I recently bought a collection of non-wool fibres to experiment with. The first one I chose to spin was ramie (from a type of nettle not found in Europe).

I really enjoyed spinning this fibre. Something about the activity hit the sweet spot in my brain. So, I was delighted when the latest Permaculture Magazine had an article about preparing fibre to spin from European nettles.

My local organic farm has a plentiful supply of Urtica dioica and the farmer was more than happy for me to pick my own. So, once the stems were a reasonable length I got my shears and did a bit of chopping.

Now, the stems have been stripped of their leaves and are sitting on my drive, retting. This means they are being exposed to rain/dew to make it easier to remove the bast (outer layers of the stem) in due course. There are other methods of retting but this one is not only the most environmentally friendly, it is also the most convenient.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll put the stems in the airing cupboard so that they can be dried before the next stage in the fibre preparation. Removing the bast could be a messy job, so all being well the good weather can continue so that I can do the job outside!

About Helen

I have always been interesting in living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle and used to do what I could. Now, I have come to realise that we have reached such a point in terms of environmental degradation that it is more important - perhaps - to focus on building resilience. I therefore do as much as I can to reuse, grow my own and encourage a supportive community, for example. I also keep reading and learning all the time.
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15 Responses to Retting

  1. oh good luck! that looks like a lot of work but fun to be able to knit with nettles!

  2. Nettles and fibre – one of my favourite subjects. It was one of those projects we always meant to do when we were on the farm. Good luck with it.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you! And never too late to give it a go.

      Why are nettles and fibre one of your favourite subjects?

      • So much history in nettles – medical, culinary and textiles.. Used in Bronze Age and still used today as a fashion fabric. An amazing but relatively unknown story. By the end of WW1 the majority of German uniforms were reportedly made from nettles, though it sounds a bit far fetched.

        • Helen says:

          Nettles are certainly an easily available plant, unlike flax, which I think needs to be cultivated. So, depending how easy it is to turn the plants into yarn, the majority of the uniforms could well have been made from nettles.

          One of my friends used to have a piece of clothing made from ramie. I think at least in Britain that is quite niche – the first I heard of nettles being useful for making fabric was at the Eden Project in 2015.

          At that time, it seemed almost magical but, having now learned considerably more about fibres through my interest in spinning, I am simply amazed by what the world can give us.

          I’d like to be able to show the world that sustainable clothing is a reality. Possibly that is a motivation for a lot of crafters these days.

          The quest in part will be getting people to pay a realistic price for such goods. Or we could go back to the Middle Ages idea of everyone making their own clothes.

          • When I first looked at it the Italians were buying Himalayan nettles and using them in expensive jackets but the fabric seems a little more available these days.

          • Helen says:

            I just did a quick internet search – it seems Himalayan nettle is the third type of nettle used in cloth apart from ramie and European nettle. I will try and source some of it so I can compare the qualities.

            It seems European nettle is considered difficult to grow commercially. That baffles me in view of their ubiquitous nature on any spare ground. So, part of my quest is to see if these are myths or if there is any substance to the claims.

          • The Germans tried to grow it as part of their war effort and it seems that they couldn’t cultivate it – just had to harvest them where they found them. Maybe, with modern techniques we could manage it.

          • Helen says:

            Yes, I think it is a true wild plant and so does what it wants. I notice in the country park overseen by the Wildlife Trusts near our house that pioneer plants such as silver birch and brambles have filled most niches (apart from grass), so presumably nettles aren’t terribly fussed about this environment.

            Actually, I get the impression they prefer more cultivated land, like they know they’re annoying the neighbours. Or they like to grow along paths – again a perverse sense of humour? Bless!

  3. Going Batty in Wales says:

    Have you come across the blog on WordPress ‘onesmallstitch’? Jean is something of an expert on spinning and weaving especially in the Japanese traditions. I have learned so much from her! From one of her posts I seem to remember that nettle gives a yarn that is not very hard wearing which is why it is not used commercially. However as you say the raw material is readily available and it would be interesting to have a go with it. Good luck and do tell us all how you get on.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you for recommending ‘onesmallstitch’. I will look into Jean’s blog.

      I’m also pleased to learn about nettle yarn not being particularly hard-wearing, which would of course be a possible reason why it is not widely used. When I make something with the yarn, I will be interested to see how it fares.

  4. Clare Pooley says:

    Good luck with this interesting project, Helen. Until fairly recently, hemp was grown locally to me here and was then retted and spun as a cottage industry. A lot of the village, cottage and lane names refer to hemp or the processes it went through e.g. Hempnall, Retters Lane.

  5. gaiainaction says:

    Most interesting Helen, the versatile nettle. I will find out how you got on in some of your other posts no doubt.

I love to read about your own experiences and any other feedback you have, so look forward to your comments below.

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