Book review: From Sting to Spin by Gillian Edom

After my recent failed experiment in processing nettle fibres, I bought Gillian Edom’s self published book From Sting to Spin: A History of Nettle Fibre (Urtica Books, Bognor Regis, England, 2010, ISBN 978-0-9565693-0-1).

This is a slim volume which brings together the evidence for the textile uses of nettle with a strong focus on Europe and on the stinging nettle, Urtica Dioica.  Gillian Edom examines archaeological evidence from ancient times through to the second world war.  She considers Indigenous peoples’ usage of nettle fibres briefly as well as discussing the huge number of different plants which collectively make up the nettle family.  She has also gathered intriguing quotes about nettle fibres from literature, fairy tales, scientific writing and even religious works.
I found this account of the historical record very interesting.  Edom concludes that though there are many references to the use of nettle fibre in European history, very little can be conclusively demonstrated about the historical use of nettle fibre from the physical evidence alone.  It is clear that while ramie (Boehmeria Nivea) has been and continues to be produced in commercial quantities, stinging nettle has proved resistant to industrial-scale production despite numerous attempts, particularly during the straitened circumstances of the world wars in Europe.

Unfortunately for me, there is very little information in this work about how to process nettle fibres, though there are clues and some basic instructions.   There are also references to the methods of those who have tried to process nettle in the past, setting out parts of the process used in different parts of Europe at different times.  They make it clear that while some people have succeeded in making high quality yarns and fabrics from nettle and nettle blends, many attempts have produced a poor quality product.  Removing the woody parts of the plant has proved challenging for many who have attempted the task.

I was interested to discover Netl, a Dutch company which has begun using nettle fibre to produce high end fashion clothing.  Perhaps the story of nettle will continue not only in the hands of the individual craftsperson (as Edom suggests), but on an industrial scale, into the future.  As she concludes:

Anyone… may experiment and call on the experience of others and that of our ancestors, to prise the lovely fibre from the hated stinging nettle in our own back gardens (page 55).

I would have been delighted to have a little more concrete advice from others who have succeeded where I have–so far–failed.  However, Edom has inspired me to try again when the season is right.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Book review: From Sting to Spin by Gillian Edom

  1. Andrea

    Hi,
    I would be curious what went wrong with your experiment whith sting nettles, maybe I can help troubleshooting it.
    I’m not a big expert in processing nettle for spinning, but so far, the only problem I encountered was not to have enough quantity of sting nettles for real spinning, only to test the “how to do it”
    Nobody seems to have nettles around here 🙂

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    • I’d be happy to hear what you think happened… I suspect I let the nettles rett for too long, and perhaps that they were simply too small to be exciting sources of fibre. The season for nettles will come here again!

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      • Andrea

        Of course it’s hard to tell what went wrong, without seeing it, but here are some possibilities:

        1: sting nettle (urtica diodica) unlike flax does contain a surprising amount of sugar (they use it sometimes here to brew ” nettle-wine”) so it may affect the retting process.
        If it’s simply left in the same water to ret, it’s likely to start to ferment — hence it’ll be useless for fiber processing)
        Eighter you ret it in running water, or you soak it for half a day in water, let some of the sugar dissolve from it, throw away the water, (I mean give it to your plants 🙂 and fill up with fresh water…
        maybe you could repeat the process once more, just to be on the safe side..The aim is not to have enough sugar in the plant to ferment.

        2: remove all leaves, flowers, root, you don’t need them for the fiber processing, and they add to the dead mass, you don’t want in retting..

        3: it is really hard to estimate how long will retting take, because it’s largely depend on the temperature. The warmer it is, the faster it goes.
        So it’s better to check daily how does it go,..
        Basically what you are looking for is a green slimy thing on the outer side of your nettle stalk, it means that the outer “cover” of the plant started to decompose and the fibers can be set free. The stalk itself stays strong and woody but that doesn’t matter, you don’t need it anyhow..

        4: here comes the difficoult part for me:
        For best results you need to find nettles wich are fully grown around 1m20 or bigger, and possibly finished flowering to have the most and longest fiber in them…
        Some sources suggest, that you wait untill late autumn, when the leaves fall off.
        Well, here, where I live, nettle don’t get to grow to 1m20, someone, or something will surely eat, cut down for weed controll, or dig them up…
        Nettles does not contain as much usable fiber as flax, so if you have small plants, it’s not worth the effort in my h.o…
        Even in the best conditions don’t expect more than 16% of fiber from the plant (I suspect that this is one of the reason people don’t use sting nettle for fiber if they have another source…)

        After retting you should let it dry, break it up and comb the fibers out.
        The end result is a greenish white quite silky and surprisingly thin fiber (you can see it when retting as well), the sting nettle fibers are thinner then ramie, and feel much softer than flax.

        There’s some confusion on the internet about nettle fiber. Most of the people seem to believe, that it is hard and brittle.
        I believe, that this confusion comes from the fact, that the outer skin of the plant wich contains the fiber for spinning as well as lot of other stuff, can be used, as it is for cordage. This outer skin is quite strong but not very appealing to touch, and not the kind of fiber you want anywhere next to skin…

        I hope it was helpful
        There’s a very informative pdf on the web wich is worth to read ” Production and processing of organically grown fibre nettle” it is about industrial scale growing and using the plant for fiber, but you can learn much about the fiber content and harvesting time etc…
        I would be really curious to read about your new nettle experiment!

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      • Thanks so much for that information, Andrea. I had not thought about the fermentation issue, and did not change the water sufficiently. I did realise I needed to strip the leaves and roots etc. I have a friend who was very sad when he realised I had stripped so many nettle leaves and composted them, because he would have used them for nettle beer or nettle wine–next time I’ll speak with him first!

        I am really grateful for your description of how to tell when the retting should stop. For me, this was the most difficult question and I found little guidance about it. I think I let the nettles rett for too long, based on what you’ve said.

        It is hard for me to find such tall nettles too. But you’ve motivated me to try again 🙂 Thanks so much for all that information, I really appreciate having the benefit of your expertise! Mary

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  2. Pingback: Retting the nettle crop | Local & Bespoke

  3. zoe

    I’ve just joined a project called #1year1outfit which is all about creating a truly ‘local’ garment. It has been started by Nicki of the ‘thisismoonlight blog. Nicki is based in Australia… but I live in Wales UK. I thought you might be interested… I have been looking into using nettles in my garden (I DO have nettles 1.2m tall!) and so glad to have found this information about retting – I made exactly the same mistake as you… I think I left my nettles in water far too long… so I’ll try again – I think the best time to harvest in Europe is late winter?

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    • Thanks for letting me know–this sounds such a great project! I looked at nettles about 40 cm high and couldn’t face it this year. I hope that you have nettle success and look forward to seeing what you do to create your local garment. Thanks for sharing this project with me. Off to read more of another glorious blog!

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  4. Pingback: Nettle-along | Colour Cottage

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