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Gabby Goc

Dr. Yiqi Yang


Advanced Textiles
9 December, 2013
Milkweed: A Novelty Fiber
Within the industry, textile scientists are constantly working to come up with new fibers,
new ways to use existing fibers, and especially, finding ways to use common plants and even
weeds to create fibers that are more natural and renewable. Many of these plants are becoming
alternative crops just for the purpose of producing the fibers that go into many different products.
Their fibers are slowly replacing more expensive and less readily available fibers, and Milkweed
is one of these fibers. During World War II, its fibers were used to fill life jackets because the
primary filling material cork, which is about six times less buoyant was in short supply. It
was also used for papermaking, rope, twine, and rubber. For many years it was not used for
much but because it is so abundant all across the country and it is perennial, Milkweed has
recently become a plant of high interest in the textile industry, especially at a company in
western Nebraska. A couple of different types of fibers that can be extracted from the plant
include Milkweed floss and Milkweed stem fibers. Surprisingly, these two fibers do have
somewhat different properties. From these different fibers that can be extracted from the
Milkweed plant, scientists have found several different uses. Milkweed stem fibers are used to
create a bast fiber and Milkweed floss can be used as a loose fill for products such as comforters
and jackets, as well as for oil sorption for oil-spill cleanup, especially in marine and freshwater
situations.

Milkweed is a perennial plant that grows all over the United States, meaning that every
year, it comes back without having to be replanted (3). For the most part, this plant grows wildly
and is spread by natural means. Most consider it a weed. The reason it is so prevalent in almost
every state is because it can adapt to almost any soil condition (3). According to a study done in
2009 by Yiqi Yang and Narendra Reddy of the University of Nebraska Lincoln, Milkweed
requires minimum water, and does the best in dry, arid climates (8). This explains why the plant
is commonly seen throughout Nebraska.
There are many different species of Milkweed, but there are a few that are most
commonly used for fibers. According to a study done in 1991 by Patricia Cox Crews, Shiela
Sievert, and Lisa Woeppel of the University of Nebraska Lincoln, and Elizabeth McCullough
of Kansas State University, Asclepias Syriaca, which is Common Milkweed, and Asclepias
Incarnate, also known as Swampweed, are the two most abundantly used for milkweed floss.
Asclepias Speciosa, which is known as Showy Milkweed, is also very abundant, and it is best
adapted to the western Great Plains. In Nebraska, Common Milkweed and Showy Milkweed are
the most cultivated (3).
A company in Ogallala, Nebraska decided to take advantage of this weeds abundance
and put it to use. They buy harvested milkweed pods from anyone that can supply a minimum of
3,000 lbs. (7) From the plant, Milkweed floss, which is found in the pod of the plant, is harvested
twice a year (8). The seedpods are mechanically processed. They go through a process called
ginning. In Ogallala, the main processing unit is a 1940 John Deere combine along with two
cracked fertilizer tanks, also converted for the processing. A man named George Ragsdale, who
is head of the operations of making a clean floss modified the old combine with a cutting torch.
This allows the floss to be separated from the seed and pod hulls (5). The Milkweed is harvested

with these machines at 70% moisture with the pod still closed. In this process, the pods are
opened and dried in a rolling mill to about 30% moisture. The pods are then taken to The Natural
Fibers Corporation in Ogallala and sold for cash where they are then dried to 10% moisture.
After they are dried to this point, the fibers are extracted. Once this happens, the Nebraskan
company uses the floss for many applications such as a down enhancing agent, nonwoven
blends, and oil absorption (7).
The floss that is extracted from the pod has low density, low elongation and the length is
typically very short at approximately 1 to 3 cm in length (4). This really limits any other possible
end uses because it is not a very high quality fiber. To make it stronger and more usable,
Milkweed floss is commonly blended with cotton to create durable non-woven fabrics. A
positive property of Milkweed floss is that it has a low denier, which means the diameter is
approximately 20 to 50 microns. That is equivalent to .0008 to .002 inches (4). This means it is a
very fine fiber, and therefore has a soft hand (8). On top of its good hand, Milkweed floss also
has extremely good thermal retention (10).
The stem of the Milkweed plant can also be used for fibers. The outside layer of the stalk
is used to produce a bast fiber. It is a solid fiber with great tensile strength. It is also very pliable
(1). Yang and Reddys study found that under weak alkali conditions and low temperatures, the
bark of the Milkweed stem can be extracted. Once extracted it is dipped into a sodium hydroxide
solution at room temperature and left overnight. The next day, the solution is heated to 80C for
30 minutes. The extracted components are then drained and the fibers get washed and air-dried.
After cleaning the fibers, single cells are obtained through a process called maceration. After
that, the single cells are bound together into a bundle with lignin (8).

Fibers from the milkweed stem have a much higher percent of cellulose and lower
percentage of lignin than milkweed floss fibers. Compared to cotton and linen, they have less
cellulose and more lignin (8). These fibers are fairly coarse at about 100 deniers. Because of its
low crystallinity of cellulose (39%), the strength of the fiber is greater than that of Milkweed
floss and similar to cotton and linen. It also has much better elongation than Milkweed floss
does. The durability of Milkweed stem fibers is very similar to the durability of cotton. This
means that overall, it is more durable than Milkweed Floss (8). Even so, both are used in
products. The bast fiber made from the stem are specifically used to replace Manila hemp (1).
Milkweed floss is commonly used as a loose fill for jackets and comforters. It has very
good thermal retention at 10% warmer per unit than down, and it is also hypoallergenic, so many
experts have studied this topic (5). In their study, Sievert found that compressibility and thermal
insulation and cleaning are three of the most important considerations when it comes to a loose
fill. The more compressible a fiber is, the better it conforms to the body. By itself, Milkweed
floss is not very compressible, but when it is blended with down, this improves significantly (3).
Thermal insulation is also very important for obvious reasons: the products are being used for
warmth. The study also found that a 100% Milkweed floss fill actually looses insulation, but
when it is blended with down, the thermal retention is very similar to a 100% down fill (3).
Because jackets and comforters are use regularly, cleaning is also a concern. A 100% Milkweed
floss fill will become matted down, lumpy, and lose thickness, compression and insulation.
Blending the fiber with down fixes this problem and the fill remains at a higher quality for longer
(3). For these reasons, Milkweed floss in usually blended with down. It creates a very flexible
and soft fill material (8, Sievert).

Milkweed floss is also commonly used for oil sorption and the cleanup of oil spills in
marine and freshwater applications. Typically, polypropylene is the fiber of choice with oil spill
cleanup products, but when the spill is in an ocean, river, lake, or other body of water that is
home to aquatic life and vegetation, an environmental issue surfaces. According to an article in
the Journal of Hazardous Materials, these products are known to affect a variety of biological
processes and can be potent cell mutagens and carcinogens (9). Polypropylene is a synthetic
fiber and it is not biodegradable. Although it does an excellent job with cleanup, any material left
in the water will remain there, and if the polypropylene is removed from the water, the oil filled
material that is removed is difficult to dispose of.
Because of the environmental issues with polypropylene, some experts have turned to
Milkweed as an option. Because Milkweed floss is cellulose based, it is biodegradable, and
therefore, any material left in the water will eventually disintegrate on its own. Although it is
biodegradable, the process is very slow. This is good because the oil continues to be absorbed for
a longer period of time. What causes the degradation process to go so slowly is because the
content of cellulose in Milkweed floss is somewhat low at only 55%, therefore cellulose
degrading microbes do not eat away at it as quickly as products with a higher cellulose content
(9). Another advantage of the milkweed floss is that water cannot penetrate the fiber easily. It has
a natural waxy coating on it that makes it water resistant (6). On top of that, the fiber has small
inner pores, which provides high capillary forces. This is very favorable for high oil sorption.
(9). Once the oil has been absorbed, this material is easy to dispose of through either burning or
composting (9). Another option is to reuse the milkweed sorbent, either for the same cleanup or a
future one (9).

Aside from Milkweed fibers being able to enhance fills, replace some fibers, and being
environmentally friendly, it is also a much cheaper alternative. The down that is used by the
company in Ogallala has found that the down used for filling comforters, pillows, jackets, and
other such products ranges in price from $20 to $70/kg. They have also found that they can
produce milkweed floss for considerably less at approximately $17/kg. Eventually, the company
hopes to be able to produce the fiber for $2/kg or less (5) Meltblown polypropylene, which is the
type of polypropylene that is used as an oil sorbent is $13/ kg (2). The Milkweed/cotton blend
used for oil sorbents ranges from $1 to $5/kg. (5). On top of it being a very abundant weed, this
low cost makes the plant highly appealing to the textile industry because it can cut down on costs
tremendously.
Even though Milkweed is cheap and abundant, it has not taken off as a fiber in many
places other than Nebraska. This could be due to the fact that it is still just a weed. It is not
planted and harvested like a typical crop. Corn and soy beans, for example, are planted in
specific fields, cared for, and harvested at the end of the season by farmers each year. Milkweed
has not yet been controlled. It grows in ditches, fields, back yards and everywhere in between. It
is up to people who want to harvest the plant to go find it and take it to Ogallala to sell. If the
products its floss fiber is used for become more popular, Milkweed may become one of the
future crops across America. Not only would this save money due to the fiber being cheap, it
also would not cost a lot to farm. It would possibly be a one-year investment of planting a field
with Milkweed. After that, since the weed is perennial, it will grow back every year until it is
killed off. The weed also would not need a lot of care such as pesticides, irrigation, or any of the
work of tractors because it grows well on its own. In Ogallala, a few farmers have seen this
opportunity and given it a try. The only issues they have faced are problems with weeds and

disease that kill the Milkweed before it is ready to be harvested. A solution to this problem has
not yet been found (5).
Over the past couple of decades, Milkweed as a novel fiber has come a long way. The
plant is notoriously known as a weed found in the ditches throughout the Midwest, but it is
actually found in almost every state across the United States due to its ability to adapt to almost
any soil condition. Recently, a company in western Nebraska decided to take advantage of the
plants abundance and process it into fibers that can enhance and replace other fibers. The
company has local farmers that grow and harvest the plant, bring it in, and then they process it
into products. The stem of the fiber can be produced into a bast fiber, but the floss of the
Milkweed is the main focus. The two main uses of the fiber are to enhance down filling for
comforters, pillows, and jackets, and as a sorbent for oil spills. Compared to the fibers currently
used in these products, Milkweed fiber is considerably less in cost. As research continues and the
Natural Fibers Corporation in Ogallala grows, Milkweed will become more commonly used
novel fiber.

Works Cited
1. Author Unknown
Milkweed at the front.
Herbarist 2008, Issue 74, p91-93. 3p.
2. Brady
What is the real cost of a spill?
2013 http://www.bradyid.com/bradyid/cms/contentView.do/4854/gp.html
3. Cox Crews, P., Sievert, S., and Woeppel, L.
Evaluation of Milkweed Floss as an Insulative Fill Material
Textile Research Journal April 1991. Vol61, no.4, pp.203-210.
4. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Milkweed floss
2013 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/382561/milkweed-floss
5. Herbert D. Knudsen and Richard D. Zeller
The Milkweed Business
April 23, 1997 http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1993/v2-422.html#
6. Matt Damsker and Jill Jesiolowski
Milkweed keeps you warm.
Organic Gardening Mar92, Vol. 39 Issue3, p19.
7. Natural Fibers Corporation
Raw Materials
2001-2013. http://buymilkweed.com/raw_milkweed_materials.html
8. Reddy, Nerendra and Yang, Yiqi
Extraction and characterization of natural cellulose fibbers from common milkweed
stems
Polymer Engineering and Science November 1, 2009, 49:11 pp.2212-2217
9. Rengasamy, R.S., Das, Dipayan, and Praba Karan, C.
Study of oil sorption behavior of filled structured fiber assemblies made from
polypropylene, kapok and milkweed fibers.
Journal of Hazardous Materials Feb2011, Vol 186 Issue 1, p526-532. 7p
10. Western Illinois University.
Milkweed
March 10, 2009. http://www.wiu.edu/AltCrops/milkweed.htm