Balsam fir pillows are a wonderfully fragrant and EASY Christmas DIY! they also make the sweetest handmade gifts!
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The lovely history of balsam fir pillows
Balsam fir pillows have a pretty early history here in North America. From my research, it seems we actually have the local Shaker community right here in the foothills of Maine to thank for their widespread popularity, which was already blossoming by the turn of the last century.
Sister Aurelia Mace was a trustee of the Shaker Society at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. Born in 1835, she was a teacher and author who wrote one of the major works on the Shaker faith, and even corresponded with Tolstoi. In addition, she was a fine craftswoman. Here is a quote I found about Aurelia's role in reviving the popularity of Balsam Fir pillows:
For nearly a quarter of a century beginning in 1856 she taught school for Shaker children. Thereafter, as a Trustee of the Society, Sr. Aurelia turned her attention to developing the nascent fancy goods industry. She introduced new products such as Shaker Lemon Syrup and revived the traditional fir balsam pillow and horse-hair sieve and brush industries.MaineMemory.net
By the early 1900's, Balsam Fir pillows were a being sold as souveniers and mementos from many tourist locations where Balsam thrived. On Mackinac Island, Balsam Fir pillows were even fashioned into postcards, that could be sent through the mail! Check out the photo of this Balsam Fir Pillow Postcard that was mailed from Mackinac Island sometime in the 1810's - I just love tangible bits of history like this. I wish I could smell it!
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN BALSAM FIR PILLOW
It's easy to just stuff some balsam into a fabric covering, but there really is a best way to make a balsam fir pillow, so that the scent is maximized, and the pillow isn't prickly. Here's the best method I've found for making handmade balsam fir pillows.
Start by finding some Balsam Fir
The first step to making a balsam fir pillow is to make sure you're using needles and twigs from a Balsam Fir tree. Look for needles that are flat, about 3/4 long, and dark green in color. The really telltale feature is that the needles are lighter on their under sides, and have light whitish lines - those lines are really distinctive! This site has lots of good tips for positively identifying Balsam Fir.
Gathering balsam fir
One way that people often get balsam branches is by using trimmed boughs from Christmas trees. However, keep in mind that most commercial Christmas tree farms make heavy use of pesticides - not something you want to be putting to your face and sniffing! So unless your tree is from a pesticide-free farm, you may want to head into the woods to source some balsam from a safer supply.
If you're trimming from a live tree, be sure to do it with love, just as you would a tree in your yard. Select a few branches that would do well to be pruned out, and take those. It's much better for the health of the tree to have a few small judicious branches removed, rather than taking the ends of many branch tips.
Preparing the fir needles for pillow-making
This is the most important step in the whole process, in my opinion. And it's the one most often skipped when people make balsam fir pillows at home!
To get the softest, most fragrant, balsam pillows, it's important to "shred" the needles and small twigs, and let them dry before stuffing them into the pillow. Using a sturdy pair of scissors or pruning shears, chop the needles and small twigs into small bits. Aim for each needle being chopped at least in half, if not more. Once the needles and twigs are chopped, spread them to dry.
If you have a dehydrator, this really speeds up the process! Spread the needles on the dehydrator trays, and let it dry on a low setting (about 110°F works well), for 12-18 hours - until the needles are quite dry to the touch.
Trust me that it's really worth the extra time you're putting into preparing your needles! Chopping them releases more essential oils, so they'll smell better, longer. Drying them before stuffing in the pillow helps to both lock in those essential oils while they're freshest, and helps prevent any moisture in the greenery from making your pillow musty inside.
Choosing fabric for your balsam fir pillows
While the needles dry, it's a good chance to make up the pillows, so they'll be all set for stuffing, once the needles are dry. The best fabrics for making balsam fir pillows are natural fibers, with a good tight weave. If you use fabric that's too thin, or has a loose weave, the pointy ends of the needles are bound to work their way out.
Good fabric choices for balsam fir pillows are:
- Strong quilting fabrics
- Chambray or twill
Now print your pattern (if you want to use one)
I really like making my balsam fir pillows small, and I use 4" square fabric for making them. You can print a set of 4 inch square printable templates here. Or, you can use the same site to print any size template you'd like - they have printable patterns in all sizes!
Cut your fabric
Once you have your fabric and template, go ahead and cut out two squares for each pillow. I generally make a big project of this, if I'm going to be chopping and drying balsam, and make up many pillows at a time.
Last Christmas I went a little overboard, and made dozens. I kept them in a basket by the door, and sent them with anyone who came to the house that season. The kids especially loved holding the basket and letting people choose the pillow they liked best!
Sew & stuff your balsam fir pillow
With right sides together, sew up your balsam fir pillow, leaving about 2.5" inches un-sewn, in the middle of one side.
Turn the pillow right side out, and then you're ready to stuff it with the dried balsam. I find that using a small funnel helps with filling each pillow. Stuff them nice and full, leaving enough leeway for stitching the pillow shut.
Once your pillow is full of balsam stuffing, use a needle and thread to stitch shut the opening of the pillow. And you're done!
Here's a concise, printable version of the tutorial:
Handmade Balsam Fir Pillows
- heavy scissors or pruning shears
- Sewing machine (optional)
- dehydrator (optional)
- small funnel (optional)
- balsam fir branches
- needle and thread
- 4" printable quilting template (optional)
Prepare the balsam fir
- Start by finely chopping up the balsam fir needles and small twigs.
- Spread them in a thin layer to dry in for a day or two. OR - spread them on dehydrator trays, and dry at about 100°, for 12-15 hours until fully dry.
Make the pillows
- Print the 4" template linked above (or another size if you prefer a larger or small pillow.)
- Using the template, cut two fabric squares for each pillow.
- With right sides together, sew around the pillow, leaving 2.5" open along the middle of one side.
- Flip pillow right side out.
Fill and finish the pillow
- Fill the pillow with the dried, shredded balsam. A small funnel can help with getting the balsam into the pillow. Leave just enough room to stitch the final seam shut.
- Using needle and thread, securely stitch the opening of the pillow.
Caring for your balsam fir pillow
Balsam fir pillow can last a very, very long time if kept in a cool, dry place. These work beautifully to scent a drawer in your bureau, or closet!
Avoid letting balsam fir pillows get wet. If they get something spilled on them, dry them off immediately. If they really get soaked, it's probably worth opening them up, and removing the balsam so it can fully dry, before stuffing it back in. (Mold spores aren't something to play around with, and evergreen needles can be great at growing mold if they sit damp and enclosed!)
FAQ about balsam fir pillows
How long do Balsam Fir pillows last?
Kept in a cool, dry place, balsam fir pillows can last for years. They'll eventually lose much of their scent, but if you give them a good "squish", you'll be surprised how long they hold onto their smell!
Can people be allergic to balsam fir pillows?
I believe they can. There's been quite a bit of research done about Christmas tree allergies, and while it seems that pine species are more usually the culprits, it's worth being aware that some people are sensitive to Christmas trees, and may be sensitive to a balsam fir pillow as well.
How should I wash a balsam fir pillow?
Try to get away with just spot cleaning your balsam fir pillow. However, if it needs a "real wash", you'll need to open the side stitching, remove the balsam, and wash and dry the fabric. Then you'll be able to re-stuff the pillow, and sew it back up.
Have any questions I haven't answered? Ask away in the comments below!