One of the big considerations in ethical fashion is the choice of fabric. Cotton is the most common natural fibre used in fashion, but there are a number of problems with cotton. It is water intensive, and uses a disproportionate amount of pesticides compared to other crops. Cotton growing accounts for 3% of cultivated land, but 20% of all pesticide use. This has consequences for soil and water quality, biodiversity, and human health.
You can grow organic cotton, by yields are lower. Or there is GM cotton, which was supposed to reduce the need for pesticides. The jury is still out on whether it does or not, as it seems to have quite complicated effects on insect populations. There are alternatives to cotton however. Bamboo grows fast and sustainably, but the chemicals comes in the processing instead. Hemp is a traditional fibre in Britain and used to be the main source of clothing in the past. Unfortunately it is currently illegal to grow it, for no good reason whatsoever.
That brings us to nettles. They grow everywhere, whether you want them or not, as any gardener will tell you. They are perennial, which means you can harvest them every year. They produce high quality fibre – strong, versatile, and a good length for spinning. And no, they don’t sting.
It’s been used before. During the First World War Britain controlled 90% of the world’s cotton trade, which was something of a headache for those who could not longer trade with Britain. Nettles were developed as an alternative, and were used to make uniforms for German troops. The end of the war and the development of synthetic fibres meant that nettle cloth never took off, but it remains a forgotten sustainable alternative.
It has been successfully scaled up more recently too, thanks to extensive research at De Montford University’s STING project (Sustainable Technologies in Nettle Growing). Camira Fabrics produce nettle and wool mixed fabric for upholstery – nettle is naturally fire retardant as well as strong, so it is well suited to furnishing. As far as I know nobody is selling nettle clothing yet, but John Paul Flintoff experiments with it in his book Sew Your Own and it’s clearly possible. Maybe that’s something to think about next time you go for a walk and come across a nettle patch.