Second skin: why wearing nettles is the next big thing

The author hard at work sewing
John-Paul Flintoff journeys into a world of sartorial bliss, kitting himself out in eco-friendly fabrics of the future
After watching gloomy news stories, I cheer myself up by imagining a better future where we all grow more nettles

A few months back I was unpacking a delivery of seasonal veg with my five-year-old daughter when I noticed that she'd stopped helping. I looked round and saw that she'd peeled a couple of leaves off a cabbage and was fashioning them into a pair of shoes.

She may possibly have got the idea from me - because for the last couple of years I've become almost obsessed with taking control of my life by, among other things, making my own clothes. Having rescued an old, treadle-powered sewing machine from landfill, I've used it to make a fitted shirt and several pairs of jeans, while I've used an assortment of other tools to mend or modify sweaters, hats and underwear.

I've even made a rudimentary pair of shoes - though not quite as rudimentary as Nancy's.

It's all very well making clothes, as I've done, out of imported fabrics and materials, but with climate change and peak oil looming, we will soon have to start using local materials.

What will we use? Not cabbages, that's for sure.

A paradoxical effect of having been a colonial power is that people in Britain, having relied for so long on cheap cotton from overseas, have largely forgotten which local materials can be used for textiles - apart from wool, and linen (from flax).

Happily, a number of people are doing their bit to raise awareness of other fibres. A number of them choose to talk up hemp.

Speaking for myself, I must confess that when I first heard about using hemp for clothing I thought immediately that this was bound to be second-rate, suitable only for shabby dope-fiends and beardy-weirdies. I was mistaken. Check out this fulsome plaudit, which I found online, from an American clothes-maker:

'Of all the fabrics that I have known and loved, my favorite is Romanian hemp. Hemp fabrics from Romania are as rich and textured as the history of hemp itself. When I opened my first packet of Romanian hemp fabric swatches I felt a tingling sensation like I was discovering an ancient treasure.'

In fact hemp is such wonderful stuff that under Henry VIII it was illegal not to grow a bit of it. Now, alas, we've gone the other way, because the plant is related to cannabis and, though entirely free of
narcotic effect, it cannot be grown legally except with a Home Office licence, and even then only if it's locked away from public access.

Some people are not daunted by such rules, however, and have tried growing hemp in substantial quantities, including a group connected to Transition Stroud. They've had mixed results: the first crop was almost entirely eaten by deer.

But still more interesting, to my mind, is an even more common and no less reviled plant, the nettle.

Ray Harwood, formerly of de Montfort University's Nettle Project, told me all about it. In the early years of the 20th century, he explained, Britain controlled 90 per cent of world cotton. And for reasons that must be obvious, Austria-Hungary and Germany were keen to develop alternatives - acutely so, by the time of the First World War, in which they would have had to fight naked if cotton became unavailable.

The work of developing an alternative was overseen by a man legendary in the admittedly small nettle-fibre industry: Professor G. Bredeman of Hamburg University spent decades trying to grow the finest varieties of nettle, and continued doing so into the Second World War and beyond.

By then, the British cotton industry had been all-but destroyed, what with Gandhi teaching Indians to spin and weave cotton themselves and American cotton supplies cut off by the U-boats. But, alas, the
nettle's big moment was ruined by the advent of cheap synthetics.

Bredeman's research was not altogether in vain, however, because in 1990 it was rediscovered by members of the University of Hamburg Institute of Applied Botany. They found live nettles, and photographs, and samples of nettle fabric. Nine years later, with EU backing, companies in Germany, Austria and Italy started to look into developing nettles commercially, using clones of high-fibre nettles cultivated over many years by Bredeman.

Moral fibres

Unlike hemp, the nettle is a perennial, which means that it can be propagated vegetatively, rather than just sown from seed. After six weeks in the greenhouse, cuttings are transplanted to the field. There is no crop in the first year as the plants need to establish themselves but afterwards the plants can be havested year after year. The yield in the second year is between 1.5 and 2.5 metric tonnes per hectare. By the third and fourth year the harvest could amount to 4 tonnes, or 4,000 kilos. It takes about 40 kilos to provide enough material for one shirt, so a hectare of nettles could in its third year of production provide fibre for 100 shirts - as well as a great quantity of byproducts, including sugar, starch, protein and ethyl alcohol, not forgetting leaves to eat as a vegetable in fancy restaurants - and at home - or for use as a tea.

At night, after watching particularly gloomy stories on the evening news about climate change or failing energy supplies, I cheer myself up by imagining that the future won't be all bad if we can only get our act together and start cultivating more nettles. On my allotment, to my neighbour's dismay, I've started to do that.

Transition Stroud's textile group recently held a workshop on nettle fibre. Somebody brought in some long-stemmed nettles, and everybody set about trying to extract fibre.

'The ones that were most successful had the thickest, woody stems," Emily Smith told me afterwards. "We just bashed them. Every so often up the stem you find a ring, where the leaves were, and then bash those rings and split it lengthways with a knife and open it out and pull out the hard inside. Then peel off the fibres in bundles and then pull them apart. You can get quite long fibres. We twisted them together and they formed a cord. We twisted various lengths, from very fine - less than 1mm thick, for sewing - to very thick. It was really strong. Even the individual fibres we couldn't break.'

Nettle fabric, experts report, is good quality because the fibres can be long: anything above 1 3/8 inch is equal to the best Egyptian cotton.
Nettle can be dyed and bleached in the same way as cotton, and when mercerized (given a lustre by submerging in a strong alkali solution) is only slightly inferior to silk. It has been considered much superior to cotton for velvet and plush. In fact nettle fabric can be such good stuff that, as a publicity stunt, Harwood and his colleagues at de Montfort had a load of nettle turned into a bikini. You can still see the pictures on the internet.

Inspired by this unusual outfit I have decided to use my power as a consumer to encourage material manufacturers to make more of nettle. After a long search, I found nettle fibre and nettle yarn from a
supplier in France - local enough, for the time being - and I used it to knit a toy animal for Nancy. I also found what appears to be the only material made in Britain with nettle as a component: a sturdy
nettle-wool blend from Camira Fabrics in Yorkshire. It was tremendously thick, designed for use in furniture, but I remembered Vivienne Westwood urging people to make clothes out of curtains, and decided that this didn't matter. Anyway, it can't fail to be better than using cabbage leaves.

John-Paul Flintoff is the author of Through The Eye Of A Needle: The true story of a man who went searching for meaning and ended up making his Y-fronts (Permanent Publications, 2009, £7.95)

Local, sustainable clothing

Clothes can be made out of all kinds of materials but traditionally they've been woven or knitted using yarns made from animal hair or plant fibres (or stitched using leather). Several of the big suppliers have started to produce yarns produced in the UK, and specialists will sell you more unusual ones - including (from the animal world) angora and alpaca and (from the vegetable kingdom) nettle and hemp.

UK Alpaca
Alpaca yarn sourced from animals in the UK. Alpaca is said to be softer and also stronger than the finest sheep's wool. Yarn supplied for
hand-knitting and also on cones, for machines.

The House of Hemp
Hemp fabrics and also a wide range of yarns in hemp, which is produced in Europe but hand-dyed in the UK.

Rowan Yarns
One of the major yarn suppliers, Rowan produces a range of undyed British sheep breed wools, including pale and glossy Bluefaced Leicester
and darker, coarser Black Welsh.

Alysse Creations
French web-based company that sells nettle fibre for you to spin yourself, or pre-spun nettle yarn. (Note: French word for nettle is
ortie.) Proprietors don't seem to realise that this is the future: they sell the yarn as 'useful for repairing medieval fabrics'. Also sell
hemp, linen, and other fibres.

Prick Your Finger
Extraordinary shop/gallery where you can see installations such as a full-sized crocheted bathroom suite, and also buy yarns spun on the
premises by the owners from any of the more than 60 different British sheep breeds, and also using recycled silk, shredded video cassette tape and brightly coloured carrier bags. My favourite supplier.

After watching gloomy news stories, I cheer myself up by imagining a better future where we all grow more nettles


For ethical and sustainable suppliers of clothing products goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here


More from this author