Nettle processing

Last summer I picked some stinging nettles (urticaria dioica) and dew retted them together with my flax harvest. Just as with my tiny flax patch I wanted to experiment with nettles and see what I could find. Today I share my nettle processing and thoughts.

Everything I have done in this experiment has been just that – an experiment and something to relate to in later nettle experiments. This is my only experience with nettles and I can’t tell the cause of different outcomes, only speculate. I can just observe and learn. And there is a beauty in that.

Dew retted

When the flowers had almost finished flowering I picked my first nettles. This was in the end of July. I picked the tallest ones without side shoots and stripped the leaves off. I dried them in tent-line shapes, just like the flax and dew retted later in the autumn. The nettles required a little longer retting period than the approximately 20 days I aim for with flax.

Dew retted (left) and root retted nettle stems. The dew retted stems have the typical spotted look just like dew retted flax.

With no previous experience with nettle retting I wasn’t sure what level of retting was enough. In hindsight I realize that I should have retted a bit longer for a better result.

Root retted

I also read that I could use root retted nettles. That is, nettles that had retted on their growth place over the winter. Harvest day was a sunny day in February, not long before the new shoots would appear.

I felt so good about walking out to one of the spots I had looked out during the summer and harvest what no one would look twice at, just a bundle of last year’s decay.

I am really fascinated by the root retting option. Nature is brilliant in so many ways! I just picked what nature had left to die in its natural cycle and I rescued 60 or so of the still standing stems. I did pick some that had fallen too but they had overretted and were of no use for fiber.

Breaking

A couple of weeks ago I decided to break my nettle stems. I had read about baking the nettle first to make it easier for the fibers to loosen from the core. Heat was the issue here, and I decided to place my nettle stems in my mini greenhouse for a couple of hours on a sunny day.

As I took the two bundles outside the difference between them struck me. The dew retted looked just like that – dew retted, with the dark spots that are typical for dew retted flax. The root retted nettles on the other hand had an even reddish brown colour. As I peeled off some fibers the dew retted were shiny and strong and the root retted matte and somewhat weaker, at least in the samples I tried.

Dew retted (left) and root retted (right) nettle fibers after a turn in the flax break.

I knew nettle processing would be a lot more labour intensive than the already labour intensive flax processing and I was not wrong. Aside from nettles being fewer and harder to hunt the stems are longer and harder to break. Still there was a moment of magic as I started breaking my dry stems: I could actually see fibers!

Scutching

There was a lot of boon (the woody parts) entangled in the fibers and I wondered if I would have to pick them out one by one.

As I had finished breaking both bundles I scutched them. A lot of boon fell out but there was very much left in the fibers. Then I remembered something I saw in a video with Allan Brown – he rubbed the fibers between his hands. This would create heat and make the boon be easier to remove.

Root retted (top) and dew retted (bottom) after scutching and rubbing.

And that is just what happened – a lot of the boon fell out of the preparation as I rubbed the stricks between my palms. The fibers also got a bit softer.

Hackling

I used my rough and fine hackles in the hackling stage of the process. This part was also quite labour intensive – there was more boon and in bigger parts than in flax. I also got more convinced about my theory about the underretted dew retted nettle stems – there was more waste in the dew retted strick than in the root retted strick.

After the fine hackling the fibers were aligned and detangled. I still wasn’t completely happy with them, though. A lot of the fibers were still bundled together, making them coarse. As I hackled the fibers I saw sweet tufts of super soft but very short fibers. I wanted to incorporate these in the yarn. So I saved what soft tufts I could find and kept thinking how to get more of that softness.

Rubbing and scraping

Since the rubbing had worked after the scutching I kept rubbing the now hackled stricks to soften them. I took a small bundle of fiber and rubbed it for about twenty minutes and went on to the next bundle.

The warmth and the agitation did help a lot with the softness, but there was still bark left. I re-watched a clip with Allan Brown again. He used a blunt knife to scrape off the bark, which I tried too. It worked and some more of it came off.

Broken, scutched, rough hackled, fine hackled, rubbed and scraped nettle fibers, root retted (left and middle) and dew retted (right).

As you can see in all the pictures there is at least double the amount of root retted nettle fiber. There may have been a little more to start with, but not much. I withhold my theory of the underretted dew retted nettles. The boon and bark feel more strongly attached to the fibers than those of the root retted fibers. More of the dew retted fibers thus break and I need to manually remove more cellulose bits.

Carding

I used a pair of fine (108 tip) cards to card the nettle fibers. This separated a lot of the fibers that had been glued together by the bark. Most of the fibers in my carded rolags were now shorter but soft, fine and ready to spin!

A note on spinning

I have spun and plied the dew retted fibers and begun spinning the root retted. The fibers are very fine and short so I need to keep my eye on the drafting and quite a lot of twist. I’m spinning a very fine yarn on a 10 gram cross-armed spindle.

The fibers feel quite dry but still work well to spin. I need to focus, though. I still feel some coarseness but seeing the transformation in the fibers through rubbing and agitating the fibers I am convinced that I can soften them even more with more rubbing after plying.

After having read up on finishing nettle yarn I have decided to treat it the same way I do my flax yarns – hot water, soda ash and soap. And then perhaps some more rubbing.

My plan is to weave a narrow band on a backstrap loom.

An accessible fiber

While nettle processing is very time consuming and labour intensive it is possible to spin it. And the more time and dedication you invest in it the bigger the chance to get a soft yarn and textile. And it works. Even with less work I will get a yarn that is usable for something.

2-plied yarn from dew retted nettles.

The sweet thing about nettles is that it is accessible. With no sheep and no ground to grow flax in you can always go out and look for nettles. And if you don’t want to take the nurseries from the small tortoiseshell or other butterflies or fertilization material from your garden you can even pick them in the winter. So go out and gather your nettles! Either when they are ready to pick fresh for dew retting (check resources below for further reading about what to look for) or when they have root retted in late winter.

Resources:

Happy spinning!


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