We’re seven months into the One Year One Outfit challenge, and wow — I’m half impressed, half intimidated by the progress some of the other participants have already made towards their locally sourced wardrobes. I’m nowhere near having entire items of clothing finished at this point myself. But I will, I will…
Since finding locally grown organic cotton proved to be such a challenge, I decided to experiment this summer trying to make fiber out of something that grows wild in nature: the humble stinging nettle. Not that I’ll necessarily be using nettle fiber for my #1year1outfit wardrobe, but I wanted to get a sense of how it’s done.
Nettle, along with flax and hemp, used to be more important as fiber material for textiles than cotton in Europe; unlike cotton, they could be grown even in northern climates. Nettle fiber farming started in the 19th century, and during the World Wars, nettle was often promoted as a substitute for cotton.
Why is nettle fiber worth exploring for the organic, eco-textile minded folk? Consider:
- whereas conventionally grown cotton requires intensive inputs, such as irrigation and weed killers, nettles grow everywhere, even in fairly poor soil, with zero effort from humans
- many textiles are produced in Third World countries, whereas nettle is something that could be grown even in European and North American climates
- regional production and processing of nettle would also involve less long-distance transport
- nettle is a common weed that already grows everywhere, so why not make use of it?
- it has many uses besides fiber, and many parts of the plant can be used (e.g. for food, tea, medicine, or dye), so the same piece of land can yield multiple benefits
So, this summer, I did some initial research into how nettle is processed into fiber, and processed a small batch myself. You can find lots of different instructions online, but I found this video really clear and easy to follow. The basic steps are:
- collect nettles: preferably from August onwards, cutting the stalks near the ground and removing the leaves (wear gloves and long sleeves!)
- soak the nettle stalks (which is called retting): some sources say 1 week, others longer. You have to experiment. The idea is to break down the cellulose surrounding the fibers so the fibers can be extracted
- dry the nettles: you can do this in the sun out in the garden, or in a greenhouse or (as I did, being in Finland) in the sauna
- split the bigger stalks
- break the dried-up stalks by hand to separate the fine fibers from the woody pith
- spin the fibers into yarn
Full disclosure: my process was far from perfect, and there’s a lot of room for improvement. Most sources recommend waiting until August before harvesting the nettle, but I couldn’t wait that long so I harvested the first batch already on July 10th and the second one in late July. Also, the soaking was not very effective the first time around since I did it outdoors in a wheelbarrow filled with water, and it was an unusually cold July so the water was cold too. The stalks in the second batch were much taller, so I decided to soak them in the lake the way flax plants have traditionally been retted: held in place by the lake sedges and kept submerged by a few pieces of wood.
This time, the retting seemed to work well, judging from the authentic, hmm, earthy smell when I pulled the plant matter out of the water one week later. Once the stalks had dried — which only took a couple of days in the sun and at night in a warm (not hot) sauna, I was able to extract some nice, soft and wispy fibers.
Processing wild nettle like this, I found, is definitely labor-intensive and not for the impatient. I’d work for a long stretch extracting fiber manually from the stalks, and only end up with a small bundle of fibers to show for it. I had fun because I’m generally a persistent person and I was able to do it outside on lovely summer days. But I think it’s a task that would go fast, and be most efficient, when done together with a group of people.
Having said that: being able to figure it out, and hold in my hand my first fibers harvested from the wild, from the forest, has been one of the highlights of this summer.
Nettle fiber does have a lot of potential in the eco-textile industry. Studies done in both Finland and Austria show that it’s entirely feasible to cultivate, harvest and process nettle on a larger scale too. Different fiber nettle clones were tested in the Austrian study in terms of their fiber yields and fiber quality. It was found that, through cultivation, the fiber content can be increased (from about 5% in wild nettles to 17% in cultivated fiber nettles). The extracted fibers can be spun into yarn, but need to be mixed with some other fiber, with a maximum 70% nettle content.
That’s what’s next for me: trying to spinning my nettle fibers. Let’s see if that works. More updates to come!
P.S. Just because I know some of you will be wondering… the only stings I got in this process were during the initial harvesting. Once the nettle stalks have been soaked and dried, the stinging hairs are gone. The fibers themselves are beautiful – light green to linen colored, and some of them very, very soft.