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Cattails Plants Against The Cold

The author describes how to collect cattail plants and use their fluff as a free insulating material in hand-sewn garments.

| July/August 1980

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    Choose a calm day to go harvesting and wait for a spell of dry weather to avoid a sackful of sodden stuffing. Cattails that have not yet scattered their seed to the wind are best. Just snap the stem below the 'tail. BELOW',
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    A late autumn stand of fuzzy cattail plants backlit by the setting sun.
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    The author models her first sewing project, a warm and attractive "down" vest that was assembled for a total cost of under $10!
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    The free stuffing right from the stalk.

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Despite the fact that plenty of warm summer days are still ahead, it's never too early to prepare for the icy winter blasts to come ... and one of the best "cold resisters" available is goose down, when packed into jackets, vests, comforters, and sleeping bags.

Yet anyone who's shopped for such articles lately will be well aware of the high prices that feather insulation brings. In fact, even synthetic fibers such as Dacron aren't much less expensive ... and are heavier, bulkier, and less compress able than is prime goose or duck down, as well! There is, however, a near-perfect solution to the soaring cost of clothing fillers: the "cotton" from cattail plants is a proven insulation that's free, widely distributed, and light in weight.

A Cattail "Catalog"

The idea of putting mature cattail spikes to use is nothing new. Members of several native American tribes once used the soft fluff to line such items as moccasins and papoose boards. Later on, pioneers employed the down when stuffing quilts and dolls, dressing wounds, and providing tinder for fires sparked by flint and steel.

You may be surprised to know, though, that almost every part of the Typha latifolia plant has been found to be useful at one time or another. The stems once served as candlewick holders, the leaves will make fine woven chair seats, and (as any wild plant forager can tell you) the stems, pollen, spikes, shoots, and roots can—at different times of the year—be prepared as tasty and nutritious food. 

However, the potential of cattail down as an inexpensive but quality alternative to waterfowl feathers was recognized (briefly) only during World War II, when shortages and embargoes forced the warring nations to seek substitutes for traditional materials. Since the compacted fluff was found to have excellent heat- and sound-insulating properties, for example, the Germans used boards made of compressed cattail fibers in construction. Prior to the war, the United States had imported 90% of its kapok supply from the Dutch East Indies (in the days before the introduction of man-made fillers, the tropical plant fiber was an important padding in such items as life jackets and mattresses). When the islands fell to the Japanese, our kapok supply was cut off ... and some form of replacement had to be found immediately.

It was then that a Chicago company began to substitute cattail cotton in furniture cushions and baseballs. Soon afterward, the Navy decided to look into the possibility of using the fuzzy heads of the aquatic weed in life belts and aviation jackets. Sure enough, a wartime water-resistance test demonstrated that even after 100 hours of submersion, the "swamp down" was capable of maintaining buoyancy. So, cattail fluff (along with milkweed down) was briefly seen as a "war effort resource."

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