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Sustainable design finds inspiration in historic project

Professor Trudy Landgren with the capelet she created from milkweed floss.
Professor Trudy Landgren with the capelet she created from milkweed floss.
Photo by Andy Ferron.

Assistant Professor Trudy Landgren '72 and her fashion merchandising and apparel design students traveled to the East Coast in 2006 to study the historical development of the fashion and apparel industry. At the time she couldn't predict that she was laying her creative path for the next three years.

One memorable stop was at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum in Massachusetts that has extensive archives devoted to the evolution of colonial fashion. A docent brought out a late 1700s capelet constructed of a “mystery fabric” for the group to identify.

Not even a pack of fashionistas could name it. Much to their collective surprise, the garment was created from the floss of milkweed, a familiar native plant that grows its seeds and produces floss in follicles or pods. A creative spark went off in Landgren’s mind.

“It got me wondering why this person chose this material to make the garment," she says. "Is fashion the mother of invention?”

A proponent of sustainable fashion design (St. Kate’s fashion and apparel program is leading-edge in this movement), Landgren was drawn to the use of an existing natural material in creating the capelet.

“I had to see how it was to work with this fiber,” she says. She decided her only course was to recreate the garment herself, not only to help her get into the head of the original crafter but to keep her own fashioning fingers nimble.

Creating with milkweed
Milkweed floss presents specific challenges to the artisan. It cannot be spun like silk, wool or cotton as it has no cohesive characteristics. One needs to get creative in the construction.

Landgren began by collecting milkweed pods wherever she could find them (luckily, milkweed is quite common in Minnesota). She used a total of 189 pods, freezing the extra pods until she was ready to work with them.

Landgren would select the longest, most desirable segments of floss from the pods and stitch them onto a layer of fabric, building a new piece of material.

“I would work for about two hours and then I just had to get away from the project,” Landgren says. “I developed a whole new understanding of the time that went into creating textiles and fabrics in the pre-industrial revolution.”

In the spirit of sustainability, the milkweed floss was attached to a base structure made from the interlining of an old coat. The tie that secures the capelet around the neck and the lining that finishes the interior of the capelet were constructed of leftover fabric from a wedding dress.

In the end, the capelet took more than 300 hours to create. One might suspect from seeing the finished product that it is made of an exotic fur or feather. Milkweed floss is more insulating than goose down, so it is practical as outerwear as well.

Landgren had the chance to share her newly created textile with fellow fashion mavens at the 2009 conference of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences last June in Knoxville, Tenn.

With a conference theme of “Celebrating the Past, Sustaining the Future,” the capelet was a hit at the juried art show. Landgren also presented a session on incorporating sustainability into apparel science curricula.

St. Kate’s and sustainability
The spirit of creative ingenuity and use of existing materials employed in the creation of the capelet is apparent daily in St. Kate's fashion and apparel program. Students learn to extend the life of a garment by repurposing a dress or coat into a new piece, sometimes merging two existing pieces into one new one.

St. Kate’s students and alumnae make up a large portion of the designers in “Second Runway,” an eco-friendly fashion show produced by Goodwill Industries. Textile students also conduct ongoing research on sustainability in textiles, including recent research into the use of spider silk in making an extremely strong, durable material.

Social awareness is also key in the work of the department. Donated fabric from the American Sewing Guild is fashioned and sewn into T-shirts by students and donated to local charitable organizations such as People Serving People, local nursing homes and the YWCA.

“We want our students to realize that there is a social responsibility in apparel design and merchandising,” Landgren says.

Nov. 6, 2009 by Eric Johnson

See also: Arts, Faculty, Liberal Arts, Students