For those of us with gardens, nettles are weeds that hurt, to be got rid of as quickly as possible. We’ve mostly forgotten that for millennia nettles were valued as a source of food, a herbal medicine and source of fibre. A plant that grows all too freely, and annoyingly, in every spare space on even the poorest ground however holds the very qualities we need for sustainable and responsible textiles.
“Allo is cooked for food and used in village rituals, from tying the umbilical cord to enshrouding a dead body. It is literally the fabric of these peoples lives.”
1. The Fibre
The Himalayan Giant Nettle, Girardinia diversifolia, or allo, is for example traditionally collected, spun and woven by tribal groups such as the Rai and Thami in India, and given the current understanding of the damage caused by the mass production of cotton, it seems possible that with good support and investment nettle fibre could take some of that market and generate a new and more prosperous future for many rural and infertile areas.
The stems, which are full of cellulose, are harvested when the plants are in their prime: young, green, tall and supple. The principles of the process from plant to fibre is much the same as for linen: the stems are stripped into ribbons and heated over wood ash, before being soaked and then beaten to release the cellulose, which is then carded and spun into yarn.
2. The Cloth
Nettle yarn can be spun to match the finest and softest of wools, and woven or knitted into delicate garments, or ones with a more ‘natural’, heavier and slightly uneven look. Without the strength of hemp and linen though, nettle fibres break too easily for commercial weaving, so knitting or hand loom weaving are currently the best options.
“Nepali women prefer to spin yarn on a mobile drop spindle to allow them to tend children, animals or the kitchen at the same time. They are highly skilled at knitting, completing intricate cobweb designs without a pattern. It is not unusual to see them walking along carrying a child on their back, while a cascade of lacy shawl tumbles from their knitting needles “
Nettle cloth is an ancient textile, predating both Christianity and Buddhism. The fibres and the bark have been used for ever, for every home need from food to swaddling to shrouding. Like linen, nettle fibre is highly absorbent, making it excellent for hand and tea towels, scarves and bedding. In Europe the first time I came across weaving with nettle was in reading an article Alison Morton who uses nettle fibre for her lovely hand woven tea towels.
Along with hemp, bamboo and banana, kenaf, agave and pineapple fibres, surely the humble nettle that grows like a weed, everywhere, could make a resurgence in our ecology-conscious times.