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What works for making yarn with plants?

 
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I know next to nothing about making yarn from scratch.  Is there an easy way to tell if a plant would be good for the purpose?  I'm thinking mainly about fluffy seeds because they look like wool and are just begging to be used.  I know stem fibers can be used too, but there's a process to get at the fiber and I'm looking for a quick, spend an afternoon playing around kinda project.  With the fluffy stuff can you say, for instance, "these fibers are x long and therefore no good, but these other fibers are y long and would probably work fine?"  Is there a test of strength or flexibility that would tell you something about its suitability?  Other criteria I don't know about?  Or do I just have to try it and see?

Oh, and please excuse tardy responses from me.  I will check back, but I only have access to internet once a week or so these days and lots to do while I'm online. tks
 
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You've come to the right place.

What works for making yarn with plants?  It's possible to make yarn from many different plants.  

For instant yarn, cordage, like string or twine, would probably be easier.  It's the right time of year for nettle harvesting, so here's a couple of quick videos on different ways you can harvest and transform them.  The first starts with fresh nettles, the second uses nettles that have been standing overwinter and are partly retted.





Another type of bast fibre that grows well where you live is flax.

Cotton is also fairly easy to work with although it does have its challenges.

You can buy both cotton and flax in a commercially prepared form... but I'm guessing from your question, you're looking for something a little more wild.


these fibers are x long and therefore no good, but these other fibers are y long and would probably work fine?



With just about everything in life, the answer is 'it depends'... however since you're starting out, I'll put some loose guidelines on what to look for.  These are NOT hard and fast rules of what works and what does not.  What does not work for some will work well for others... blablabla.  The point is, please don't believe anyone who says this is the one proper way to do something with yarn.


It would probably be easiest to learn to spin fibre that is over an inch and a half in staple length.  I find people seem to learn easier with stronger fibres, however, if you put the effort in, you can learn to make yarn from just about anything (dryer lint to sticks).  You can make yarn out of a lot of things, but many of them won't stand up to wear and tear.  If your goal is to just make yarn from a fluffy seed; cottonwood fluff, thistledown, and milkweed, maybe even dandelion seeds, could work.

Is there a test of strength or flexibility that would tell you something about its suitability?  Other criteria I don't know about?



Yes.

I can go into it, but I don't really want to yet.  You're starting from brand new so, with luck, you haven't been indoctrinated into the 'proper' way to make yarn.  A lot of the things I was taught when learning to spin, turned out to not be true most of the time.  I was told it's impossible to make yarn from... such and such... only to discover when I actually tried it, it wasn't that difficult after all.  

The general rule is that seed fluff is too difficult to work with because it's not strong enough and other long lists of reasons.  Yet, most of our natural clothing is made with cotton seed fluff.  People around the world used different seed fluffs to make their clothes (although, not as common as bast fibres - fibres extracted from leaf and stem like linen and nettles).  Of course, I was told no end of times how difficult flax (which becomes linen) was to spin, so I spent 10 years not spinning it.  It's now my most favourite thing to make yarn from as it's no more difficult to prepare than wool - just different.  

Or do I just have to try it and see?



This is really the best thing you could ever do!  

Try as many things as you can.  If you have questions, would like help with technique, then pop back here and we'll see what we can do to help.
 
Jan White
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Thank you, R. Ransom!  You gave me lots of information I didn't even know I needed.  Excellent post, as always!  I've skimmed the material on some of the links you provided (all helpful) and will go through more carefully when time allows.

I'm starting to think I won't have the time to get to it this year, but I wanted to play around with spreading dogbane, which grows everywhere on my property.  From the very little bit of reading I've done, dogbane/Indian hemp makes excellent thread from its bast fibers, spreading dogbane inferior.  Now, inferior may mean perfectly good, just not AS good; and inferior may even have its own charm, so I'll try it out and see.  It also has large seed pods full of fluff, but those fibers are an inch long AT BEST and seem brittle, although I've nothing to compare it to.  Also full of tiny seeds.  I'll try it out anyway cause I have so much and want it to be useful.

Can you mix seed fluff with bast fiber?  If so, is that more tricky than just using one or the other?    

Like I said, I probably won't get to it this year with the way things are going, but when I do I'll update.
 
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Can you mix seed fluff with bast fiber?  If so, is that more tricky than just using one or the other?    



You can mix them.  I'm not sure I would suggest it for a beginner project.

One thing that makes some fibers easier to spin than others is when the individual fibers are about the same length.  So spinning a bunch of fibres that are roughly an inch long, works well, but mixing them with fibers that are twice that length often leads to bumpy yarn that isn't so strong.  Of course, sometimes that's what you want, so for certain kinds of yarn, we mix fibres of different lengths.  But I think for learning, I like to keep all the fibers roughly the same length.  
 
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Jan White wrote:I know next to nothing about making yarn from scratch.  Is there an easy way to tell if a plant would be good for the purpose?  I'm thinking mainly about fluffy seeds because they look like wool and are just begging to be used.  I know stem fibers can be used too, but there's a process to get at the fiber and I'm looking for a quick, spend an afternoon playing around kinda project.  With the fluffy stuff can you say, for instance, "these fibers are x long and therefore no good, but these other fibers are y long and would probably work fine?"  Is there a test of strength or flexibility that would tell you something about its suitability?  Other criteria I don't know about?  Or do I just have to try it and see?

Oh, and please excuse tardy responses from me.  I will check back, but I only have access to internet once a week or so these days and lots to do while I'm online. tks


If you really want to "test the primitive waters" I would suggest harvesting a basket full of milkweed seed pods while they are still green.  One at a time split them open and begin rolling the white filament between your thumb and index finger discarding the seed. Keep adding to the "thread" to increase the length.  Milkweed sap is very much like glue that will help stick the white filaments together. One pod will make a thread of extreme length. With practice it is possible to produce a fairly heavy thread.  Milkweed "twine" is extremely strong.  Native Americans used this thread for sewing hides to make clothing and footwear.  The heavier thread was also used to bind flint knife blades to handles and flint points to arrows etc.
 
Jan White
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Dave Bennett wrote:If you really want to "test the primitive waters" I would suggest harvesting a basket full of milkweed seed pods while they are still green.  One at a time split them open and begin rolling the white filament between your thumb and index finger discarding the seed.



I've never seen milkweed growing here, but I did try this with the spreading dogbane that grows everywhere, thinking it might give me some idea of the fiber's suitability for spinning.  It has the same latexy sap as milkweed, but shorter fluff in smaller seedpods.  It didn't work  I think the fibers are either too short, too brittle, or a combination of the two.  Milkweed grows near my in-laws' place, so maybe I'll try to get some next year.  Thanks for the idea.
 
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R Ranson wrote:

You can mix them.  I'm not sure I would suggest it for a beginner project.  



That's kinda what I thought.  I always want to jump ahead
 
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Has anyone tried sunflower stem? Supposedly there was a native tribe that used sunflower for almost everything, I'm interested in trying it but figured I'd ask if others have tried it first
 
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Anthony Dougherty wrote:Has anyone tried sunflower stem? Supposedly there was a native tribe that used sunflower for almost everything, I'm interested in trying it but figured I'd ask if others have tried it first



I've read that they make an amazing texture.  My sunflowers are 12 feet tall and have thick stems.  I've tried retting the stem, but because the stem is so thick, it took longer than I thought and degraded the fibre.  Maybe pealing the 'bark' and then retting or boiling with some soda ash might do the trick.  It's supposedly very strong.  
 
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r ranson wrote:

Anthony Dougherty wrote:Has anyone tried sunflower stem? Supposedly there was a native tribe that used sunflower for almost everything, I'm interested in trying it but figured I'd ask if others have tried it first



I've read that they make an amazing texture.  My sunflowers are 12 feet tall and have thick stems.  I've tried retting the stem, but because the stem is so thick, it took longer than I thought and degraded the fibre.  Maybe pealing the 'bark' and then retting or boiling with some soda ash might do the trick.  It's supposedly very strong.  



Did you soak it? I know flax has to be soaked to begin biological breakdown
 
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I know flax has to be soaked to begin biological breakdown





Um... soaking is one way to do it.  It's not the only way.   Here's a bit about retting and flax.

Inside the flax straw are golden fibres.  These are the phylum, or circulatory system of the plant (some plants you use a structural element for fibre, like in the case of sisal or jute).  The individual fibres are affixed to the woody pith and the hard outer shell of the flax straw with several types of glue, the most notable is pectin.  Yep, that's the stuff in Jam.

We can remove the fibres through purely mechanical means.  This is most often in modern-day manufacturing (especially hemp).  Some methods also use chemicals to dissolve the glues and make separating the fibres easier.

But the simplest and most natural way of removing the glues is retting.  Retting is basically a kind of controlled rot.  We create an environment where bacteria, fungi, and other invisible beasties eat the glues that hold the fibre in place.  

Water retting - involves submerging the straw in water and inviting anaerobic (dislikes air) bacteria to do the job.  This is quite damaging to waterways and is banned in many places.  If you water ret, please water down the wastewater (1 part wastewater to 10 parts fresh water) to avoid killing plants, fish, or harming humans.  

Dew retting - is a much easier way to ret.  This involves laying the straw on the grass so that the morning dew moistens the straw and invites aerobic (air loving) invisible beasties to come and eat the glues.
(there's a really great book about flax coming out soon that might interest you.)


Soaking is one way, but there are yet others.

For nettles, some people strip the bark (with the fibres) while the plant is green, then process just the bark. It's easier, space saving, and faster.

I think sunflowers would be the same way.  The ones I grew this year have a stem that is 1-6 inches across, so it's difficult to ret the stems evenly.  They are also over 12 feet tall, so I don't know where I could ret more than a handful of stems.  Smaller plants would be easier to water ret.

I've tried soaking and dew retting sunflowers, but so far no luck.  The fibres are there, but they break easily, not like how others describe it.  It could be the time of year, the conditions I'm retting, or more likely, the kind of sunflower I'm working with is too large.


Of course, what works in one location, works differently in another.  The best way to find out what works for you is to experiment.
 
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Anthony Dougherty wrote:Has anyone tried sunflower stem? Supposedly there was a native tribe that used sunflower for almost everything, I'm interested in trying it but figured I'd ask if others have tried it first



Those were water retted in streams, The fibers are similar to flax and hemp.
Sunflower stalks are strong enough to be used for making flutes when properly dried whole.
 
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r ranson wrote:


Um... soaking is one way to do it.  It's not the only way.   Here's a bit about retting and flax.

Inside the flax straw are golden fibres.  These are the phylum, or circulatory system of the plant (some plants you use a structural element for fibre, like in the case of sisal or jute).  The individual fibres are affixed to the woody pith and the hard outer shell of the flax straw with several types of glue, the most notable is pectin.  Yep, that's the stuff in Jam.

We can remove the fibres through purely mechanical means.  This is most often in modern-day manufacturing (especially hemp).  Some methods also use chemicals to dissolve the glues and make separating the fibres easier.

But the simplest and most natural way of removing the glues is retting.  Retting is basically a kind of controlled rot.  We create an environment where bacteria, fungi, and other invisible beasties eat the glues that hold the fibre in place.  

Water retting - involves submerging the straw in water and inviting anaerobic (dislikes air) bacteria to do the job.  This is quite damaging to waterways and is banned in many places.  If you water ret, please water down the wastewater (1 part wastewater to 10 parts fresh water) to avoid killing plants, fish, or harming humans.  

Dew retting - is a much easier way to ret.  This involves laying the straw on the grass so that the morning dew moistens the straw and invites aerobic (air loving) invisible beasties to come and eat the glues.
(there's a really great book about flax coming out soon that might interest you.)


Soaking is one way, but there are yet others.

For nettles, some people strip the bark (with the fibres) while the plant is green, then process just the bark. It's easier, space saving, and faster.

I think sunflowers would be the same way.  The ones I grew this year have a stem that is 1-6 inches across, so it's difficult to ret the stems evenly.  They are also over 12 feet tall, so I don't know where I could ret more than a handful of stems.  Smaller plants would be easier to water ret.

I've tried soaking and dew retting sunflowers, but so far no luck.  The fibres are there, but they break easily, not like how others describe it.  It could be the time of year, the conditions I'm retting, or more likely, the kind of sunflower I'm working with is too large.


Of course, what works in one location, works differently in another.  The best way to find out what works for you is to experiment.



Ok well please keep me updated! This is something I'm very interested in!

 
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