About the nettle fibre
Textile pieces made from nettle fibres have been found in various parts of the world. Especially in the northern hemisphere. Some finds come from Denmark, Scandinavia, but also from Russia, Japan, China, the Himalayas and our region (Switzerland) where the fibre was found. However, it is not always the common stinging nettle, Urtica dioica,but there are many other species of nettles in the world. In the Himalayas, for example, the Himalayan nettle Girardinia diversifolia is harvested. In Japan, Boehmeria silvestrii and in China, Boehmeria nivea,also known as Ramie or Chinese nettle..
Science has been able to prove that nettle fibres were found on the Neolithic mummified man "Ötzi", and archaeological finds date back to the Bronze Age, about four millennia ago. Since then, isolated pieces of textile have appeared again and again in history. However, as objects made of plant material decompose quickly, there is not much evidence. In the 20th century, however, scientists re-examined ancient textiles and discovered that some were wrongly called "linen cloth" when they were actually made of nettle fibres. This is rarely the case, but it does suggest that supposed linen products of the past may well have been made from nettle fibres. However, this remains unclear, as there are few records.
In Denmark, for example, a nettle textile was found in a burial mound dating back to the Bronze Age. Research shows that this piece of fabric originally came from what is now Austria. Although the cultivation of linen also increased at that time, textiles were still produced from wild nettles. Indeed, when the fibres are carefully cleaned, the feel of nettle fabric is very similar to that of raw silk.
During the colonial period, fabric made from ramie was imported. The findings from this period do not therefore necessarily have to come from our native nettle. And when something was called "nettle fabric", it may have been nettle fibre at first; however, the word was later used to refer to a characteristic of a fabric, regardless of the fibre from which it is made.
Nettle fibre was also used for sails, ropes and fishing nets.
During the two world wars, a great deal of research was carried out on the possibilities of cultivation and on how to obtain nettle fibre mechanically. In Germany and Austria, in order to no longer depend on resources from abroad, for example cotton from the United States, which was considered hostile at the time. From this time, the nettle Urtica Dioica L. convar. fibra was cultivated, which contains ten percent more fibre than the common nettle.
Cultivation and the development of suitable machinery proved difficult, and the nettle therefore fell into oblivion. It was not until the early 1990s that it began to receive attention again. At the beginning of the 21st century, research was again carried out and attempts were made to obtain nettle fibre on a large scale. However, these attempts were unsuccessful because the effort and yield were not there.
In the meantime, there is a global community, mainly promoted by Nettles for Textiles, where individuals produce nettle-based textiles and exchange experiences on social media platforms.
In Northern Germany, there is a nettle fibre production company called Nettle Fibre Company®. We were not able to learn much about the fibre extraction process. However, the process is mechanical, with a "multi-purpose factory". This machine can be used for almost all bast fibres.
Nettles are grown by farmers. The fibre content of the nettle could be increased by 10-20%; the aim is to reach 30%, same as hemp. Another objective is to reduce current production costs by a third by the end of 2020. Another objective is to be able to extract 100% of long fibres. A plant contains about 75% long fibres. Up to now, their extraction has only been 10-15%; they could come close to their target there too.
Fabrics and yarns made from Himalayan nettle and ramie already exist on the market, although they are not yet very well known. With our European nettle, things are a little more difficult. The cost/benefit ratio is not yet economically efficient. A lot of research has been done on how to grow nettle; there have been some problems, because nettle does not grow so evenly. The next step was to make the machines and the entire extraction process possible on a large scale, which was and is not easy. There was research into mechanical process methods, physio-chemical process methods and microbiological process methods! So our research has been sobering.
Why is it so difficult to extract fibres from nettles, compared to flax or hemp for example?!
In the book by Gillian Edom, a nettle researcher and member of Nettles for Textiles, nettle production is planned on a small scale, i.e. private individuals produce their own fibres out of passion and hobby. However, through global exchange of knowledge and experience, it may well become possible to develop production on a larger scale.
The Nettle Fibre Company® is very positive about the future of nettle. That is why they invest a lot in development. However, much remains to be done to get more companies to get a taste for nettle. For example, farmers do not yet have a GOT certificate, and in order to be able to label the product as organic, conversion in the EU takes two years. However, nettles do not need pesticides or herbicides. Only after harvest are they fertilised with minerals. And since no ploughing is required, the CO2 balance is also very good. Compared to cotton, their production is very low, although they produce tons of fibre. However, it is unrealistic that nettle can completely or even only partially replace cotton. Because the production costs are far too high - unlike cotton.
Which textile innovations or long-established fibres are suitable as sustainable alternatives to today's common fibres and have sufficient potential to make their mark in the future?
Great potential have hemp fibres. Like nettle, hemp is a bast fibre plant. In addition, hemp grows very fast, requires little water and no pesticides. The industrial production and use of hemp has been hampered in the Western world until now by the notoriety of Cannabis sativa as a recreational drug. However, the fibre is now beginning to establish itself in the clothing sector.
In Thailand and Myanmar lotus fibres have been processed for centuries. The process is quite long and laborious, but it produces a luxurious fabric that resembles a combination of silk and raw linen.
The Taiwanese textile company Singtex® has developed a yarn made from coffee grounds.The technology by Singtex® combines processed coffee grounds with polymers before spinning it into yarn. The coffee grounds are obtained and recycled by some of the world's largest coffee merchants, such as Starbucks. At the end of their life cycle, textiles made from this yarn can be composted.
Since the 13th century, fibres of banana trees have been extracted in Japan. This practice has been replaced by other fibres, such as cotton and silk from China and India, which have become more popular. Since their return in the early 2010's, banana fibres are once again being used in many products around the world. The fibres are extracted from the trunk of the banana tree and are incredibly durable. Textiles made from banana fibres are breathable and absorbent and have a natural, almost silky shine.
The Chinese textile brand FLOCUS MADE IN KAPOK®produces yarn blends, fabrics and trimmings from Kapok . This fibre is obtained from the dried fruit of the kapok tree. Thanks to the hard spines of the trunk, no pesticides are required. The seeds, of which there are hundreds in each fruit, are protected by a fluffy fibre. The only disadvantage is that the fibre is not suitable for a 100% textile. However, mixing kapok with other materials such as cotton can save enormous amounts of water.
Yarn called the kelp yarn is produced by the company AlgiKnit®. The kelp, Laminaria digitata, a large brown algae, is one of the fastest growing organisms in the world. From the kelp is extracted alginate, a substance comparable to pectin, which gives the aquatic plant its typical suppleness. Alginate is combined with other renewable biopolymers to produce biodegradable textile fibres. The fibres are strong and stretchy enough to be knitted by hand or machine.
Spinning dog hairinto Chiengora is not a new art form. Dog hair has been found in yarns from prehistoric Scandinavia and in textiles from North America. The start-up Modus Intarsia is creating a network of dog wool collectors. With the help of their four-legged friends and guardians, they are producing Chiengora. Pure Chiengora is up to 80% warmer than sheep's wool.
Pineapple leaves are a by-product of the pineapple harvest in the Philippines. Pineapple leaf fibres are used Piñatex® to produce a natural non-woven textile as a vegan alternative to leather.
The centuries-old tradition of making a leather-like substance from mushrooms has been revived. The mushroom leatherproduced by the Zvnder company is hand-picked and dried for up to one year. They are then peeled and processed by hand in a laborious process. The curative properties of tinder has been known for centuries.
Hannes Parth produces apple leather from the residues of apple juice production in South Tyrol. Before processing, the coarse pieces are ground into a fine powder. In an artificial leather factory in the industrial area of Florence, the apple leather is finally mixed and applied to a fabric base. The Swiss company happy genie® , for example, produces luxury bags from this material.