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.