Friday, March 16, 2012

Clothes Made From Nettles?

While reading Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey, I learned that Indians in Minnesota used to use stinging nettles to make fishing nets. I told Filipe about this, sure that this would be novel and interesting, he informed me (and I later confirmed) that during World War I Germany experienced a cotton shortage and turned to the ubiquitous nettle to make their soldiers' uniforms.

 Our farm is covered in stinging nettles and while I have discovered many wonderful uses for the vitamin rich weed, I had never heard of making fiber from it. I regularly make a tea from the leaves of the plant by picking them (carefully and with gloves) and boiling them. The sting (which is chemical similar to fire ant spit and is delivered through the sharp hairs on the underside of the leaves and on the stem) is eliminated after a few seconds in boiling water or when the plant is dried. I also use them to make a soup, much the same way as the tea but with potatoes and onions added and then pureed at the end. They can also be steamed and eaten with butter or used any way that you use spinach. In a flourish of culinary creativity I even made nettle gnocchi once, but just like every other time I have tried to make gnocchi it was a f-ing messy disaster. I also make a fertilizer for my garden by soaking large amounts of the whole plant in a barrel with water until the plant itself dissolves and the mixture takes on a pungent odor similar to manure. I then add a cup of this to each bucket of water when watering my plants. You can do this at home on small scale, the proportions are not important, just wait till it stinks and add a little bit to your watering can. 
Hurts so good
 Nettles can be found wild in almost all temperate climates and are packed with vitamins, particularly A, C and K and loaded with iron. But they are also very fibrous. Thinking that I had just come upon the most wonderful new eco-idea, fabric made from an abundant wild source, perhaps the end of cotton, I began to think of all the wonderful possibilities. Upon further research though, I found that my thinking followed many other ecologically minded opportunists. Apparently, nettle clothing is all the rage (if you’re into hippie, free flowing, formless wear, which I am not, yet.) Great Britain is even funding a research institute devoted to developing hybrid species of nettles for fiber (or fibre, as they would write,) and discovering new ways to produce fabric from these. The organization is aptly named STING- Sustainable Technologies In Nettle Growing. The country is also investigating subsidies for nettle farms. Recently a fashion show in Italy featured a designer whose clothing was made from the nettle. 

This was the least hippie style I could find
 So, perhaps I’m a little behind the curve, but I’m determined to give this a try. First the nettles must be harvested by cutting as low on the stem as possible and then put to dry in the sun for at least a day. Next it will be soaked in abundant water to break down the stems, about 24 hours, then the water will be changed (to prevent fermentation which would destroy the fibers) and the nettles will be soaked for an additional 24 hours. The next step is to remove what is left of the leaves and divide the stems, pulling the stringy ‘fibers’ that will be used from the woody center that will be discarded. Several sources claim that the leftover stems make great fodder and that cows and goats especially enjoy them. Waste nothing! Finally the fiber will be dried again and can then be twisted or woven to make thread, string or rope. Apparently, nettle fibers are stronger than both cotton and linen. Since making clothes is well beyond my level of talent, or desire, I had to come up with something more reasonable. I would like to try to make a kind of reusable grocery/produce bag like this:

Or maybe I will just make a rope, or some shoelaces. So there it is, and just when you thought we had exhausted the uses of this super weed! I look forward to sharing my results!


  1. I can see why they'd turn to positive uses for stinging nettle in the UK because it is EVERYWHERE. At least, it was in our rural village. We learned about the plant on a walk through the countryside and feeling the gradually building sting on our legs. This post actually also reminds me of when I was confronted by a drunk hippie once who wanted to promote hemp plastic as "the wave of the future." But if you can end up making useful items, good for you!

  2. If I get into making shoelaces, which is about as far as I can see this thing going I will definitely send you some, on second thought, I'll send some for Charlotte since those would be much shorter (I think it takes a lot of nettle to make a little bit of fiber.) Oh well, we'll see. Thanks for reading my blog and encouraging me to get it started.