You don't have to spend $20 a pound for goose down—or even know much about the intricacies of stitchery—to make a jacket, an inexpensive, toasty parka. First, however, you'll have to locate a plot of land that contains a big patch of milkweed plants (genus Asclepias). Then—just before the first hard frost—gather a few grocery bags full of the perennials' seedpods. These will yield a pound or more of lightweight, water-resistant insulation to help protect you against the coming winters chilling snow, ice, and bluenose winds.
A Milkweed Primer
The value of milkweed seed as an insulating material has been recognized for a good many years. During America's colonial days, for instance, the silken fibers were used to stuff pillows and comforters. Yet with the exception of a brief period during World War II, when school children collected the pods for use in military life jackets, this nation's supply of the valuable plants has been largely ignored.
When you take a close look at the plant's tiny "parachutes," you'll see that they're very similar in structure to goose down. Both the vegetable and animal "fluffs" consist of numerous fibers that radiate from a central core And—while goose insulation tends to be the denser of the two materials—milkweed plumes are composed of longer filaments. Furthermore, once you've collected a small supply, you'll see that the "weed fiber" springs back after being crushed with much of the same resilience (also called "loft") which gives goose down its insulative quality.
Better yet, milkweed "cotton" is both free and a whole lot easier to come by than is goose down. The demand for the latter material has made it difficult to find, while milkweed plants can be located in any number of fields, fence rows, railroad right-of-ways, and vacant lots. Or—if you'd like a large supply of the seedpods and have a little extra land—you could even collect enough wild seeds this year to establish your very own milkweed farm!
However, most folks won't want to wait through another round of seasons to collect some free-for-the-taking jacket stuffer. Now's the time to get out and gather wild milkweed pods for both this year's projects and next spring's garden!
The first step, of course, is to locate your foraging grounds. It should go without saying that you'll want to seek permission rather than trespass on anyone's property. (Most landowners will be all too glad to let you gather their milkweed if you've been courteous enough to ask).
Should you happen to remember any areas where milkweed grew in the past, you can pretty much count on finding the hearty plants still present. Of course, you might have to share your harvest with wide-food enthusiasts who rejoice in the asparagus-like flavor of the tender shoots or the okra-ish tang of the young green pods. Milkweed is far from an endangered species, though, so there'll likely be more than enough plants to go around.
You'll have to keep a close eye on your "hunting grounds"—beginning a few weeks before the projected frost date—in order to pick the pods while they're still moist and green but just on the verge of drying out. Gather about four grocery bags full of pods in order to be sure of having enough insulation for one jacket. (Use paper rather than plastic bags, because the latter will trap moisture and, in a shot time, cause the milkweed to rot)
It's best to shell the pods—and separate the seeds from their gossamer filaments—immediately after gathering. Simply hold a pod so that its central seam is on top and the narrow end is facing you. Split the shell along the seam and scoop out the contents, then hold the plumes between your thumb and forefinger and rub your other thumb over the seeds to break them away from the still-damp fluff.
You'll find that the kernels will fall off of green-pod filler easily, while older and drier "fruits" will have fluffed up enough to make seed removal less efficient. Fortunately, however, any seeds that you miss at this stage can be shaken down to the bottom of the bag which will hold your drying down and removed as you stuff your jacket, vest, mittens, or other warm snugglies.
A Ready-Made Down Jacket
Once the bagged down is fully dried and has developed its "loft," you'll be ready to start sewin' up a jacket. This part of the operation should be a snap for any experienced seamster or seamstress whether working from scratch or using one of the parka kits that are commercially available.
However, if advanced stitchery is above and beyond your ability, you can (as I do) simply buy a lined nylon "trainer's jacket", open its bottom seam, and stuff the garment with milkweed down, enclosing the insulation in little sewn compartments as you go! (The lightweight, cotton-lined jackets are available in most clothing and sporting goods stores for somewhere between $6.00 and $8.00.)
Use large stitches for sealing the down in your "pockets" (the eight-stitches-to- an-inch setting on most sewing machines will work well) and stuff each pouch very full, as the down will settle a bit when in use. Be sure, too, that all the milkweed-filled compartments are sewn completely shut in order to prevent the fibers from leaking out of one section and into an adjoining pouch.
It's also quite easy—though not necessary—to modify the pointed collar of your filled trainer's jacket into the short, vertical style that's generally seen on store-bought down parkas. Simply fold under each point, turn the collar under, too, and sew it in half.
Finally, if your jacket came with snap closures rather than a zipper, you'll probably want to supplement the fasteners with a strip of Velcro to assure a tight front seal.
That's all there is to it, except—as you brave the storms of the coming winter snugly wrapped in your new milkweed creation—to give an occasional thanks to Mother Nature for another marvelously free gift.
More Milkweed Magic
Once you've located a stand of Asclepias, you'll want to visit the patch often. As noted above, this generous plant can provide good spring and summer eatin' and still produce enough down for your autumn stitchery projects! (It's important, however, to positively identify the milkweed before eating any part because butterfly weed—A. tuberosa, which resembles the edible plant but lacks milky sap and has orange, rather than pink flowers—is poisonous.)
If you'd like to learn more about milkweed eats, pick up a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons (David McKay Company) at any good bookstore.