We are on the other side of winter where I live along the temperate Salish Sea, in the Pacific Northwest of North America. I’m thinking about the many people in harsh weather conditions today, even while I watch the Annas Hummingbird gathering fluffy anemone seed right out my window, one tiny beakful at a time.
The little bird reminds me that last October I took these pictures to share with you. Another one of my favorite native plants, Epilobium angustifolium, or Fireweed, is a beautiful pink/purple wildflower that grows 3′ to 6′ tall in open areas associated with wetlands, moist forest edges, roadsides and disturbed land. The stem of this plant yields a wonderful bast fiber. Traditionally these fibers have been used by local First Peoples for a long time, spun to make twine for weaving nets, packstraps, rope, clothing or blankets.
The stems of this widespread herbaceaous perennials are gathered in the fall, and processed much like nettles, though some suggest that gathering the fireweed before it blooms yields a softer fiber. Many years ago while visiting the Ancient Arts Center to study willow weaving with Margaret Mathewson, a wonderful artist and professor at Oregon State University, Margaret shared her method of getting the bast fibers from dogbane with me. I am using a similar method to get the fiber from fireweed.
As with nettles, or Indian hemp (dogbane), the woody stem needs to be split open. There are any number of ways to do this and I prefer to walk down the stem. You can hear it crunch. It works best on a hard surface.
Next, open up the stem. You can see that inside is a pithy center, and there is a slightly woody part that gives the plant its ability to stand up all summer and fall.
The part of this plant that I’m interested in is just under the outer bark, next to the woody part. To get to this fiber layer, called the bast fiber, which is like a layer of inner bark on a tree, I first fold the woody stem at a 90 degree angle away from me, which cracks and breaks up the woody layer.
Then pull the woody part away from the bast fiber and discard it.
Keep the thin strong bast fiber and discard any green or woody part.
Working down the stem, fold the inside away at 90 degrees, then pull that woody piece gently away from the bast fiber.
As you get going, a rhthym develops as you start pulling a little on the bast fiber just before you fold the woody center away.
Spinning the fireweed is simply twisting it. It works best if there is a small amount of moisture in the fibers.
How about making some two ply cordage with your fireweed fiber? First build up the energy in the fibers by twisting them the same direction several times, not at one end of the fibers, but near the center of your fibers. Soon you’ll notice that the fibers want to twist back onto themselves.
It was a nice warm day back in October. A bare leg makes a great surface for spinning your cordage in good weather. This is set up for me to spin each element separately towards myself. But you can do the opposite direction if you set up your twist the other way. I’m right handed, so it feels natural for me to spin with my right hand, on my right knee. In this picture, I’m pulling my right hand towards me to spin the fibers. (I’ve recently learned I’d rather set it up so my right hand rolls the fibers away from me!)
What I’m not able to show you, because I am taking this picture with my left hand, is that my left hand really needs to be holding tension, like a little clamp pinching at the left edge where you see the two twisted fibers merging together. It is my left hand that controls the tension and the back-twist that creates the cordage and controls its evenness.
If your leg doesn’t work, you can use your teeth to hold tension and twist with your hands, BUT ONLY IF YOU KNOW THAT THE MATERIALS ARE CLEAN AND FREE OF ANY PESTICIDES! Tension can be made by tying the end of the cordage to a door-knob, chair, table leg, or tree. The cordage can be clamped to something too, but my favorite way to create tension for making cordage in the warm summertime is to put the end between my bare toes.
Of course I didn’t show you how to splice on new pieces, but it is so easy I bet you can figure that out! When sitting outside on the soft earth making cordage, I can literally feel with all my senses how ancient and universal this practice is.
In 1978, when I visited the tiny island of Kvaeoy where my Norwegian grandparents were born and raised, I took this picture just outside Bestefar’s cottage. Yes, fireweed!