Foraged Fiber, Week Ending 12/8/2019

My primary concern about a post-cheap-oil-future has always been food. Since I am the primary food provider in our house (planning, grocery shopping, cooking, etc), my first thought about a lower energy life is How will I feed my family?

Lately I have started contemplating the medicinal aspects of this possible future as well, although I have way more to learn about herbal, fungal and wild medicines.

And then I wondered… what would we wear? 

I’ve mentioned in passing the problems with modern textiles. Artificial fibers made with petroleum products. Natural fibers that can only be grown at commercial scale due to industrial pesticides and fertilizer. Synthesized chemical dyes. World-wide shipping from locations where labor is pennies on the dollar for maximum profit when garments are sold in upscale first world shopping centers. All of which comes screeching to a halt if oil prices should skyrocket in some distant (or not so distant) future.

Then what would we wear? 

Luckily North America has plenty of domestically available fibers. Sheep and alpaca farms flourish near my home, so wool should still be available. But silk? Cotton? Linen? I am not so sure. 

I recently realized there are wild fibers as well. Including my own dearest wild edible, milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The latest issue of the magazine Spin Off featured an article that offered a tantalizing hint of the possibilities. The milkweed silk – the tassels allowing the seeds to drift through the air in search of new fertile ground – can be blended with wool and spun into fiber.  How could I resist?

Let me assure you, I really should have resisted.

The first step in spinning with milkweed silk is to separate the seeds from the hairs. I gathered a few milkweed pods in late fall to harvest the seeds for my own personal milkweed crop. So I had plenty of silk for a sample.

Freeing milkweed seeds from the pods
Freeing milkweed seeds from the pods

Problem is, milkweed fluff (much like dandelions) catches in the slightest breeze and drifts up, up and away. Even more so once the weight of the seed has been removed. Any sneezing, coughing, or nervous laughter launched a million fine fibers skyward. Er, ceiling-ward. Because I was smart enough to do this particular task indoors. 

With a cold.

Sneezing, coughing and nervous laughter were thus unavoidable.

My entire house is covered with tiny tufts of white milkweed silk. Like the latest trend in interior design. Like instead of fake snow for holiday decorations, I went for something – you know – fluffier. Like my living room carpet will never, ever be a solid color again.
Me being me, I stubbornly soldiered on. I ended up with a shoebox worth of milkweed, which I figured would be plenty.

Milkweed silk, minus the seeds
Milkweed silk, minus the seeds

The article’s author said she blended the milkweed floss in a 20-80 ratio with wool. To achieve the same (or similar) I weighed out my milkweed fibers, only to find – after a morning’s work – I had 3 grams to show for my trouble. (Because the rest clung to my upholstery.) In order to achieve the same ratio, I dug up 12 grams of merino, and set to work blending the wool and milkweed silk. Without breathing. Or sneezing, coughing or laughing.

Using hand cards to blend milkweed fiber and merino wool
Using hand cards to blend milkweed fiber and merino wool

Using my hand cards, I followed the author’s approach of sandwiching the milkweed silk between layers of wool to tame the milkweed’s desperate need to escape. (If you are unfamiliar with fiber processing, suffice to say that hand cards can be used to blend fibers in a light, airy way that is ideal for spinning warm and soft yarns.) Unfortunately, 12 grams of merino is much more dense than 3 grams of milkweed, so I used it up faster than I expected. I needed to blend even more to incorporate all that milkweed silk.

Milkweed silk trying to escape
Milkweed silk trying to escape

How did it all turn out? I can’t tell you! I just started this project today, and hope to be done spinning the samples by next week. I already know one thing I wish I had done differently. Since both fibers were white, the milkweed doesn’t show clearly in the blend. A colored wool would have done a better job highlighting the presence of the milkweed.

Stay tuned!

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