Retting the nettle crop

The last time I wrote about nettle processing, Andrea wrote in with some really helpful suggestions from her experience.  She also provided a link to a useful article by Vogl and Hartl on the subject.

This time, I am taking Andrea’s advice to the extent I can.  I have the common stinging nettle, urtica dioica, and no other nettles to choose from, so that is what I am using.  There is no chance of my accessing large amounts of nettles as tall as 1.2 m, but a few of my sample are that tall. I am harvesting at the end of winter, the plants have flowered and had a lot of green seed on them–I thought I had left them too long but perhaps not.  It is hard to fully understand how the seasons here affect plants native to Europe, but nettles don’t grow here when it is warm.  They are more likely to lose leaves as the warm weather sets in, than to lose them in autumn.  This means that I am harvesting nettles at pretty much the opposite point in the seasons that a person in Europe might.

So.  The nettles were harvested on 24 August, and set to rett that morning.  I changed the water twice on 25 August to prevent fermentation (and the chilly weather will have helped that too) and had an interesting conversation with a seller at the farmers’ market who had harvested his nettles and had them for sale.  5 days later, I decided they were about right. They had begun to smell somewhat, and the evidence that the outer layer had begun to rot away was clear (as opposed to the murky water).


The surface green layer of the stem rubbed away readily.



Once I had thoroughly rinsed them, most of the green covering of the stem was gone.  I am offering these photos in hopes that others more knowledgeable might offer me their advice.  The works I have consulted make it seem to me that identifying when retting has gone far enough but not too far is difficult to describe.  No doubt it is an expert skill (which needless to say, I don’t possess), and perhaps one of those not readily converted into words–like how to tell the level of kneading is perfect for bread dough by feel, or how to tell a fermentation indigo vat is ready to use from the way it smells.


I set them to dry thoroughly.  At this stage I belatedly had the thought that perhaps next time I should stage the removal of stems from the retting process, and see if I can identify which stage gives me a better outcome.  Too late to do such a logical experiment with this batch!  To be continued….


Filed under Fibre preparation

14 responses to “Retting the nettle crop

  1. Michael Taylor

    It’s really interesting to see what you are doing. I recognise the photos and descriptions because I’ve been doing exactly the same thing over here in England. I don’t think you “over-retted” the nettles although I’m not sure as this year was my first time experimenting with nettles. If you want to see the way I’ve tried to process the nettles you can watch the video: Make Fabric From Nettles

    Good luck with the next steps, I look forward to seeing how you get on!


    • Thanks Michael! Good to hear you’re having success making fabric. I’ve not managed to get that far as yet! Your video is great… I see your nettles are a good bit taller than mine. I’ll try my stems out this week and see if I can split them the way you’re demonstrating here, which is a good bit more effective than what I did last year. If I can’t, perhaps I’ll take India’s advice and rett further. You’ve suggested 7 days and I went only 5. Thanks for showing carding, too. That was a step I struggled with last time… I am very grateful for these tips.


  2. as i understand it retting is like the thing that happens when a poplar leaf falls into a still pool in the creek and the mush is nibbled away to reveal the skeleton leaf. i’d leave the nettles a bit longer, i think. and all the green stuff that comes away makes an excellent liquid fertilizer.

    [oh, and in case you’re wondering where this comment has sprung from, it’s India Flint – i seem to have a different label in wordpress 🙂 ]


    • Thanks, India! Nettles are such a rich fertiliser… I always feel things are going well when they come up, and I return all I can to the soil.

      I also think this is a process like a leaf being nibbled away in water–except that in this case it’s my understanding (bound to be imperfect) that only the outer layers of the stem come away by this method, exposing the fibres. Then the fibres have to be released from the pithy stem within, which retting doesn’t achieve. With flax this would have been done with a brake (which breaks up the pithy parts crosswise, along the length of the stem) followed by scutching (to separate fibres from chaff), I think. I lack these tools as well as a full grasp of how to tell when retting has gone far enough.

      I’m setting out what I think I know in case this further exposes ignorance others can help me with 🙂


  3. so glad I found this post and conversation thread! we have just been processing some linen from the flax we grew for the first time this year, and I am curious to try the processing break, scutching knife, and hackles we have build and accumulated on stinging nettle, fireweed and invasive purple loose strife, (as I am sure there is a baste fibre there too). happy to find some posts on nettle retting, I am in day one now of attempt number 1… thanks for the tips!


    • Hi Sharon, good luck with your efforts and thanks again to the commenters who have helped me out–I am sure you’ve learned more from them than from me! How awesome it is to find uses for invasive weeds–and how wonderful to have success with flax growing. [later] I’ve now been to check out your blog–what an exciting project you’re involved in! I wish I was closer–it would be great to be part of it!


      • yes, if only the internet also allowed teleporting, perhaps next year.:)… I feel like I have fallen down a rabbit hole into another world with the amount of knowledge that is required for every step we do, but am very driven by how I can apply what I am learning about flax processing to other baste fibre plants… the journey continues! I do feel incredibly forturnate to be working with all of these people with amazing- and diverse knowledge bases and talents/abilities- the joy of many hands and brains! the other project I am working on that relates to this is at Aberthau on the west side of vancouver, I get to do a walk today with Tracy Williams, a Squamish weaver to look at the potential fibre plants growing in the wilds, if only the weather will hold! huge rains last night and more predicted. I look forward to having more time to read your other posts, cheers!


      • I can only agree on the joy of many hands and many brains 🙂 Your work is really inspiring and the outcomes look awesome!


  4. Pingback: So much for nettle fibre processing! | Local & Bespoke

  5. Cynthia

    Am getting ready to rett some wood nettles tomorrow and am very interested in all comments. Have tried retting green nettles, dried nettles, and tried processing over-wintered nettles, all without much success. Am going to set some nettles to rett that were picked green, but have been drying for about 3 months. This time am going to try putting some drops of pectinase in the water – this is an additive used in winemaking. Am hoping this will help with the tough outer skin of the nettles. Has anyone used an additive like this? I’ve had success retting flax the normal way, so understand retting, but have not had an easy time with nettles.


    • I would love to hear how you get on, Cynthia. As you can tell from my posts, I haven’t had a lot of success, but I am starting from a position of such ignorance this is not a total surprise. Someone like you who has had success and experience with flax seems a much more likely candidate. I am sorry to say I don’t know anything about pectinase, but I hope that other commenters can help you, and I’d love to hear about what happens.


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