So nettles…. into the Glen the season for picking is now for the fibres, after the flowering when the plants are mature. Only my second season for creating cordage from local plants. Looking for nettles that have long segments between leaves and without side shoots. I wear gloves and tear backwards along the stem to remove the leaves and the worst of the prickles.
Nettles have venom – formic acid, the same as ants and some bees. The hollow spines also inject neurotransmitters – Serotonin that acts in nettle stings as an irritant – the happy hormone turns nasty – and Hystamine which causes inflammation… another chemical involved is Acetylcholine, together these ingredients form part of the nettle sting cocktail. Our response to a sting may be enhanced by a synergetic process including oxalic acid and tartaric acid also found in nettles, which can prolong the affect.
I have grown accustomed to nettle stings and actually had come to enjoy the fizzing sensation on, under and around my skin, that is until the June bank holiday, with a spell over a long weekend in the Mercy Hospital laid up on an antibiotic drip. My complacency came back and stung me hard where it hurts. Perhaps it was those hollow spines siphoning the primordial pond water through that porous surface of the largest organ of my body, the skin. I have learnt to consider myself not altogether waterproof. So the gloves.
I brought the stalks home and pounded them gently with a large quartz rock gleaned from another Glen excursion; concentrating on the knuckles where the leaves branch off and so create eddies and ruptures in the straight path of the nettle skin walls from root to tip. After the pulverising of the rigid inner stem I was able to strip the long outer stems into a few parts. Next task is to remove the fleshy pith from the inside of the bast filaments (the phloem, or the vascular part of the plant). This can be done by snapping back over the bark skin and peeling off the inner woody pith in sections, circumnavigating the joints and keeping the usable bark and fibre lengths long. Altogether quite a satisfying process. The Paleolithic Craft Revivalist, Sally Pointer, uses a bone handled palette knife (the old fashioned tableware kind) to scrape back the flesh and so I follow suit with Auntie Esmes’s heirloom to further strip away the green outer bark from the inner strands … our paleolithic ancestors would have used a flint flake. Some other nettle harvesters I’ve seen use only the more elusive white filaments between bark and pith. In my novice processing I found it easiest to produce long sections including the bark, nevertheless, on each breakage of the pith I encounter lively shorter whisps of the fine white filament, waving hairs like Tesla’s dome, which remain tantalisingly difficult to extract in longer sections….and anyway the bark is good for making tougher cordage, which can be surprisingly fine, fine enough to fit through the eye of a needle.
The fibres need to dry out so they can do any shrinking before further processing. I left my strands balled up in a bucket, but hanging is recommended, the aim is to leave them until most of the moisture has gone from them, overnight is fine. Re-soaking fibres as and when makes for a more supple handling when creating cordage.
There is growing interest in nettle fibres as an alternative to the water heavy usage of cotton production. This modern fabric is called Ramie. The hollow fibres render nettles more effective as an insulating material in textile production where can be handled much like flax. Retting – skutching – hackling – spinning – weaving. Nettles were used in prehistoric times for fabric and also in the European wars for making uniforms when other textiles were in short supply.
See here about Nettle Stings
Sally Pointer shows how to make Nettle Cordage:
Historic Nettle Textiles
Contemporary making nettle fabric
Ramie is the generic name for fabric made from the nettle family, and it was the cloth the Egyptians used for binding mummies. Though the cloth made fromthe European stinging nettle is known, more prosaically, as Nettlecloth.