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What was nettle cloth?

By Chelsie Vandaveer

June 10, 2003

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Suggested Reading – Plus Camping & Survival Technology—>Click here.

For one who has closely encountered the living plant, it is a singularly unforgettable experience. The plant is the greater stinging nettle (Urtica dioica Linnaeus). Stinging nettle is a perennial native to the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the stinging trichomes, the plants were used for millennia.

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.
A hawk owl sits on a stump near a log cabin

A hawk owl sits on a stump near a log cabin
Michael S. Quinton/National Geographic
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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.

According to Tina Hursh and Linda Boorom, 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)

The Flora of Northern Ireland, Ulster Museum has photographs of nettle taken by Paul Hackney. The stinging trichomes appear as a white fuzziness on the plant. To view the photographs, click on the link:


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Suggested Reading:

What was nettle cloth? Plants that Changed History - June 10, 2003
Nettle in, Dock out Weird Plants - June 12, 2003
Why were hops added to beer? Weird Plants - December 12, 2002
What herbs prevented evil on Midsummer's Eve? Herbal Folklore - June 24, 2002
How did flax preserve history? Plants that Changed History - April 29, 2003
What is lint? What's in a Name? - April 25, 2003
What does flax need to create fine fibers? Weird Plants - April 24, 2003
How did flax revolutionize clothing? Plants that Changed History - April 22, 2003

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