Alayna Rasile’s business started with some fluffy stuff someone showed her.

“We were both struck with the magic of it,” she said.

Rasile is a Montana State University art graduate student who recently won $15,000 at the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge in Missoula to help her use milkweed to put out a line of coats under the brand May West.

She said she first became interested in the plant while in an artists’ residency program. A farmer told her she found some on her farm and showed Rasile, who became fascinated with it. The farmer, Charlotte X.C. Sullivan, is a cofounder of May West.

Milkweed is a flowering plant that monarch butterflies rely upon to lay their eggs. When Rasile harvests and dries it in the fall, it forms soft, flossy fibers and can be used for a variety of purposes, including soaking up oil spills and making rubber.

Rasile loved the connection to the monarchs, as she estimates it takes the same amount of milkweed to sustain two butterflies as it does to make the batting for two or three jackets. If more milkweed is produced, it can provide monarchs the habitat they need for successful migration, she said.

“It’s a very beautiful relationship between the butterfly and the milkweed,” she said.

She was also drawn to the plant for its buoyancy. She said she likes to play around with it, wrapping it around rocks to make them float in water.

Milkweed pods were used in life jackets during World War II, she said. The jackets were worn slung over the shoulders and looked like big breasts, so people would call them Mae West jackets, after a famous pinup girl. That’s where the name of Rasile’s brand, May West, comes from.

After some experimentation, Rasile said she realized it would make for good insulation for jackets. While she has certain spots around Bozeman where she’ll pick the plant just to play with it, she has started ordering it in bulk from Nebraska, where it’s grown organically on a farm that doesn’t practice monoculture.

“There’s a point in this project where we’re talking about scale,” she said. “Like, how much milkweed can we actually make?”

Milkweed hasn’t been used in mass quantities yet because there is a cost effectiveness question, she said, but she also thinks people are afraid of change. People will say they tried something in the ‘70s and it didn’t work, but there’s so much more technology now that could help produce textiles in more environmentally conscious ways, she said.

Some of the other materials she’ll use in her jackets include hemp and cupro cotton, which is made from cotton waste.

“My answer is hopefully we cannot rely on it exclusively, but can use it to diversify the local fibershed,” she said.

Rasile is focusing on staying away from synthetic fibers, which contribute to ocean plastic pollution when washed. Her coats are meant more to be streetwear, and are not for people who want coats that are lightweight, dry fast and pack down small.

The coats will be about the same price as a Patagonia jacket, she said, at $200 to $300. Her goal isn’t to grow fast or be a big brand, as she wants to be responsible about how much material she’s putting out into the world, as it requires time, energy and resources to produce clothing.

Though she said her project is an art project at its core, receiving funding has helped push it forward. She is working on making the coats durable, so they are worth their price and hold up well. They’re going to be made in Bozeman and entirely plant-based, deadstock fabric, which is the leftover fabric from textile mills.

“If we put these coats out into the world, they need to be good,” she said.

Abby Lynes can be reached at alynes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.

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