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Growing Milkweed for Bast Fiber

 
Ryan M Miller
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Posts: 237
Location: Dayton, Ohio
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Based on what I've read about the milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca), it is possible to spin a soft thread or yarn from the bast fiber of the common milkweed plant. I have seed one blog documenting this process (http://inconsequentialblogger.blogspot.com/2014/04/processing-spinning-and-knitting.html?m=1) as well as an agricultural joural paper (https://www.jstor.org/stable/4251941?seq=1) and information from the Native American Ethobotany database documenting the plant's use for cordage and rope by American Indians (http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=Asclepias+syriaca)

As far as I know, this species requires cold, moist stratification to sprout. I have not gotten high germination rates when I tried to stratify the seeds in my refrigerator so it might be best to sow the seeds in fall.

This plant is native to much of the northeastern US and in addition to its use for fiber, it is an important food source for monarch butterflies. I have often found it growing in abandoned fields and prairie remanents where I live in Dayton, OH.

I would like to know if anyone else on this forum has any experience growing milkweed for cloth, rope, or even just to attract butterflies. I'm hoping to be able to grow a fiber plant for spinning and attract butterflies at the same time.
Range-of-A.-syriaca-in-North-America-(bonap.org).png
Range of A. syriaca in North America (bonap.org)
Range of A. syriaca in North America (bonap.org)
 
Stefanie Hollmichel
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Location: Minneapolis, MN
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Hi Ryan! I live in Minnesota and milkweed grows in my garden, well, like a weed. I never planted it, it just appeared one year and has spread everywhere on it's own. It does need cold stratification in order to germinate. I am not certain how cold it gets in Dayton, but you may want to try sowing it outdoors in fall. It seems to prefer full sun and a loose sandy/loamy soil. A friend of mine has clay soil and has tried to grow milkweed a number of times without much success.

I'm pretty new to all this, but I just learned a few months ago about making cordage from milkweed and managed to save some from the garden before it went all moldy from the snow. It turns out to be a messy undertaking to process the stalks for the fiber so I have only done one because I have nowhere to work in winter other than my house. But I did get about a foot of really strong cordage from it. I, too, am interested in seeing if I can get some soft fiber from it, but in my researches it seems I might have more luck with nettle. Still going to try though! I have also learned that the milkweed fluff from the seeds provides better insulation than wool. Next fall I plan on saving all I can of the fluff (along with the stalks) and experiment using it to stuff a lining to make extra warm mittens.

And the butterflies really love it! I get lots of monarch caterpillars and butterflies every year. Harvesting for fiber happens at the end of the season when the plant has gone dormant so it doesn't impact caterpillars or butterflies.

Hope some of this helps! Good luck!
 
Catherine Carney
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Location: Ohio, United States
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Hi Ryan and Stefanie! I also grow milkweed (specifically common milkweed Asclepias syriaca) here in central Ohio (zone 5) as a monarch host plant, for the wonderful spicy-sweet fragrance of the blooms, and for limited bast fiber. I too have gotten relatively thick and stiff cordage rather than soft linen-type fibers, but I plan to keep playing with it. The seed fluff is supposed to be spinnable as well, and was also collected during WW2 as a filler for life jackets. The leaves of the plant yield a lovely butter yellow dye on wool with alum as a mordant that seems to be light and wash fast, but I hesitate to use it since I'd rather have the monarch caterpillars eat it.

In my garden it seems to be a relatively short lived perennial, preferring full sun, and reasonable soils. It doesn't do well in heavy clays that stay cold and hold lots of water.....But does quite well everywhere else as long as there's sun. For me at least it seems to do best in soils that produce good corn--so fertile, loamy, and with plenty of light.

Hope this helps.
 
Nissa Gadbois
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Location: Barre, MA
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I live in Massachusetts and we've made several visits to Plimoth Plantation where we have seen the Native American interpreters using milkweed bast fibres to make various items.  The texture is much like hemp, rather than flax, which is considerably softer.  There were several lovely bags and small mats made from it.  The silk is supposed to be an excellent insulator, as long as it is kept dry.  We have quite a lot of it here on our farm, and were delighted by the significant increase in monarchs last season.  We've not tried using the fibre as yet, but perhaps if this year allows us some time...
 
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