When I was a kid walking around barefoot, I knew to avoid one plant: stinging nettle. Near my house it grew a few feet tall, but hearing of nettles taller than my dad, I imagined head-to-toe welts. If you had tossed me a ball of nettle yarn, I would have run. So who first thought of nettles as natural fiber?
When I look at nettle, I see green leaves and nasty stinging spines, but beneath those green and stinging parts stands a tall, strong plant that behaves like flax and hemp. All of these produce bast fibers. Another natural fiber surprise: Milkweed can be made into yarn, too, not from the clouds of white, silky seed “umbrellas” but from the bast fibers in the stalk.
Here’s how nettle becomes yarn:
An idea that sounds terrible, but has wonderful results, “retting” is rotting off anything that isn’t bast fiber. The leaves, stinging hairs, and green matter decompose with help from water and microorganisms.
2. Separating and refining
To separate the rest of the plant matter from the good bast fibers, people scrape, pound, comb, or hackle using tools that look like torture devices. After this intense working, the fibers emerge soft and flexible but amazingly durable.
Spin nettle like flax or hemp. You may use a distaff to hold it at the ready while you spin it on a spindle or spinning wheel.
If you’d like to skip the growing, collecting, retting, and separating steps, you can find some nettle spinning fiber on the market. Halcyon Yarn offers bright white Himalayan nettle fiber; they included a sample in their prize pack for the 40th anniversary giveaway. A number of yarn manufacturers offer nettle, commonly in blends.
In the introduction to her book The Intentional Spinner, Judith MacKenzie writes about nettles:
“Bundles of dried nettle would be laid in the warm rainwater. Sitting across from one another around the pool, women held a long cedar plank that was flat on the top and curved on the bottom. They pounded the nettle stalks to release the strong bast fibers between the outer coating of vegetable material and the pithy inner core. . . . Day after day, they pounded and rinsed and dried, until only the long, silky nettle fibers were left. Gradually, the natural depression was enlarged and shaped by the motion of the cedar boards. Thousands of years of pounding nettle carved this perfect stone bowl on the edge of the sea. Nettle was the fabric of their life.”