Sunday, November 30, 2014

REWIND: Milkweed and Churndash Variation

Welcome to my first edition of REWIND where I bring you posts from the past! Today we are revisiting a post from August 2013. I chose this post because it is something that I've had in my scrap book for many years and I've often thought about giving it a try! Maybe this summer I'll finally harvest some milkweed pods and dry it out!

Milkweed and Churndash Variation

The milkweed plants are forming their seed pods now. Once they ripen we will pick the pods so that they don't spread their seed.

A lot of people remove the milkweed from their gardens but we let them grow because they have lovely sweet smelling flowers that attracts insects but more importantly they are the primary food source for the monarch butterfly caterpillar. The milkweed plant can be eaten by people too! And the milky sap has medicinal properties. Supposedly it is good for getting rid of warts!

All this is very interesting stuff so you are probably asking yourself what does milkweed have to do with quilting? Plenty!

When milkweed pods ripen the burst open and inside are small dark seeds attached to a bit of silky fluff which acts like a parachute to carry the seed away from the parent seed and hopefully it will find purchase in new soil. The silky fluff has long been used for a variety of purposes. It is naturally buoyant so it can be used for flotation devices. First nations peoples used it to line diapers and the pioneers used it to stuff mattresses, comforters and pillows. It can also be spun and used for knitting. And for us quilters, the silky fluff can be used for batting.

I have a binder where I store interesting articles related to quilting. Back in November 1993 there was an article by Frances Eckhardt  in Quilters Newsletter Magazine (page 32) and it was titled Nature's Quilt Batt.  

Frances wrote that she collects the pods in a large bag. She processes the fluff in a draft free area. She splits the pods to release the fluff. She removes any twigs or unwanted bits and then puts the fluff in a pillowcase or a paper bag to dry for several days to several weeks. A plastic bag should not be used because the fluff is damp and will mildew. The final step is to separate the fluff from the seeds. To do this she takes small batches of fluff and puts it in a plastic bag. She blows air into the bag before closing it like a balloon. She bounces the bag and the seeds will release from the fluff and fall into the corner. Now the fluff is ready to be used. She wrote that she lays the fluff out on the quilt back to the desired thickness and then covers it with the quilt top. It is closely basted with a needle and thread. Frances recommends close quilting because the fibres are not bonded as with commercial batts.

She writes that she has used milkweed batt successfully in many sizes of quilts and that they have withstood multiple machine washings in cold water with a gentle detergent. The fluff didn't bunch, shift or ball all!

So there you have it - if in September you find yourself in need of a quilt batt and it isn't in the budget, take a walk in a meadow and harvest some milkweed pods!

Yesterday I showed you how I make my 3" churn dash blocks. A variation on that block is to swap out the corner half square triangles for 1 1/2" squares (includes the seam allowance). The finished block will look like these blocks! 

Well I've got hundreds of tiny hourglass blocks to make so just like this little fellow in the picture below, I had better hop to it!

UPDATEThere have been several comments about milkweed and I believe it is a North American plant. It is a dietary staple for monarch butterflies in the larval stage. In addition to using the fibres from the seed pods for quilt batts they also have another important application. They are an absorbent that can be used to clean up oil spills! Milkweed fibres absorb oil but repel water and that makes them unique! The fibres are four times more absorbent than polypropylene which is the artificial product currently used in oil spills. Because they are more absorbent this means less material is required making them more cost effective than the alternative. A co-operative of 20 farms has been set-up in the province of Quebec and they will grow 325 hectares of milkweed. Maybe commercially made milkweed quilt batts will be in our future!

I hope you've enjoyed this issue of REWIND!  Until I post again, happy sewing!

Karen H


  1. What an interesting article, I had heard dandelion milk was also good for warts. I'm not sure what milkweed is never heard of it and not sure if we have here in NZ
    Thank you for a great post.

  2. K
    aren, my DIL volenteers in an envirlmental centre. She has the butterfly house to look after, there she has the Milkweed plant with the stripped caterpillers that will eventually turn into the Monarch butterfyl. Just yesterday I was there helping out during an open day there to raise funds.
    I shall pass on your blog link to her.

  3. How interesting Karen. Will have to look out for this plant. I don't know it,

  4. thanks for sharing the milkweed fluff idea -- I grow it, too for my local monarchs and never knew that it had stitchery applications!!

  5. Well what an interesting article and post. I have never heard of Milkweed either but doubt it grows over here in UK. When doing my Stone Age research for a topic box I learnt that our bulrush, your cattail plant, not only has edible roots that stone agers ate, but that they ground down the fluff from the mature spikes and used it as a flour. I wondered then if they ever used the fluff for padding of some sort, tho guess food would be more important.

  6. Thanks for this very interesting post!

  7. I suppose this is one of the natural products quilters of years ago used to use when commercial batting wasn't available or was too expensive. Good to hear that it's still used today.