, it's beautiful: the video's color, his singing, playing a twelve string guitar, his educational spoken bit right at the beginning, there's joy and desperation and sadness and family running all through it.)The bolls sat for weeks in a corner of my studio, the husks turning brown and exploding in white puffs on the floor. Pick them up and mining for seeds is the game. Each boll has three or four sections similar to an orange made up of tightly packed fibers huddled around as many as eight or more seeds. There are three parts used from the cotton plant: the inch long fibers that pull away from the seed fairly easily are used for spinning into cloth, the short fibers still attached to the seed are called linters, which are used for making paper and the seed itself is pressed for oil. Many cotton handspinners insist you must pick out the seeds and vegetable matter and card them on very fine carders (cat combs work well) lay little sections side by side and roll them around a pencil to make cotton punis. A few drop spindle users spin off the seed itself. The former method seems a little tedious and so I have been following the latter using a supported spindle I made from a wooden toy wheel and a dowel. Though this method is hard to get a perfectly even or thicker thread, the feel of the cotton pulling in tiny pop pop from the seed under my fingers is satisfying. Five of the seeds I have spun in this way are the ones growing in my garden now, the first bloomed yesterday a small cream hibiscus flower that today closed and blushed a shade of purple while tiny skeins of cotton thread await the next transformation.