Guest post by Julie Anne Eason
In a long-term survival situation, eventually you’re going to have to figure out how to stay warm using natural insulators. A trip down to your neighborhood high-tech outfitter just isn’t going to cut it. Learning how to make your own warm clothing and blankets is the best way to ensure you and your loved ones are cozy during the colder months.
One of nature’s best insulators is milkweed floss, that puffy white stuff that blows through the fields in the fall. Common milkweed grows primarily east of the Rocky Mountains. You can find it along side roads, in abandoned lots and in uncultivated fields. By mid-September, you’ll start seeing the telltale fluffs floating through the air. That’s when you know the pods are fully formed and ready to be collected.
General Henry Dearborn gave this account of milkweed use in the Massachusetts Horticultural Register in the late 1820’s:
“The silk, when taken from the pods, and being freed from the seed, is hung up in thin bags in the sun, and when perfectly dry may be used without any further preparation, instead of feathers, horse hair, wool or cotton, for cushions, bolsters, pillows, mattresses; and coverlets. From eight to nine pounds is sufficient for a bed, bolster, and two pillows. It is lighter and warmer, when used in forming coverlets comforters than cotton, or wool, and nearly equal to eider down.”
Whatever you do, don’t waste time trying to collect the loose floss. You’ll go mad trying to collect just a tiny bit. It takes a lot of floss to make up a quilt or jacket, so you need a better plan. The smart way is to collect the pods when they’re still closed. Just break them off the stem. The plant gets its name from the milky white liquid you’re going to get on your hands as you do this. It’s sticky because there’s a tiny bit of latex in the milk. Collect as many pods as you can–barrels full, if possible. The more floss you have, the warmer you’ll be in the coming months.
Next, you need to dry the pods in a non-windy environment. A greenhouse or warm boiler room works nicely. Spread them out on an old sheet or tarp so they all dry evenly. Wet pods will just rot, and that’s not useful. It takes a day or two for the pods to dry fully and crack open releasing the floss. When they open, the pods will look like beautiful birds in full plumage. Each white puff of floss will have a brown seed attached to it. The good news is you don’t need to remove all the seeds, if you don’t want to. They’re small and brittle, so they’ll break down naturally over time.
When you’ve got some time, take the pods one by one and scoop out the floss into a cloth bag (I use a pillowcase.) Do this slowly and someplace where there’s no wind. Even the slightest movement is going to make some of the fluff want to fly away. Don’t stress over catching every stray, just try to keep most of the floss in your bag. You can save the dried pods for crafts of fire starter. My kids love making little boats out of them and floating them down nearby streams.
So, what do you do with this bag of fluff you’ve harvested? You can use it anyplace you would normally see goose down or quilt filling. Because it likes to fly away so easily, milkweed floss is best stuffed into pre-quilted fabric. Just sew channels into your blanket or jacket and then stuff the floss in. Tap it down gently with a stick to really pack in as much warmth as you can. Once you fill a channel, seal it off immediately with some quick hand stitching and move on to the next one. When all your channels are full, then you can go back and add in some fancy quilting, if you like. The key is to secure the fluff before it flies away.
Although it’s not talked about much, the humble milkweed floss is used even today as hypoallergenic pillow stuffing. And during World War II, it was used to stuff life vests because its waxy coating provides some floatation properties. Part of survival means knowing how to use what’s in your immediate surroundings to make your life more comfortable. If you live where milkweed is plentiful, collecting the pods now could mean a much warmer future.
Julie Anne Eason is a freelance web writer specializing in craft and sewing topics. She enjoys dreaming up new projects and creating web pages like her recent review of the Brother CS6000i sewing machine.