Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, you might think that something as full of poisonous barbs as a stinging nettle would be a most unlikely choice for turning into fabric. But in fact, the plant’s stems are used to produced bast fibre – this is the inner layer of the stem of the plant, and it produces a flexible material suitable for turning into cloth. This is also the part of the flax and hemp plants that are used for fabrics. In stinging nettles, it has the great advantage of not reducing the wearer to a mass of boils.
In order to get to the bast fibre layer, however, the plant has to go through a process called retting (another great new word for my collection). Bundles of nettle stems are submerged in water for between 8 and 14 days, during which time the plant absorbs water, bursting the outer layer and making the bast fibre easy to extract. The time needs to be judged carefully, however: if submerged for too long you end up with an extremely useful but smelly fertiliser, rich in nitrogen, magnesium, iron and sulphur and great for encouraging leafy growth.
Once the fibre has been extracted, the textiles can be created. People have been wearing nettle clothes for at least 2000 years, and why not – the plants grow everywhere with very little encouragement or the use of pesticides, and they make a decent replacement for cotton or linen. Indeed, during the First World War, German uniforms were made from nettles following a cotton shortage.
In Scotland, nettles were used for bed sheets and tablecloths. Sue Eland’s Plantllives website has an extensive section on stinging nettle, and reports how the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) describes the use of the fabric:
‘I have slept in nettle sheets, and dined offa nettle tablecloth, and I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.’
More recently, a number of experiments have been done into the use of nettles for clothing: De Montfort University has created some rather pretty dresses, but my chief question here is how on earth do they stay up? Or on? Clearly they weren’t designed by a woman. But I digress, as usual. There is also a bright pink nettle bikini worn by a lady in boots, but I shall spare you. Enough to say that nettle fabric is due for a comeback, and indeed many companies are already interested in producing it.
Nettle leaves can be used to produce a greenish-yellow dye, and the roots produce a yellow one. Truly this plant is a generous one.
As you might expect for a plant with such polarising qualities, there is a huge volume of folklore concerning nettles. Stinging nettle was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons, which was believed to ward off evil. It was also one of the five bitter herbs that are eaten by Jewish people during the Feast of Passover.
In Yorkshire the plant was used in exorcism ceremonies. Frogs could be kept from beehives (I had no idea that this was a problem) and flies from larders by hanging up a bunch of the plant. A child’s eyesight could be improved if you blew through a leaf into the affected eye. Fever could be cured if a nettle (preferably growing in a shady area) was grasped and uprooted whilst intoning the name of the patient and their parents – a kind of trial by ordeal, where the suffering of the person who went through the ritual was used to benefit the sick person.
The stinging properties of nettles were also used in the treatment of ailments such as rheumatism, the counter-irritant properties of the blisters and the heat produced being seen as a way to alleviate the symptoms.
In Buddhism, the yogi Milarepa reached enlightenment while living in a Himalayan cave and subsisting on a diet of nettle soup, which turned his skin green. At one point he was offered meat, but when he saw that some of it was being consumed by maggots, he understood that it was not fair to deprive the insects of their food, and went back to the nettles. After many trials, he became an influential and revered Buddhist teacher, and if you want to read about his long and eventful life, you can find the full story here.
“Maintain the state of undistractedness and distractions will fly off.
Dwell alone and you shall find a friend.
Take the lowest place and you shall reach the highest.
Hasten slowly and you will soon arrive.
Renounce all worldly goals and you shall reach the highest goal.”
And so, our tour of stinging nettles has taken us from an alley in East Finchley to the mountains of the Himalayas. I can think of few plants that have been as useful to us, but also as reviled. For some, the nettle has been food, medicine, clothes and a source of inspiration. For others, it’s a spiteful and pernicious perennial weed, to be rooted out at all costs. F.Scott Fitzgerald once said that ‘The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function‘, and this is often so true of our relationships with the natural world. Stinging nettles sting, but may also treat rheumatism. They love to grow in our gardens, but provide a home for peacock butterflies. No person is perfectly good, or perfectly bad, and yet we still manage to love one another, and it’s the same with the plants and animals that we share our world with. Let us make some room for the nettle, as we hope that others will make room for us, prickly and astringent as we may be.
Photo One (nettle stem) – By derivative work: Curtis Clark (talk)Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg: Ryan R. McKenzie – Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4722197
Photo Two (Nettle dress) – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8692782.stm
Photo Three (Milarepa) – By Sarah Lionheart, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2823766