Cotton plants: You can grow your own, but there is a wrinkle


Jamie Jamison still has the 1996 copy of Spin-Off magazine dedicated to cotton and color, the issue that inspired her to plant her own cotton.

A member of the Southern California Handweavers’ Guild, she already knew how to dye her own fabric for weaving. The logical next step was to plant some cotton seeds near the clothesline in her West L.A. backyard. She tried brown and green varieties but had her best luck with the white.

The cotton took over its first location and had to be moved. Three years later, it’s closer to a tree than a shrub, putting out more snow-white pima cotton balls than Jamison can use.


“You get more than you’d expect,” she said. “I give away a lot. I’m a slow spinner. The nice thing about pima cotton is you can peel the seeds out easily.”

After the cotton is cleaned and deseeded, the remaining “lint” -- the white cellulose fiber that protects and helps to propagate the seeds inside -- gets spun out with a toy-like drop spinner, perfect for the fine, long strands. Jamison bags any lint she can’t spin immediately for later use.

She grows white pima (Gossypium barbadense), one of the four main cotton species. Cotton developed independently in Africa, India and the Americas, although the greatest diversity is found in Mexico, where cotton seeds and fabric 7,000 years old have been found in caves.

Cotton does well in Southern California but only in the ground. The plant sends out a tap root that can go down a foot in the first month, and the roots grow aggressively until the flowering begins. When the white or yellow hibiscus-like blooms appear, they last only a few days before dropping, revealing the tiny “boll,” or capsule of white fluff, developing inside.

Cotton is easy to grow, but here, as in other states, home plants are regulated because if allowed to grow continually (and often organically), they may become vectors for disease or pests that can threaten agricultural crops.

“Hobby cotton” seed must come from a state-certified source, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and it can be grown legally only from March to October.

For Jamison, spinning the thread is simply one of many steps that begins with the cotton boll. She also grows woad, the prehistoric Old World blue dye that some say Celtic warriors wore to frighten invaders. Just as indigo influenced the blues of Asia, woad helped to define the blues of Europe. We’ll look at woad next week.


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