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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.)
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.
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)