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.)
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).
My great-grandparents grew flax for clothing on our family farm. Now, the flax fields are gone, but stands of stinging nettle are still abundant. I’d previously used nettle as food, medicine, and dye, but once I learned about its potential for flax-like fiber, I had to give it a try. I did the entire process by hand, as it’s traditionally done. It takes patience, and some experience working with fibers helps, but anyone can do it following these step-by-step instructions.
The steps for processing nettle for textiles are similar to the steps for processing flax. The key is softening nettle’s woody stalks so you can extract the fibers within.
The only stings I got in this process were during the initial harvest. Once nettle stalks have been soaked and dried, their stinging hairs will have fallen off, and you can handle the plant without gloves. The fibers themselves are beautiful—light-colored, soft, and strong.
You’ll first need to collect nettles and remove the leaves. Wear gloves and long sleeves when handling the plants. Harvest nettle from August onward, when the plants have reached their optimal height but haven’t begun to die down. Cut stalks near the ground with pruning shears, and then remove the leaves, which make excellent compost.
Next, soak the nettle stalks (a process called “retting”) for at least one week to break down the cellulose surrounding the fibers, which will ease fiber removal.
You can ret nettle stalks a few different ways. As with flax or hemp, you can leave nettle stalks on the ground outdoors for a couple of weeks. The morning dew and soil microbes will break down the woody plant matter and dissolve the pectin and lignin that make the fibers stiff and bind them to the stalk. The process can be expedited by soaking nettles in any large vessel, such as a wheelbarrow, a kiddie pool, or a livestock water tank. I soaked mine the way flax is traditionally retted in Finland: in a lake, weighed down by pieces of wood and held in place by the tall sedges.
When the nettle starts to have an earthy smell of plant matter that’s breaking down (rotting), remove it from the water.
Spread the stalks out in the sun, in a greenhouse, or in a sauna to dry. Don’t move on to the next step until the stalks are completely dry.
Once dry, the stalks should snap easily, and you’ll be able to extract the fibers from the woody stem. Experiment to discover the best way to separate the fibers from the pith. If you squeeze the stalk flat until it splits, you can then run your thumbnail along the stem to lengthen the crack all the way to the end. Then, it’s easy to break a piece of the pith off and pull it away, extracting the fibers.
If working on a large scale, consider using traditional flax processing equipment for this step, such as a scutching knife and a hackling board.
At the end of the extraction process, you’ll have a bundle of wispy fibers. Some green plant matter (cellulose) from the nettle stalks will probably still be adhered to the fibers. Traditionally, a hackling board is used to soften nettle fibers. I used the hand carders I use for wool, combing the silvery-green mass until any remaining chaff was removed from the nettle fiber.
The final step in processing nettle fiber at home is spinning the fibers into thread. You can use a spinning wheel, but a drop spindle works fine too.
Spinning nettle fibers is comparable to spinning flax: The fiber lacks the crimp of wool and is somewhat slippery as a result. However, you can easily blend nettle fiber with other natural fibers to make it easier to spin.
Holding your first fibers harvested from the wild, from a plant that doesn’t need any human input to thrive, is an empowering experience. If you’re a spinner or a weaver, there’s no end to the unique pieces you can create with nettle fiber. Some people even say that nettle’s medicinal qualities are transferred to its textiles—a shawl woven out of nettle fiber, for example, is said to soothe aching necks and shoulders.
Nettle brings a lot to the textile table, and it’s easy to see why the plant is experiencing a resurgence in the fashion industry as companies look for more sustainable solutions to their ecologically damaging practices. Here are a few reasons nettle makes fashion-forward sense:
- Nettle is widely distributed and easy to grow without intensive inputs, such as pesticides, herbicides, or irrigation. Nettle will even thrive in poor soil that’s unsuitable for other crops.
- Unlike cotton, nettle grows in cooler climates, making it a good candidate for local or regional textile production and processing.
- Nettle fibers are hollow, making nettle clothing cool in summer and warm in winter. Nettle fiber is also a fire retardant.
- Nettle is versatile, and can also be used for food, medicine, and dye.