[This article was originally published in my weblog in August 2002. Some of the photos were lost, but the information is complete.]
Yes, it's called a puni. No snickers, please. I think puni is an Indian word for "roll" (but don't quote me on that. I couldn't find a direct translation.) It is a wonderful cotton preparation that resembles a small, dense rolag. They are easy to make yourself with cotton handcards and a knitting needle. This tutorial will show you how.
Tools and materials
To make punis you will need cotton handcards (with very fine-toothed carding cloth), an assortment of knitting needles, and cotton fiber.
I've only ever made punis with matte Upland cotton. If the fiber you have isn't labeled, it is most likely Upland cotton, which is by far the most common cotton fiber sold to handspinners.
[October 2008: I experimented with slippery long-stapled cottons like Pima and Acala a year after this entry, and they made beautiful punis as well.]
I generally start with prepared cotton rovings, since they're easy to find. But any sort of cotton will work, provided it's been ginned and the seeds removed. Old, stashed cotton that's been compacted into flat pancakes will work just as well as puffy shiny new rovings. Cotton is very forgiving that way.
You can start with plain old white cotton, or dye the cotton before you start to make variegated punis like the ones I've made here. Again, there are many choices.
Step 1. Load the handcards with a thin layer of cotton. Keep the layer about 1/16th to 1/8th inch thick. If you're in doubt, take some off. Too much cotton will make fat punis that don't spin well. I am blending three colors in this batch of punis but you can of course use as many or as few colors as you'd like.
Step 2. Gently card the cotton as if you were brushing the hair on a doll. It is a little different than wool carding. The cotton naturally sinks deep into the carding cloth. So you will need to mesh the teeth of the cards together and then lightly pull the top card up and out of the teeth, brushing the ends of the cotton fibers as it moves. (Don't drag the teeth through each other. The rhythm is mesh, pull up. Mesh, pull up.) The goal is to make a thin, even layer of cotton. Notice the feathering of cotton fibers hanging off the top edge of the card when I was done.
Step 3. Roll the brushed cotton onto a knitting needle. When you've finished brushing the fiber with the handcards, take a knitting needle and gently begin to roll the fiber onto the needle from top to bottom. Roll very loosely. The size of the knitting needle affects how easily the puni will draft when spun. (The shorter the fiber, the skinnier the needle.) For typical upland cotton like this I use a size 10 (6mm) needle. When I carded some extremely short colored cottons I used a size 6 (4mm) needle. If the needle is too big, it will make an unstable rolag that falls apart in your fingers. If it's too small, the rolag won't draft smoothly.
Step 4. Firm up the rolled fiber. When you're done rolling the fiber off onto the knitting needle, it will look a little like cotton candy on a stick. The fiber should be all loose and puffy. Flip the handcard over and rest the knitting needle on the wood.
With your fingers, roll the needle lightly from top to bottom of the handcard. The motion is the same that you use to make snakes from balls of clay, except you're moving in one direction only. Use a very light touch. This step compresses and smooths the cotton fiber into a tube around the knitting needle.
Step 5. Remove the puni. Gently ease the needle out of the puni and voila! A little tube of cotton. If you rolled the puni too firmly in the last step, the needle will be difficult to remove. Do the best you can and be a little gentler on your next one!
Step 6: Storing the punis. I like to store punis in a plastic container. These little tubes of cotton are rigid enough to stand up on their own. (I also think it's kind of cool to see all the hollow centers of the punis lined up in a rather abstract design...)
[Note, October 2008
Since I wrote this tutorial six years ago, there's been a lot more information about cotton spinning and preparation published on the web, including small videos available on YouTube. In all these sources, the basic principles of preparation are the same. But each spinner has their own style and preferences about the finished product. I prefer small, light punis because they draft effortlessly into near-perfect thread. They're the closest thing to joy I've ever found when spinning. However, many people make larger, dense punis because they are easy to store and don't take as much time to prepare. By all means, experiment and find the preparation that suits you the best.]