Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bast Fibers

Bast fiber
of several strong, woody fibers, as flax, hemp, ramie, or jute, obtained from
phloem tissue and used in the manufacture of woven goods and cordage.*

I've been wanting to blog about this for a while now, since last summer actually. I spent the better part of last summer researching various bast fibers. I focused primarily on the fibers that could, in theory, be found growing wild in my own backyard and at some point in time, if deemed appropriate, could be planted the spring of 2011.

I was lucky, and found most of what I was after. I was unable to find any flax (bummer I know) but I did find plenty of stinging nettles, milkweed and another, typical to my area, wild fiber plant. ;o)

Yes, you read that right, I said milkweed in that sentence, and I am NOT talking about the fluff from the pods, but the actual bast fibers in the stalk. Frankly I had no idea the common milkweed plant could be a source of spinable bast fibers but all that research I did led me to the studies done by Prof. Yiqi Yang at the University of Nebraska, and lo and behold he was optimistic regarding the extraction and characteristics of fibers from the common milkweed.

Prof. Yang concluded:
Stems of milkweed plants have been used to obtain natural cellulose fibers with better strength and elongation that the milkweed floss fibers. Milkweed stem fibers have high cellulose content but low % crystallinity. The fibers have strength similar to cotton and elongation higher than that of linen fibers. The modulus and moisture regain of the milkweed stem fibers is between that of cotton and linen. Overall, the milkweed stem fibers have properties required for high value textile, composite, and other fi- brous applications. Utilizing the milkweed stems for high quality natural cellulose fibers will add value and make milkweed a more useful fiber plant.**

Sounds promising doesn't. :o)

I did a lot of trial and error experiments in regard to retting the various plants, mostly field retting and a little pond retting, and I tried a few other things I thought might work (I still have a few other tricks up my sleeve to try). Some methods were successful showing promise right away, some not so successful leaving me with some sticky and/or stinky masses of goo, and some methods have yet to be proven. It is some of the yet to be proven experiments that I'm showing today.

These bast fiber stalks have been standing in the Southwest corner of my patio since last summer/fall. Pictured are what one would typically find growing wild here in the Midwest, stinging nettle, common milkweed, and that other bast fiber whose name escapes me. Some of the bundles in the pic were field retted, some were split, bundled and then stood in the corner and some were just bundled and stood in the corner. I also learned from my research that in the Scandinavian countries they often just bundle and stand the stalked out in the elements for the winter. It sounded easy enough so I gave that a try too. The constant freeze thaw cycle with lots of snow/moisture does all the work of releasing the fibers, our winter here this year has been perfect, for that method.

I think I got a good amount of fiber release. The first pic is milkweed the second is nettle. There is still a lot of moisture in all the stalks so I can't do much with any of it, but I did bring in this tiny bit just to play a little.

Tonight I'm going to see what the next step needs to be. I have all the typical implements of fiber destruction extraction and others I think will work better for my experiments and fibers so it's play time. I can't wait any longer it's been a looooong 6 months of wondering if all my efforts last summer hold any promise or were just a fun way to past the time.

I will be gathering fiber plants again this year, and I also intend to plant a plot of flax and one of cotton. I know I'm really pushing the limits of a long enough growing season for cotton, but a friend said she had some good results one summer when she planted cotton along her garage. It can't hurt to try.

I've been considering growing (?) raising (?) some silk worms too. I have the mulberry, why not? I've tried silk worms once before without any success, but I do know what I did wrong. This time there are other factors to consider, namely Ben and Ida. I'm not so sure I'd be able to keep the animals away from a bunch of munching worms. The sound would drive them crazy.

*excerpt from
**excerpt from Biological Systems Engineering: Papers and Publications
University of Nebraska - Lincoln Year 2009
"Extraction and characterization of natural cellulose fibers from common milkweed stems"
Narendra Reddy Yiqi Yangy