Nettles

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It had been a time of constant anxiety and watchfulness. The settlers were a handful in comparison with their vigilant enemies. But little corn had been raised; the cattle were practically gone; few horses were now left... As for clothing, there was little to be had, although from the fiber of nettles a rude cloth was made....' Thwaites, 1902:145

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from Source:Earle, 1898:211

The colonists were constantly trying to find new materials for spinning, and also used many makeshifts. Parkman, in his Old Regime, tells that in the year 1704, when a ship was lost that was to bring cloth and wool to Quebec, a Madame de Repentigny, one of the aristocrats of the French- Canadian colony, spun and wove coarse blankets of nettle and linden bark. Similar experiments were made by the English colonists. Coarse thread was spun out of nettle-fibre by pioneers in western New York. Levi Beardsley, in his Reminiscences, tells of his mother at the close of the last century, in her frontier home at Richfield Springs, weaving bags and coarse garments from the nettles which grew so rankly everywhere in that vicinity. Deer hair and even cow's hair was collected from the tanners, spun with some wool, and woven into a sort of felted blanket.

Silk-grass, a much-vaunted product, was sent back to England on the first ships and was everywhere being experimented with. Coarse wicking was spun from the down of the milkweed — an airy, feathery material that always looks as if it ought to be put to many uses, yet never has seemed of much account in any trial that has been made of it.



It perhaps seems strange, but at one time, nettles were a common source of fiber for weaving into cloth. Indeed, in some parts of the world, the species is still used for this purpose. This species is widely distributed throughout the eastern United States

From Source:Hulme, 1902:156-159. (Hulme is speaking of plants in England, but many of the species he discusses are also found in North America.)

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"Tender-fingered grasp a nettle, and it stings you for your pains; grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains."

The nettle, especially in the northern and midland counties, is often boiled as a table vegetable, the action of heat destroying its poisonous nature. As we have, wherever practicable, tested the various statements that, from Pliny downwards, have been made about our British plants, the edible nature of the stinging nettle came in its turn for experiment. Stinging nettles grew abundantly around us, but we can only say that after the first experiment we did not find ourselves hankering after them. Bryant, who wrote a book called the " Flora Dietetica,"...says…that the leaves of the stinging nettle are " not unpleasant to the taste." This, however, is not a very high measure of commendation.

[Bryant] adds that they are an excellent antiscorbutic, and powerfully efficacious in all cutaneous trouble, and " nettle tea " is still a very popular spring medicine in some parts of the country. In Scotland it is the custom to stir some oatmeal in with it. Externally used, a bunch of stinging nettles was held by our forefathers an excellent thing to "let out melancholy," and to promote the warmth of the body; it was also sometimes used as a remedy, or at least a reputed remedy, in chronic rheumatism, cramp, and loss of muscular power. As our zeal for practical experiment stopped at a point short of this flagellation, we cannot, from personal knowledge, testify how far this treatment is sound, though it certainly would appear more likely to induce melancholy than to let it out. There can be little doubt, we imagine, but that a vigorous application, of course by another person, would promote the warmth of the body, and, possibly, even warmth of language.
Before the advent of cotton from America, somewhere about a century ago, the stinging nettle was held in great repute by the careful housewife, as its fibre, spun and woven, yielded an excellent material for anything, from stout rope to delicate lace, and it was quite open to our ancestors to dine off nettle tops, served on a nettle table-cloth, and then to retire to rest between nettle sheets. [See Retting]. The plant has also been advantageously used in the manufacture of paper.


Often it was very difficult to secure the raw material to make this clothing. The flax crop at times failed as the land was too loose for it to do well in. The flax roots are very short and the new soil of that date was a very loose loam and in dry weather the flax would die out and the crop fail. At such time, when the flax failed, some one would go to the rich creek bottoms where nettles grew in abundance and secure loads of the stalks. After it was dried and rotted they broke and worked it the same as they did the flax. A strong thread could be spun from the fiber covering the stems and this thread was woven into cloth and made into clothing. Source:Cockrum, 1907:193-194

From:KillerPlants]

Nettles produce bast fibers to support their long stems. Like flax fibers, nettle fibers are extracted by retting, the process of soaking the stems in water and allowing bacteria to digest the unwanted stem tissues. Unlike annual species, flax or cotton, nettle can be harvested for several years before replanting is needed. Nettle grows fast enough that it can even be harvested more than once a year. ("Nettle, Stinging", Interactive European Network for Industrial Crops and their Applications, 2002)

During the late 1700s and early 1800s in North America, nettle was often used by settlers for thread, cordage, and cloth. Settlers took only those items they could not manufacture themselves, items had to be transported on their backs, on horseback, or by canoe. Additional clothing, fabrics, twine, and ropes were made as needed from available natural sources.


The rich soil of the river bottomlands supported large populations of wild nettles. Weather provided the retting. "The nettle, five to seven feet high, falling to the earth, would rot...during the winter and in the spring [the remaining fibers] would be gathered and prepared for the spinning-wheel and the loom." (The History of Hamilton County Ohio, Hursh and Boorom, 2002-2003)

Many of the settlers may have been familiar with nettle cloth; it was a common fabric in Scotland and the Scandinavian countries. Native Americans also used the nettles for twine, fishing lines and nets, and other items. Perhaps, nettle cloth was the very first cloth made by humans. Dr. Olga Soffer, Dr. James M. Adovasio, and Dr. David C. Hyland have re-examined various artifacts and found evidence of textiles, probably from nettle fibers, among Paleolithic peoples. ("Furs for Evening, but Cloth was the Stone Age Standby", Natalie Angier, NYTimes, Dec. 14, 1999)

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