sustainability

Nettles – the fabric of the future

stinging nettles2One 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.

20 comments

  1. I did a quick check over here in GER, and indeed: Nettle canvas are hard to get, though nettles (Brennesseln) aren’t. a quick Google search gave a single source: http://www.naturstoff.de/shop/Stoffe/Brennessel/Allo-Brennesselstoffe/900097/c.html?

    The only manufacturer and wholesaler in the country apparently was a company named “Stoffkontor Kranz” that filed for bancrupcy in 2009. A pitty… there is absolutely no reasonable reason to not use nettle fibres – or hemp for that matter.

    1. Nice to know you can buy it online, but it’s a shame it’s come all the way from Nepal! Kind of defeats the object a little. But as you say, there’s no reason why this can’t be done commercially. It just needs someone to pick it up and make it happen.

      1. Yes – it’s ridiculous to ship it from Nepal. When I look out of the window I can see nettles growing everywhere in summer. I suppose the harvesting process also could be automated. Cheap competition most likely still is the problem. That is likely to change sooner or later. I’d be interested to see what the cloth feels like to the touch. Some describe it as soft and silky.

    2. The Allo fibres mentioned here are Nilgiri Nettle or Himalayan Giant Nettle (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girardinia_diversifolia). This is only rather distantly related to our British/European nettle, but a number of UK outlets are selling Allo products, and it seems a worthwhile enterprise, providing market outlets for Himalayan producers. See these for example:
      http://www.transrural.org/everest.php
      http://www.hnff.org

      I’ve volunteered with Transrural, and i think they’re a good outfit

  2. “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.”

    While we can debate cannabis legalisation, there is hardly “no good reason whatsoever” not to grow it. I assume that a throw away line.

    Nettles have a bad reputation so to get this going you’d need a new name for nettle fibre. How about ‘Urtica’ or variations on that theme.

    1. No, not a throwaway line. Hemp looks like cannabis, but has no narcotic effects at all. I have a friend who works at an agricultural research facility that used to grow hemp, and they regularly had people pulling up at the edge of field and taking cuttings. Nobody would come back for seconds, there’s no high to be had from smoking hemp.

      Presumably it’s banned to avoid confusing the police, but it would be possibly to license it far more locally if we wanted to grow it commercially. Currently you have to get permission from the Home Office, which seems rather paranoid.

      Interesting you should think of Urtica. There’s a company in Italy that markets nettle cloth under that name.

      1. I didn’t say I was against it, just that I thought Jeremy was being a bit throw away with an issue that has points on both sides. Personally I’d legalise the stuff (Personal liberty and that). So let the free market reign! Same with nettle cloth. If cotton goes up in price then the free market will being in alternatives like nettle cloth.

        One possible lesson is the need for a strong navy. That’s real food security and saves us having to make ertsatz things.

  3. Hemp is surely the way to go, in countries of Northern Europe (no reason to fear that the plant would produce cannabis instead of fibers). It is grown perfectly legally in France where we use it as a building material for thermal insulation.

    And you forgot to mention flax, which was even more appreciated than hemp, and used in fabrics all over Europe until cotton became cheap. It is still grown in continental europe, both for the fibers (for linen and fabrics) and the seeds (very rich in omega-3 fatty acids).

    1. I’ve come across banana plates and things here, marketed as alternatives to plastic picnic-ware. It’s a good use of banana fibre, since you have to cut down a banana tree after it’s fruited. We used to grow them when I was in Madagascar. You can use pineapple fibre too.

  4. Just figured out: Growth of low THC fibre hemp has been legal in Germany again for a while – actually it is legal in the entire EU, only the way it is handled by the auhorities differs starkly. in GER it has to be registered with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Building insulation is one major application – would be also an application for nettle fibres, I presume. Even the bad image of urtica could be put to good use… the nettles “protect” the house! http://www.thermo-hanf.de/1/wir-ueber-uns/produktion/index.html

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