Nettle's History: Longer Than You May Think!
Posted by : Ashley Southard /
The fashion industry is huge: at an estimated value of $2.4 trillion, with a steady annual growth rate of anywhere from 3-5%, it’s not going anywhere (and even if it was, realistically, it would still be pretty big).
But have you ever stopped to
think about what’s behind this industry?
Sure, there’s the billions of dollars in advertising, which makes people believe they must have these new garments (that’s its own problem entirely), but there’s the fashion itself: the clothes, the textiles that go into making those clothes, and the people that make the textiles that go into those clothes.
If you think that cotton harvesting slavery ended in the 1800’s, you’d be mistaken. Just a few years ago, the rampant cotton factory slavery in Bangladesh was uncovered – and we still can’t be sure it has all been stopped.
And behind those textiles, there’s the crops harvested to create them – most often done with harmful chemicals, excessive water, and even worse, microplastics that degrade with each process (including washing when in the consumer’s possession). A few scary facts from Green America’s 2019 report:
Victor Hugo from Les Miserables:
One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: "They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!" He added, after a pause: "Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators."
We must remember that that there are no bad plants or bad people, but bad processes that have perpetuated over time to meet the demands of cut-throat economy. When we take the time to slow down, acknowledge the damage we’re doing through these practices, and identify alternatives, we are able to realign ourselves as good “cultivators” – of both nettle and the world’s wellbeing.
Nettle’s Textile-Rich History
Would you be surprised to know that the most common use of nettle years and years ago was as a textile? Nettle’s use as a garment dates back to the Egyptian age! The only reason nettle fiber use declined was because of the increase in the cotton textile industry around the 1600s!
Nettle Through the Ages:
Bronze Age (3400-500 BC): nettle textiles found in burial sites. Research uncovers that the nettle textiles used in these times were spliced, not spun.
European Age (1500-1700): Nettle textiles are the European choice for everything from bedsheets and tablecloths to heavy-duty sails.
Sottish Period (1800): nettle is used in Scotch Cloth – the term used to describe the nettle fabric that the Scottish created and used.
World War I (1914-1918): Germans use nettle in their uniforms, in underclothes, stockings, and tarps when cotton supply ran low. Fishing nets were also made with nettle twine – and, fun fact – nettle was woven in with wool to make all their socks less itchy.
Currently: nettle fibers are thankfully making their way back into the textile industry as we shift to more eco-friendly practices. Why? Read on…
Comfort: It’s an excellent thermal regulator: being the hollowest of any fiber, it’s breathable in warm environments, and keeps heat insulted in cold environments. Additionally, it’s got a bit of spring to it, so unlike hemp and linen, it’s a bit softer and more flowing.
Sustainability: nettle is essentially a weed; it grows uncontrollably and insanely fast, making it quickly renewable, in addition to growing with essentially no input. Requiring no pesticides or fertilizers, and only the water that’s naturally occurring, nettle requires no toxins in its harvest. Because the nettle requires no toxic treatment and is a 100% natural fiber, it’s completely biodegradable!
Promising application: nettle can be spun dry, but can also be spun on cotton equipment, so there is no reason why cotton factories now cannot be shifting their production to more sustainable, chemical-free nettle textile factories.
Local livelihood support: nettle harvesting requires labor from the surrounding communities, especially in the case of Himalayan nettle (which is always high up in rural Eastern mountains). Because nettle is a year-round plant, workers can harvest the nettle during their off standard farming seasons, providing a better livelihood for their families.
- Bleak alternatives: cotton has been identified as one of the most unsustainable crops (it takes anywhere from 300-650 gallons of water to grow enough conventional, high-yield cotton to produce 1 cotton t-shirt!), while hemp and jute are excellent but not as soft as the average consumer would like. Nettle offers a softer, sustainable alternative.
Know your Nettle:
What’s the difference between common and Himalayan nettle?
Both nettle species are harm-free to the environment when harvested by humanely treated workers in sustainable environments. The main difference is in the length of the fibers: because the common nettle is shorter, the fibers are shorter than the Himalayan nettle, which has the longest fibers known to mankind! Additionally, Himalayan nettle inherently has less potential environmental toxin uptake because it comes from such high altitudes, away from everyday toxin pollution.
Remember, we vote with our wallets. Every time we swipe our cards or exchange currency of any kind, we’re signaling to the market to keep doing/making that item. If we shift our “votes” (purchases) to things that are only sustainable and contribute to the world’s wellbeing, we will economically shift the production of the products that are deleterious to the environment.
We encourage you to give nettle a try – for the environment and for your comfort - even Prince Charles is doing it!
Take advantage of this week's special: 25% off any nettle items in our store. Use code: NETTLE