From Plant to Textile

Fibres extracted from the stems of stinging nettles have been widely used to make textiles. Concentrating on the nettle species ‘Urtica dioica’, which occurs as a perennial plant in Europe and in the temperate zones of Asia and America, the Supervisor of the Textile and Fibres Conservation Studio at The British Museum discusses the processing and use of this textile fibre from prehistoric times to the present.

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Nettles are always unpleasant to handle due to the stinging hairs attached to the leaf and stem. ‘Urtica’ derives from the Latin word ‘uro’ meaning to burn. The sting is like a miniature hypodermic – a hollow hair capped with silica which breaks off if it is brushed against, instantly injecting toxins into the skin. However, despite this, people have chosen to make textiles from stinging nettles. The fibres used are located around the inner core in the cortex, which lies inside the outer epidermis of the stem. They run from the root to the tip, passing unbroken behind the numerous nodes at the junctions of the leaf stems, and becoming finer towards the tip. The ultimate cortical fibres in ‘Urtica dioica’ range from about 20mm to 80mm in length. (1)

Nettle stems can be processed in the same manner as flax stems. After gathering the mature plants, the leaves are removed, prior to dew or water retting or ‘rotting’ to free the fibres from the inner core, followed by drying, breaking and scutching to break up and remove unwanted stem material, and finally hackling or combing to remove short, broken fibres. In some of the more isolated parts of northern Europe and Eurasia, as well as in North America, it appears that nettle fibre may sometimes have been prepared without retting, purely by beating, rubbing and scraping. However, if the autumn rains had set in before cutting, it is likely that some natural retting occurred on the growing plant. The fibres can also be freed from the outer bark by boiling with wood ash or lye. (2)

Nettle fibre can simply be spun between hand and thigh or with the aid of a spindle or a wheel, and, as with linen, it helps if the fibres are kept moist whilst they are spun. In thigh spinning, the fibres are drafted or drawn out and joined end to end by twisting prior to spinning, then two single threads are spun and plied together in the same process. (3)

Nettle fabrics have been produced by a variety of techniques including netting, where the structure is built up horizontally by connecting each row of weft to the previous one; weft-twining, where the warps are suspended from a simple frame and both the warps and wefts are manipulated by hand; and by weaving on looms. Textiles and cordage made from nettle fibres were probably in common use in Europe until the Roman period. Nettle stems were used for bindings and cordage in Europe from the Neolithic era, circa 4000 BC, as for instance in the binding of an arrowhead from the Sweet Track in the Somerset Levels in southwest England. (4)

The earliest evidence of the use of nettle fibre to make textiles in Europe comes from the site of Voldtofte in Denmark. This prehistoric find of a woven textile from Scandinavia is attributed to the Late Bronze Age, early 1st millennium BC. However, the identification of processed fibres is complex, particularly when they are degraded, and the Voldtofte find was originally identified as linen. It is quite possible that other older fibre identifications are incorrect and some might also prove to be nettle. (5)

There is some evidence of the use of nettle fibre during the Iron Age, in the ship find from Kvalsund in Norway, (6) where a considerable quantity of nettle stalks were found gathered in a bundle in a way that might indicate they had been collected to make textiles. No Roman finds are known from the Northern Roman provinces, (7) where it seems likely that flax became the preferred fibre, possibly due to the greater quantity of fibre produced. The use of nettle fibre in North America also goes back to prehistoric times, and similarly the earliest use was likely to have been by simply twisting it into cords. Fishing lines dating to circa 1000 BC were found at Lovelock Cave in Nevada, (8) and there are several examples of nettle fibre from the Hopewell Culture of Ohio (300 BC -100 AD). (9) New finds are still being made, including the discovery of nettle-fibre nets at the west coast site of Ozette in the State of Washington. The exceptional preservation of plant material here is the result of several earthquakes, which occurred 400-600 years ago, burying the site in water-saturated mud. (10)

Nettle fibre was widely used in North America. Daniel Moerman states that it was one of the ten plants with the greatest number of fibre uses by Native Americans. These uses include cordage (twine, rope, fishing nets and traps, bowstrings, snowshoes), basketry (baskets and fibre bags), and clothing. The Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Dakota, Winnebago and Luiseño of the American West and Northeastern Woodlands are all recorded as making cloth or items of clothing from ‘Urtica dioica’ fibres. (11)

Some twined fibre bags of the Great Lakes Indians were made at least partly from plant materials even as late as the 19th century. Before the introduction of wool and cotton, many of the older bags were made entirely of plant materials (2). Nettle fibre, obtained either from ‘Urtica dioica’ or the wood nettle, ‘Laportea canadensis’, was sometimes used in the construction of these bags. (12) The latter is a variety of nettle with fewer stinging hairs, but equally suitable fibre. Indian hemp, ‘Apocynum cannabinum’, was also sometimes used. The simpler fibre bags had banded designs, the more elaborate had geometric designs or representations of mythical beings or animals. Nettle was also an important plant fibre on the north-west coast of America. It was most commonly twisted into a two- to four-ply twine and used for cordage, fishing lines and netting. However, nettle fibre was also included in the weaving of some Salish and Nuu-Chah-Nulth textiles. (13) In some weft-twined yellow cedar bark cloaks and capes with a cedar bark warp from Vancouver Island, a nettle fibre weft is used (3, 4). (14) The spinners were very ingenious, and sometimes the nettle fibre was spun or plied with bird down, beaten cedar bark, or plant seed fibres such as milkweed, cattail and fireweed, perhaps to make a softer or warmer fabric. (15)

The use of ‘Urtica’ nettle fibres in Europe is not well documented. Margaret Hald states that most nettle-cloths were probably imported from the East, and made from the species of stingless nettle, ‘Boehmeria nivea’, the cloth from which is commonly called ramie. This is known to have been imported into Europe from at least the 16th century. It is also suspected that the word ‘nettlecloth’ is often used rather loosely, and may sometimes refer to imitations in other fibres such as cotton or flax. (16)  The earliest historical reference dates to the 13th century. (17)

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Nettle is said to have been used in Scotland for weaving the coarser household napery from the 16th and 17th centuries. Hence the poet Thomas Campbell’s (1777-1844) well-known quote: “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth”. (18)

‘Urtica dioica’ appears to have been used mostly in times of hardship or with the scarcity of a more amenable fibre such as flax. (19) Its use is variously reported in the 18th century or/and 19th century in Scotland, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Switzerland and Eastern Europe. It is likely that in many areas there was a long continuing tradition of use from earlier times, and that in some remoter rural areas it is almost certain that the tradition continued through to the 20th century. In Asia, fibre from ‘Urtica dioica’ is still used in some of the remoter parts of Nepal to make clothes, cords, sacks, bags, and fishing-nets. (20)

During World War 1, the shortage of cotton led to Germany manufacturing army clothing from nettle fibres. They developed a successful method, combining retting and the use of machinery, to separate the fibre. (21) By cultivating nettles in the field, the Germans increased the fibre output from 3% to 4-5%, and by 1938, regular cross-breeding produced a less bushy and taller plant, said to be capable of giving a 13% fibre yield. However, due to costly processing, research in Europe came to a halt. (22)

Nettles are now being grown again in Germany, in the Rhine Valley, and an industrial decortication process has been developed, to produce an environmentally friendly fibre. The nettles are said to be similar to the common variety that grow wild, but can be up to 1.8 metres tall. Nettles are resistant to pests and diseases, thus restricting the use of pesticides, vital minerals are not leached from the soil, and insects and butterflies are attracted. The resulting nettle yarn is said to be softer than cotton, and warmer than linen due to the central hollow lumen, which is larger than that of flax or hemp. It will be interesting to see if nettle fibre proves commercially viable, as jeans made of nettle fibre come onto the market. (23)

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1 | F.I. Oakley, ‘Nettle Fibre’, Irish and International Fibres and Fabrics Journal, vol.8. no.9, new series, September 1942, pp.230-231. 2 | Ibid., p.231; N.P. Manandhar, ‘Botany and Ethnobotany of Urtica dioica’, Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany, vol.23, no.1, 1999, pp.38-40. 3 | R. Buchanan, ‘Using the fibers of Native Plants’, Spin-Off, December 1985, pp.29-34. 4 | R. Gale & D. Cutler, Plants in Archaeology. Identification manual of vegative plant materials used in Europe and the south Mediterranean to ca. 1500, London 2000, pp.268-270. 5 | M. Hald, Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials, The National Museum of Denmark, Archaeological-Historical Series vol. XXI, Copenhagen 1980, p.125-128. 6 | Ibid., p.127. 7 | J.P. Wild, Textile Manufacture in the Northern Roman Provinces, Cambridge 1970, p.21. 8 | A. C. Whitford, ‘Fiber plants of the North American Aborigines’, Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, vol.44, no.518, February 1943, pp.25-34. 9 | A. C. Whitford, ‘Textile Fibres used in Eastern Aboriginal North America’, Anthropological Papers of The American Museum of Natural History, vol. XXXV111, part 1, New York 1941, pp.12-13, 18-22. 10 | N. J. Turner, Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia, Vancouver 1998, p.5-6. 11 | D. E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, Portland 1998, pp.16-17; 22, 579-582, 889, 913. 12 | A. H. Whiteford, ‘Fiber bags of the Great Lakes Indians’, American Indian Art Magazine, vol.2 (3), Summer 1997, pp.52-64, 85. 13 | P. Gustafson, Salish Weaving, Vancouver 1980, pp.69-73. 14 | J. C .H. King, Artificial Curiosities from the Northwest Coast of America: native American artefacts in The British Museum collected on the third voyage of Captain James Cook and acquired through Sir Joseph Banks, London 1981, pp.83-86. 15 | R.R. King & E. Hartley, ‘Wild & Woolly … Or Woody & Woolly … Or … Unusual Fibers used in Northwest Coast Ethnographic textiles, their preparation, & their structure’, Technology and Conservation Magazine of Art, Architecture, and Antiquities, 1/79, Spring 1979, pp.9-10, 12, 35. 16 | M. Hald, ‘The Nettle as a culture plant’, Folk-Liv, tom.VI, Stockholm 1942, pp.28-49. 17 | R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, vol. IV, Leiden 1964, p.63. 18 | M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal, 1931, p.575. 19 | M. Hoffmann, Fra fiber til tøy: tekstilredskaper og bruken av dem i norsk tradisjon, Oslo 1991, p.61. 20 | Manandhar, op.cit., p.38-40 21 | L. Hastings & R. Milne, ‘Homespun solutions’, Kew, Spring 1998, pp.10-11. 22 | Hald 1942, op.cit., pp.36-37. 23 | The Italian clothing manufacturer Corpo Nove developed by Grado Zero Espace, www.gzespace.com, based in Milan is making garments of nettle fibre, some dyed with woad.

by Doris Leslie Blau