Bringing the classic forest aromatic indoors can be as simple as machine-stitching a fabric bag and filling it with chopped balsam sprigs. Here are some tips and tricks for creating your own “for thee I pine” balsam pillow.
Fabric: Choose cloth that breathes, such as 100 percent cotton. Calico or quilt-weight material works well, allowing the scent to escape but keeping the needles from poking through.
Pillow: The size is up to you. Small bags take less time to pack, use less balsam and can go anywhere, from a closet or bathroom shelf to behind an artificial tree. Sew three sides and leave an opening on the top of about two or three inches.
Balsam: Cut several branches of the greenest, freshest balsam fir you can find. If you’re not sure which evergreen you have, balsam fir has flat green needles that do not go all the way around the twig. Spruce is more prickly, encircles the branch and does not smell as sweet; white spruce can be downright rank, as sharp as cat pee. Hemlock needles are flat, very short and have little smell.
Cut the branchlets and bundle them in your hand. With heavy scissors clip half-inch pieces, twig and all. I cut these into a bucket or on a sheet so they don’t scatter. When you’ve clipped a pile, use the scissors to scrape needles off the main branches, which brings more resin and scent. For a pillow measuring seven by nine inches you’ll need about a pound of needles.
Stuffing: No need to dry the needles at all; fresh from the tree will provide the best fragrance. A cardboard funnel (made from boxboard) makes filling the sack easier, but you’ll need to stop periodically to tamp needles into the corners. I use a chopstick or the end of a wooden spoon and also squeeze the bag to push needles down tightly. The idea is to compress as much as you can in the cloth envelope since the needles shrink as they dry.
Finishing: Your bag should be comically fat and firm with the stuffing. Gather the fabric at the top and hand-sew it shut, using the stitch of your choice, plain or fancy. You can add a ribbon loop for hanging.
Drying: Moisture will escape from the pillow for several days, so place it in a cool, well-ventilated spot on a plate and not a varnished surface. Turn a few times a day; you’ll notice the fabric feels damp and the scent is powerful. In an average Adirondack home in winter, with low humidity, drying takes five days to a week.
Refreshing: A balsam pillow in a bathroom can be fragrant for years because of the humidity there, while one in a living room may need an occasional boost. You can use a plant mister and spritz a few times with plain water to refresh the fragrance.