What is milkweed floss and how can it be used in sustainable fashion?

What is milkweed floss and how can it be used in sustainable fashion?

It might sound like something out of a Roald Dahl novel, but make no mistake: milkweed floss is real – and it might be the sustainable material the fashion industry is looking for.

Made up of gossamer-like strands, which grow in the seed pods of  a North American plant, it can be used to stuff coats as a vegan alternative to down or feathers.

Even if it’s not exactly widespread just yet, there are plenty of reasons why the fashion industry should be taking notice of milkweed floss.

Here’s what you need to know about milkweed floss, which is incredibly warm and has a surprising relationship with butterflies…

What is milkweed floss?

A monarch butterfly (iStock/PA)
A monarch butterfly (iStock/PA)

Milkweed floss is the soft, candyfloss-looking material found in the pods of the milkweed plant. It looks a bit like the white bits of a dandelion, and is also known as silkweed, thanks to its silky strands.

You might not have heard of milkweed, but you’ve definitely heard of monarch butterflies – and these insects rely upon the plant to survive. According to the US Forest Service, milkweed is the host plant for the monarch butterfly, and states: ‘Without milkweed, the larva would not be able to develop into a butterfly.’

Unfortunately, in many places milkweed is considered a weed and is sprayed with pesticides. As a result, the monarch butterfly population is in decline.

If the fashion industry created a greater demand for milkweed and more of the plant was grown (or at least, less was destroyed), the butterfly’s population could improve. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, milkweed also supports honey bees and other pollinators, which are key to food production.

Why is milkweed floss good?

Milkweed floss is vegan and sustainable. Unlike many vegan materials out there, it’s found naturally and doesn’t involve synthetic materials, which might have been made using petroleum.

One of its most powerful properties is its buoyancy and how well it floats. In fact, it has such good flotation properties, it was even used by the US army during World War Two to make life jackets.

It’s super-warm too. According to the Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide, milkweed floss is six times lighter and warmer than wool, making it an attractive proposition to line coats with, as a little would go a long way.

This study looked into using milkweed floss as insulation in jackets. While it doesn’t recommend 100% milkweed floss (as it can get lumpy after cleaning), the scientists suggested using 50% milkweed and 50% down or feathers could provide the best result. It also says manufacturers might be keen on using milkweed floss as it’s ‘marketed for about one-half the price of goose down’, and prices might go down further as production increases.

Are people using milkweed floss?

Right now, it’s not like you can just go to the shops and buy a jacket insulated with milkweed floss – but more and more designers and scientists are looking into how the material could potentially be used in sustainable fashion.

A new designer called Alayna Rasile has been working with milkweed floss. A graduate student in the Montana State University School of Art, she told the university’s website how she uses it in her label, May West. She says: “We were completely taken by the silky milkweed fluff. We were interested in what we could do with it.”

Rasile is particularly interested in three tenants of milkweed: migration (essentially how it helps butterflies), flotation and thermoregulation (maintaining heat). She is working on making an outdoor jacket which incorporates milkweed and is free of microplastics.

Milkweed floss is only grown in North America. If it becomes a worldwide phenomenon, the environmental cost of shipping to other countries would also have to be taken into account.

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