Life Yarn

Let’s talk about nettles (and other plant fibres)!

As I mentioned in a previous post about my Ancasta Dress, the nettle (Urtica dioica) is – despite its mean reputation – the most underestimated and versatile little plant I can think of. I may be biased, since I have many warm memories related to nettles, in addition of course to the stingy and painful memories that probably everyone who has had close encounters with nettles have. But let’s take a closer look at what this stingy little thug can be used for!

Nettle as nutrition

Nettle is rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, silicon, beta-carotene, folic acid and vitamin C, the nettle seeds being the most nutritious part of nettle. They contain all the goodies of nettle, vitamin A and C, iron, calcium, magnesium and silicon. Personally, I am more familiar with the use of Nettle leaves, which I’ve used as key ingredient to soups and pancakes since my childhood. Making nettle pancakes with my mummi (grandmother) at our summer house is among the warmest and dearest food-memories I have. During the past few years I’ve also foraged nettle in Helsinki, in the nearby woods, and used the dried or blanched leaves in sauces, pancakes or just as seasoning in pretty much any food (even on top of pizza!).

Nettle leaves and seeds has been used to support well-being through history in many ways. There are many health claims related to nettle at the moment in European Food Safety Authority EFSA’s register (EU Register of nutrition and health claims made on foods) waiting for verification. However with nettle you have to be mindful where you collect it. Nettle collects nitrates from the soil, and therefore picking them near composts our outdoor toilets is not a good idea.

If you don’t want to or can’t go forageing for nettle, I warmly recommend getting to know Mettä Nordic’s wonderful nettle products, including eg. super yummy Nettle Pesto.

The Nordic Silk – Nettle as a fibre

Did you know that until the 19th century, nettle was really widely used in fibres in Europe since the Iron Age? It was only the mass production of cotton (production mostly through slavery) that replaced the traditional Nesseltuch, causing it to basically vanish. Cotton fibres were also easier and thus cheaper to extract than nettle fibres. However, cotton is more at risk to mildew, and therefore the fields require tons of chemicals and pesticides sprayed on them. The nettle on the other hand does not mildew, which makes the chemical load for the environment dramatically lower.

Today, up to 70% percent of all the cotton in the world is produced in the US, China, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. The bloody and cruel history of cotton industry in the US is of course widely known, but lately it has become evident that the human-right violations related to cotton trade aren’t all in the past. According to many sources, nearly 85% percent of the cotton produced in China, that is up to 20% of all cotton out there, is produced through the slavery of the Uighure people (read e.g. the report by Reuters here). For me, that is seriously off-putting, and is actively driving me to seek more ethical plant fibers to turn to.

The nettle fibers are long and sticky, and therefore very durable, even when they are wet. They are also hollow, which means they’re good for warm insulation. And what may come as a surprise, the nettle fibers are shiny like linen or silk, so they give the yarn, rope or fabric a beautiful shimmer.

I have used nettle-fortified yarn in one dress, two pairs of socks and a little neck-warmer (see pics below), and I have to say that I couldn’t be more pleased with the yarn or the end-results! And to those who think that having nettle in the yarn makes it coarse or itchy – well, all I can say is just try it! You will be positively surprised.

Other uses for nettle

So, not only is the nettle more ethical, sustainable and durable than cotton, it is also way more versatile. Not only can you use it in fabrics and as nutrition, but you can also brew natural pesticide from it, and use it for dyeing yarn and fabric! The colour of the dye varies depending on the time of year you forage the nettle and what kind of mordant you use, but if you’re looking for a yellow tone, why not try nettle!

More plant fibers, please!

So not only am I a big fan of nettle, but also other plant fibers, perhaps excluding (new) cotton. I’ve recently ordered massive amounts of wool-linen blend yarns (eg. Linnea DK by Kässäkerho Pom Pom), and I can’t wait to get started on some amazing, sustainable projects! Also, I made the cutest little cardi for my daughter from Bouton D’Or Perenne, a wool-linen blend, which is sadly discontinued. (This project actually restored my faith in the human race – the story of the FO is coming up shortly!)

Furthermore, I recently started to work on my version of the Flower Buds tee (from Laine Magazine no. 8) using a Tencel Bamboo yarn (by Go Handmade). I’m not yet 100% convinced that the yarn is the best match for the pattern, but I’ll report on the process when I’ve worked it a bit further.

So here’s a tip to all yarn producers out there: drop the nylons, and start adding linen, nettle or other sustainable, plastic-free choices to your yarns for fortification! You will have my money – and I’m sure I’m not alone with my prerogative.

Happy knitting – hopefully with less plastic on the needles!

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