The first cotton garment found in ruins anywhere in the pueblos dates, by the tree rings, 795 A.D. That is all we know about when cotton arrived. We know that it was not the same as that grown in the Old World but a special New World species, named after the Hopi, Gossypium hopi. Cotton of this same species was grown from Peru up to the pueblos, that is throughout the most civilized part of America. Usually it flourished in hot, low place, just as we see it today. Only the pueblos, in their high country with its cold winters, had worked out a variety which would ripen in one hundred days, the shortest season known. Here is another proof of their skill in farming and their long experience. According to Spanish accounts, they raised cotton as far north as Cochiti, while northern Tewa and Tiwa wore skins, as did Pecos near the buffalo plains. Often they had only very small patches, for cotton needs water and they either had to manage a little irrigation or water it by hand.

As the railroads came in bringing cheap cotton cloth, the villages gave up their fields, one by one. Even the most famous of the Hopi cotton fields were turned to other crops, although they are still called Moenkopi, The Place Where Cotton Is Grown. The Hopi, almost the only weavers left, continue to raise a little cotton in small patches while an occasional weaver in some of the other pueblos may grow a little for his own use. More often, he gets it from the Hopi, paying for it with turquoise, the ancient pueblo article of trade.

Preparation of Cotton

Pueblo people harvested their cotton just as they did beans, often bringing in the whole mass, stems, pods, and all, drying it on the roof and then beating the pods loose. After the pods were separated from the stems, the fluff was pulled out by hand. Next it needed ginning (to take out the seeds). The white man does this by machinery, but pueblo people spread the fluff on a flooring of clean sand, and several of them squatted around it, each holding two or three long, pliant sticks, tied together in the shape of a switch. With these, they beat the fluff gently and tirelessly for hours, picking out the seeds as they fell away from it. Sometimes they merely pulled the cotton out by hand into long streamers, picking seeds and dirt out of each streamer with the fingers. This was a long task and often the weavers left it for the winter days when they would have time to work indoors.

If the cotton was to be used for ceremonial purposes, even this cleaning work was a ceremony. Some of the Hopi did the work in the kiva, praying over the sand as they spread it on the kiva floor. Before they brought in the cotton, they brought a painting of the sun, on deerskin, which they laid on the sand for a moment and sprinkled with corn meal. When this was taken away, the cotton was laid on the place which it had blessed.

The Zuni, say some, had an ingenious device for ginning, which anyone who has tried to brush fluff from clothes may appreciate. They laid the cotton fluff between two woven blankets, then beat the outside of the blankets with a stick. The fibres stuck to the blanket while the seeds shook loose.

However the ginning was done, it left a mass of disordered fluff. Men pulled this roughly into hanks with their hands or perhaps with a coarse wooden comb with two or three teeth. Then they tied up the hanks and left them to be spun. Evidently they cleaned and ginned just enough for one spinning at a time, for no stores of hanks are found in the ruins.


Next came the work of twisting the cotton into thread, or spinning. When they twisted yucca fibre, the pueblo men had rolled it along the leg with the palm of the hand. They twisted cotton with a spindle, (d, e and t in Plate 111-3) This was a slender stick, about eighteen inches long, tapered at both ends and passed through a disk of wood, stone, horn, pottery, or dried squash rind. This disk, or whorl (another old English word) was about three inches in diameter. The illustration shows it about two thirds of the way down the stick, though it might be lower. It fitted the stick tightly so that it would not revolve without moving the whole spindle and often it was further secured by a winding of string above and below it.

Ancient spindles and battens

Plate 111-3. Ancient spindles and battens.

There were two ways of using the spindle. (Illustrated by figures 111-4, 5, and 6) The first, still used by the Hopi, reminds us of the ancient method of palm on thigh. It is illustrated in figure 111-4. The spinner, usually a man at Hopi, sits with a pile of cotton fluff on the floor at his left. In his right he holds the spindle, with the whorl pointing inward. He attaches a streamer of cotton to the spindle below the whorl, by winding the end around tightly a few times. Then he holds the spindle horizontally on his right thigh, under the palm of his hand. His left hand holds the streamer of cotton which can be pulled out from the fluff in one loose, continuous mass. He brings it up between the little finger and third finger of his left hand, winds it two or three times around all four fingers for firmness, then holds the hand as far up as he can so that there is a long, tight stretch of fluff between spindle and hand.