Fiber Watch: The Sartorial Sting of Nettles

The look, the feel of nettle.

If you’ve ever walked through a patch of nettles or accidentally brushed your arm on them, you might think twice about wearing a plant that gives you a painful, burning tingle. But think about this: nettle textiles actually competed strongly with the ubiquitous cotton back in Victorian times, and despite their obsession with values of restraint, the Victorians were not masochists. Neither were the cultures and civilizations that had utilized nettle fibers as textiles for thousands of years before the 19th century, since nettle fibers are extracted from the stalk of the plant, making a fabric that’s even softer and more durable than cotton.

Cultivating nettles for textile fibers is a much more sustainable alternative to cotton, as its growth rate and low-maintenance qualities mean it requires minimal amounts of water and no pesticides. Nettles grow like a weed in several parts of Europe, Africa and western North America, and are related to both hemp and flax of the bast fiber family. The plant also attracts copious amounts of wildlife and thrives even in the poorest of soil unsuitable for other crops, with the added benefit of fixing nutrients back into the soil it grows in. The plant has endless uses and can be found in anything from lotions and soaps to food, tea and wine, while the matter leftover after processing the stalk is often used for animal bedding.

Netl A/W 12

Nettle fibers are now experiencing a long awaited and deserved revival in the world of textiles and fashion, with fiber researchers and design-savvy clothing labels taking on the task of bringing us stylish and sting-free nettle garments made from nettle textiles.  Netl, a Dutch fashion label, produces stylish but simple European clothes designed by Rianne de Witte, with their A/W collection available from July 10. The first collection marries vibrant colors and geometric shapes reminiscent of Rothko paintings with clean silhouettes the Dutch are known for. Netl knitwear is made from a blend of 75% cotton and 25% nettle yarns, with the company harvesting the stinging nettle from its very own plantations and complying with fair labor standards in their Europe-based factories.

Netl Spring 12

The research staff at DeMontfort University in Leicester, UK are also pushing nettle fashions forward by eliminating the use of toxic chemicals in processing the fiber and breeding varieties of the plant that render even softer textiles. They have discovered a method of using enzymes for dissolving the lignin, a glue-like substance that makes plant stems sturdy, in order to extract the fibers to use for spinning into yarn. The university researchers have partnered up with furnishing textile producer Camira in a venture called STING: Sustainable Technologies in Nettle Growing.

Camira’s wool and nettlefabric

The nettles are all grown in the UK and blended with pure, new, traceable wool to create a hopsack weave in a range of rustic colors ideal for upholstery.  The company has noticed the excellent flame-retardant quality of the blended and durable fabric, rendering it ideal for furnishing solutions. The entire production process incorporates green electricity, non-metallic dyes, recycling of any waste and conscious use of resources, making Sting Camira’s (and the furnishing industry’s) most sustainable fabric to date.

Although many new technologies are constantly developing, fashion is always borrowing from the past. Hopefully the effects of nettle fiber reinvention will sting fashion’s fancy and make a mark.

Netl A/W 12

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