Homespun Nettle Fiber

Process stinging nettle into a durable fiber that’s all beauty and no beast.

Hidden in a weedy patch in your backyard, or on a forest’s edge, you’ll likely find a humble plant that’s most famous for its burning sting. But did you know that stinging nettle can also be used for making textiles? Inside the plant’s stalks are long, strong, fine fibers. Surprisingly, stinging nettle is anything but harsh when woven into fabric. Nettle cloth is lustrous and smooth, similar to linen, but even stronger.

Documented use of nettle fiber dates back to the Bronze Age. Along with flax and hemp, nettle was a popular plant based textile used to make strong, durable clothing for centuries. As cotton became more widespread, however, and cheaper synthetic fabrics came onto the scene, use of nettle fiber diminished. (Nettle did experience a brief resurgence during World War I, when a cotton shortage spurred the German army to use nettle fabric for soldiers' uniforms instead.)

The author used traditional techniques to hand-process nettle fiber.
Photo by Mari Stuart

Now, we’re seeing a renewed interest in nettle-based textiles within the sustainable fashion industry. New spinning technologies, nettle plant cross-breeding, and growing concerns over the environmental costs of conventional cotton production have made nettle a viable alternative for eco-textile companies.

It’s also possible to grow, harvest, and process your own nettle fiber at home. Given how common stinging nettle is in temperate climates, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding the nearest patch—or growing your own, as I’ve done. (Visit my website, Make Gather Grow, or find me on Instagram, to learn more about foraging for nettles and to see what else I'm working on.)

I first learned about harvesting and processing nettle fiber when visiting my family in Finland. The stinging nettle in Finland is the same European nettle (Urtica dioica) that grows abundantly in North America. The other two primary fiber-producing nettle species are ramie nettle (Boehmeria nivea) and Himalayan nettle (Girardinia diversifolia).

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