The fibrous stems of nettles were once used to weave a rough cloth. Evidence from Neolithic settlements in Switzerland shows that nettle was used to make cloth before linen or wool. The processed fibres of nettle stalks make a strong white thread that has even been used for fishing line and nets. Maude Grieve says in her book ‘A Modern Herbal’ that nettle fibres were being used in the 16 th and 17 th centuries to make sheets and tablecloths.
Hans Christian Anderson’s famous fairy tale called “The Wild Swans” tells an enchanting story of the nettle coats she wove for them to break a spell:
“Look at the nettle that I hold in my hand! Around the cave where you are sleeping grow many of them; only those nettles, or the ones found in churchyards may you use. You must pick them, even though they blister and burn your hands; then you must stamp on them with your bare feet until they become like flax. And from that you must twine thread with which to knit eleven shirts with long sleeves. If you cast one of these shirts over each of the eleven swans, the spell will be broken…”
Folklores say that a fever could be dispelled by plucking a Nettle up by its roots, reciting therby the names of the sick man and also the names of his family. Nettle is considered to be one of the nine sacred herbs, along with mugwort, plantain, watercress, chamomile, crab apple, chervil, and fennel. It certainly has a long history of use.
The ‘bark’ stem of the nettle plant contains pliable fibres that can be woven, spun or twisted to make cloth or cordage. Although we are reinventing the art of making cloth from nettles there are still places where it is done. For example a cloth called ‘ramie’ is made from the fibres of an Asian nettle (Boehmeria nivea). Nettle is still collected and processed in the Himalayas. The ‘bark’ is stripped from the plant and dried for 3 days in the sun. Then it is put in a pond for 10 days and then rinsed in running water, then spun into a rough yarn. The same process doesn’t seem to work for European nettles though as they just break down in the water.
There is a strong movement to reinstate cloth made from nettle and nettle clothes are already to be seen on the catwalks of fashion houses. Industrial processes are leading to a much more useable cloth although designs are presently limited to ‘outer’ clothing. I have not yet made cloth from nettle but since finding the information below will make some at the earliest opportunity – watch this space.