Tag Archives: nettle

Week 4 Silkworm update

It’s well and truly spring,  Our native orchids are in bloom.

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So is E Torquata, the Coolgardie gum.  The bees are happy about the whole thing.

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I’ve been out demanding action on climate change, with people all over the world (and hundreds locally).

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Fledging birds are getting in strife all over the metropolitan area (and many more are flying without difficulty, I hope)!

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The nettle harvest is in, such as it is.  I have gathered the largest nettles from our backyard, my parents’ garden and the local verges.

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And the silkworms are growing.  The small ones are still very small, and there is still only one mulberry tree with enough leaves to pick in the neighbourhood.  I’m picking fruit as well as leaves.

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The silkworms are stripy in some cases and creamy in others, just like last year… and I still have no idea why.  We’ve done our 12km City to Bay run!!  And work has been overwhelming.  Hopefully, less so from this point forward–so there might be a bit more crafting and posting.

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So much for nettle fibre processing!

Finally, I returned to the harvested and then  twice retted nettle stems. I began by rolling a pipe over them to make the stems easier to split.

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I have been putting this task off because these stems looked so little promising.

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The stems mostly shattered without fibre becoming evident in any significant way.

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I gathered just a little fibre for a lot of effort.

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After carding, I was left with this. So I cleaned my handcards on the garden, added the stems to the mulch in the garden, and now… I wait for next year!

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A belated postscript: there is a wonderful community flax growing project reaching the spinning stage on the other side of the planet.  So for stories of bast fibre success, please go to visit Sharon Kallis here.

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Hatchling silkworms and other thrills

Last year, I bought five silk worms at a school fair and raised them into moths. Later, when I was wondering what to expect next, I had quite a conversation with a delightful woman in the Button Bar in the Adelaide Arcade, as you do.  I can’t remember how we got from the tea cosy she was knitting to silk worms, but somehow we did.  She told me to expect the eggs that resulted from a dalliance between a couple of my moths to hatch in September.  I remember thinking about this on 1 September.  Then on Friday 13 September I realised I had taken no action and sprinted down the hall to check on them and lo!  There were tiny black creatures wiggling around!  I made an immediate mercy dash to the nearest mulberry tree.  Can you make the hatchlings out?

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The hatchlings are the tiny black lines.  Those spots on the cardboard are eggs.  Today I conservatively estimate I have 50 silkworm hatchlings, and I have started working on finding some of them new homes.

Meanwhile, I have been on a bag jag… sewing loads more bags and taming [some of] my scrap collection.  I decided to photograph a lining in progress on the weekend, because what is more thrilling than a lining?

 

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Well, one of our chooks seemed to think so.  She could tell whatever was happening on the table was worth looking into, so she flew up immediately to check into it.  Regrettably, this was not an edible thrill from her point of view.

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Thrills come in very disparate packages, all depending on perspective… or so it seems to me!  Audrey finds earwigs a lot more thrilling than I do.

Meanwhile, I have taken the nettle stems back out of the retting bath (which this time certainly did go to the garden–) and set them out in the rain to rinse.  Since so much of my crafting takes place in crevices of time and is ordered by whim rather than a linear plan, I hope you’re managing to follow all these emerging themes …

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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).

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The surface green layer of the stem rubbed away readily.

 

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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.

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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….

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Nettle harvest

I decided to grow my nettles high and try processing them for fibre again this year. I have left this a little later than ideal, but so much about my knowledge of processing nettle fibre is imperfect I decided to just give it a try and worry about fine detail at some future point when I have more understanding and more experience!  Here we have my harvest, with leaves:

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And after the leaves have been stripped.  The leaves went to friends who were enthusiastic about nettle soup.  I am sorry to say I don’t like the flavour of nettles.  I wish I did, they are full of minerals and I have plenty of them!  I love the idea of eating them but not the reality.  I will just have to stick to eating dandelion, prickly lettuce and milk thistle to keep my weeds down.

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While I was pulling the nettles and weeding out the soursobs and burr medic and grass, the chickens kept me company and enjoyed the fruits (and earwigs) of my labours.  If this was a podcast, I would have been only too delighted to record their excited voices.  And when I found these, I had some excitement of my own!  In fact, I went in and made a potato and silverbeet (and endive, milk thistle, chicory, parsley) soup to share with my friends the nettle lovers.

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The nettles are much bigger than the previous harvest.  So much so there was no chance I could rett them in a bucket, even my biggest one.  In the end, they went into the wheelbarrow, the biggest receptacle I could find other than my bathtub!  To be continued…

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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.

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Nettle and flax fibres 1

I have been fascinated with the idea of growing fibre for spinning for a long time, but it is not a simple matter to process bast (stem) fibres. There are amazing YouTube videos of people (in Nepal, for example) spinning fibres which must have been hand prepared with the most basic of equipment and a corresponding maximum amount of skill, time and patience.  There are also videos showing the process of linen production from start to finish, like this Irish film.  Here is a re-enactment film using decent tools but with all steps done by hand (needless to say I lack the right tools and must improvise), and another showing how this was done in Germany (with an excellent rooster crowing in the backgound).  Even with some parts of the process mechanised, the preparation of the fibres is backbreaking and dangerous work I’m glad I don’t depend on doing for my living.

The skills and tools needed for hand preparation of bast fibres were probably known to someone in my family tree, but at a guess, this must have been many generations back.  I’ve decided to have another attempt.  I have here the total outcome of my latest nettle harvest (left) and my first flax harvest (right), dried and saved.  No, it isn’t impressive!  I have pulled them, stripped the leaves and side stems and dried them.  Next step, retting.

I put the stems into a bucket and covered them with rainwater on Labour Day.  It’s important to celebrate the achievementof the 8 hour day by doing things you love, so I was washing fibre and mucking around in the garden, visiting friends for dinner and making treats for the week to come.  And, putting these stems to soak.

The week turned out to be warm, so I changed the water several times.  Part way through the week, Through the Eye of a Needle by John-Paul Flintoff arrived in the mail from dear friends in Denmark.  They know me well!  I have already read this book and just loved it.  In fact, I set about this experiment after a long break from thinking about it because I followed a link to a YouTube video of Flintoff talking about nettle fibre.  Needless to say it falls short of being a full instructional guide on how to rett nettle fibre.  In fact, I have really struggled to find any instruction on how to decide when flax or nettle has retted long enough.  Even Alden Amos’ Big Book of Handspinning (not normally a model of concision or falling short on the challenge of offering instructions) offers no real assistance.  I am guessing that even a skilled person might struggle to describe how much decomposition of the woody parts of a stem is enough, but not too much!  The most detailed account I’ve found is online here.  So, I decided to leave the stems in the water for 5 days–based on the best advice I could find so far.

Nothing much to see at the end of the 5 day soaking.  I dried the stems and set to work figuring out how to break the woody parts enough that I could detach them from the fibrous parts (traditionally, breaking, scutching and hackling, all with speciic tools).  I tried stamping on them and rolling a metal pipe over them first.  You can see some results from the rolling…

At this stage I delared the nettle unfit for further effort (shattered into pieces with little evidence of fibre).  I am not sure why.  I squashed the nettle stems as they were drying out the first time and maybe that was wrong, or maybe they were just too young.

Fibres were becoming more visible at each stage of flax bashing… and more chaff was falling away.  I would say that means it was retted long enough. I tried my wool combs.  Not great for the job, but some improvement.  I really don’t have the tools (let alone skills) for breaking, scutching and hackling, and looking at the videos in the links above suggests my flax is very poor quality and short–no great suprises there either!

Next stage, laborious hand picking, I think.

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