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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to spin milkweed



In the fall, on the way home from school, did you ever pick a dried milkweed pod and break it open to release the last few bits of silk.  Or open one too early and find all the seeds inside, looking like a scaly fish.  The sticky mess on your hands…

That would be the extent of my milkweed encounters, had I not learned to spin fiber into yarn.  I learned to spin wool first, and a fair amount about sheep breeds, shearing, skirting, microns, twists per inch.  I believe I next tried flax, and you do not need a distaff to spin flax, in spite of what you may have read in Sleeping Beauty.

I spun cotton, of course, back in the early and mid eighties, when natural and naturally colored fibers were being popularized among spinners by fanatics searching them out and growing them in our southwest.  Like so much of our modern lives, cotton is standardized to a few varieties, eliminating all the wildly occurring strains known to spinners probably up to the industrial revolution.  Here’s a staggering thought:  until the industrial revolution, every thread woven into every sail in every navy in the universe was spun by hand.  That includes the navies of the American Revolution.

Spinning fiber into thread is pretty neat.  I looked for fiber to spin.  I’ve proven you can spin dryer lint.  I’ve spun the cotton wadding in aspirin bottles into decent yarn.  It’s mostly synthetic stuff.  My cats were not safe, but I didn’t have a decent long hair cat during my spinning days, and the short hairs were not fine and soft enough for the yarn to be decent.

I spun a lot of dog hair, mostly due to knowing several Samoyed owners who would “just die” to have a sweater knit from Duke. Or Snowball.  I also finished one project by knitting the sweater for the customer, too.  He wore it ice skating.  According to his wife, several turns around the outdoor rink and her husband went down like a felled tree.  He lay on his back, unconscious.  Paramedics arrived, and one stripped off the sweater.  Steam billowed up.  He was treated for heat stroke, and recovered to skate the rest of the night.  Without his Samoyed sweater.

Some obscure place I read of milkweed being used as alternative to kapok for life preservers during the Second World War.  Thread spun from milkweed even was tried as an alternative to silk for parachutes during that war.  I really wanted to spin a silken thread from milkweed!

First problem—find a stand of milkweed when you are no longer seven years old, walking home from school.  I looked along the meadow trails of several local parks and found lots of milkweeds, no pods.  This was before internet.  I spent an afternoon researching milkweed in the library, and learned they probably are the dumbest plant on the face of the earth.  Some plants are male, some are female.  It still takes two to tango, and if a stand of milkweed does not have girls as well as boys, there will be no milkweed pods.

When I spotted a huge stand of milkweeds in a vacant field next to a local car dealership, I pulled right into the lot, told several salesmen I was not there to buy a car and headed off into the field to harvest just ready to open milkweed pods.  Know how you pick a couple of tomatoes in the garden and put them in your shirt to get them to the house.  I probably should have been arrested for indecent exposure back at the car, but I escaped the salesmen and drove home with my stash.

How to work with it?  I opened the first pod in the living room.  The air filled with hundreds of silken parachutes.  The cats looked at me with suspicion.  I had young grandchildren capture them best they could, and rethought the project.  I opened the next pod in a bag and carefully extracted a few bits of silk.  Almost impossible to hold, but I was able to produce possibly an inch of thread as I twisted the fragile silk and removed the seeds.  By the end of the first pod I had less than a foot of thread for an hour’s hard work.  I set it aside.

Weeks later I mentioned my project to another spinner.  She looked at me incredulously.  “But, milkweed is a bast fiber.  Just like flax, you open the stems and process the fiber inside to spin into thread!”  I knew that.



21 comments:

  1. Maybe you could get into the Guiness Book of Records for being the only person to spin a silken thread from milkweek silk.

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  2. I hadn't known about all the lost cotton varieties. I always just thought cotton was cotton and that's all there is. It's such a shame that industrialising means only the one variety gets used and used until the other varieties become lost. Like lost heritage fruits and vegetables. So many varieties, yet the supermarkets only sell reliable constant producers that store and travel well.

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  3. I've never seen (that I now of) or found a milkweed pod or tried this but loved learning about it. the unusual varieties of food are so much more flavorful and tasty then the big store varieties.

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  4. I used two opened pods as ears on my pumpkin. Nice Dr. Spock looking ears. So you just need to use the insides of the stems not the pods - right? Spinning dog hair - interesting.

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  5. Loved that story!! We have a lot of milkweed on our farm. It especially grows along the grassy "cow lane" that runs down the middle of our fields. Every fall when I walk there, I grab milkweed pods as I go along, and help spread the seeds far and wide. I love the way they feel and I love helping out the monarch butterflies. Farmers hate milkweed, but the stuff growing along our cow lane isn't hurtin' anyone! I think it's great you tried to spin it!

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  6. Your description of the Samoyed Sweater Skater was hilarious! (Probably less so for the skater)

    Good job on the milkweed!

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  7. I don't think we get milkweed. Or if we do I know it under a different name. I love your posts - I learn so much. And the poor man wearing the sweater you spun from his dog hair cracked me up.

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  8. I've noticed a scarcity of of milkweed in the past decade or so. The farmers take them out along with the asparagus with their Roundup Spray. I miss the monarch butterflies that need the milkweed.

    Fun to learn about your adventure with a new fiber. That's how we stay young--learn and have adventures. Looking forward to seeing that milkweed sweater. ;0D

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  9. You are amazing! That is fantastic. I would just love to see it woven into cloth...

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  10. A friend of mine works in a school and they support programs to distribute milkweed seeds and eggs to help increase the Monarch Butterfly populations. When I was a kid, they were very common. Now I only see one or two in a summer. It's so sad,

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  11. My old co-worker, Julie, used to weave. She had a loom set up in her attic and she said that when she needed to problem solve, was very very mad or very, very sad, she could spin away and figure things out.

    She tried to teach me once and I failed miserably. She said that she didn't think I had the patience. She was probably right...

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  12. I learned a lot today. During childhood, I had access to stretches of milkweed. I wish I knew about this!

    You are an amazing talented woman!

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  13. well, this is certainly news to me!

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  14. A fascinating and informative post, Joanne. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  15. You took me back to childhood with this milk weed post :)

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  16. wow i haven't thought of milkweed in years--we used to have lots of it near my house---we loved to play with it---this weaving stuff is so interesting to me!

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  17. I don't believe I've ever seen milkweed — neither plant nor pod. This is an incredibly fascinating post.

    And I find this line especially endearing:

    "First problem: find a stand of milkweed when you are no longer seven years old, walking home from school."

    Now I'm going back to my seven-year-old self, moseying back from the school bus, remembering a man's vegetable garden that overflowed all summer and into fall.

    Ohhh, lovely and bittersweet.

    Thanks for taking me there Joanne!

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  18. actually you can spin the fluff you just have to mix it with another fiber like wool I have done this with nice results sort of like angora. It is true you can spin the stem like flax but the fluff spins too

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