Year of Natural Fibers Series – July: Milkweed

Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibersClick here to learn more about this year’s theme.

Articles written by La Salle graduate and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

July 2019 –  MILKWEED: 

the milkweed plant is key to the life of monarch butterflies

For those who kept up with the Year of the Pollinator blog posts last year, try to remember back to last year’s post about the monarch butterfly, an insect which might be one of the most iconic pollinators out there. For those who didn’t read that post, have no fear – I’ll bring you up to speed. The key plant in the beginning of the monarch’s lifespan is the milkweed plant. It is what the young caterpillars eat after they hatch on the underside of its leave, and it serves as their only source of nutrients as they aim to grow into butterflies. You’d think that because of its highly influential role in keeping monarch populations stable, the milkweed would be important enough. You’re mistaken!

The milkweed plant is being re-introduced this year as a natural fiber, and like the others we’ve looked at, it’s got a pretty fascinating history. First, let’s start with what part of the plant the fiber actually comes from. Housed within the seed pod, milkweed seeds are attached to a fluffy material. This is where the fiber comes from. That fluff for a lack of a better term is comprised of many individual fibers which are quite durable, not to mention hollow, buoyant, wax-coated, waterresistant and hypoallergenic to boot. In addition, they have a cotton like feel, making milkweed fiber a great substitute for some cotton-based products.

milkweed seeds

The US military discovered this during the Second World War. After Japan cut off exports of kapok (another kind of soft, fibrous material used for filling in life vests), the US needed to improvise. So they offered children the opportunity to help the war effort; if a kid could fill an onion bag with milkweed fluff, the government would reward the hard work with fifteen cents. The program was actually very successful, resulting in the stuffing of 1.2 million life jackets.

Today, the fiber can be found in pillow cases, comforters, and even some jackets since it is a soft and hypoallergenic substance. Milkweed fiber is actually a less expensive filler than traditional down, so this plant is paving the way for a more economical way to create every-day items. Hesitant whether to buy a jacket stuffed with milkweed fiber, though? Ask the Canadian Coast Guard for their opinion. The clothing company Quartz is currently testing milkweed insulation in parkas, gloves, mittens and coveralls and having the Canadian Coast Guard give their feedback. Who knows – we might be looking at our next best friend come winter!


Sources:

https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/bitstream/handle/1808/15034/Nehring_jur14.pdf;sequence=1

https://www.mnn.com/money/green-workplace/stories/farmers-milkweed-parkas