If you are a fiber artist who is familiar with northern European fairy tales, hearing about making clothing out of nettles likely makes your thoughts immediately fly to the tale of The Six Swans. First set to paper by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, this ancient tale has been told and retold by storytellers and authors throughout the ages. Widely used as food and medicine, nettles featured frequently in other European myths and fairy tales, too. Indeed, before the popularity of nettle fiber began to decline around the 17th-18th centuries, it was not uncommon to see nettle fiber used in fabric and sails. However, flax was both less expensive and had higher fiber yields, which meant that over time it became a much more popular fiber than nettle. Not every farmer gave up growing nettle for fiber, though. It was still possible to find nettle fields in Europe right up through the start of WWII.
Using nettles for fiber was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the exclusive purview of Europe. Before Europeans ever arrived in North America, most nations and cultures used nettle fiber for weaving, cords, nets, and more. There is some evidence that ancient Egyptians used cloth made of ramie, a close relative of nettle without the sting. It was used throughout Asia by spinners and weavers of many diverse cultures. To this day, Himalayan Nettles are still used for their fiber by people living in the Himalayas.
For the Thangmi in northeastern India and southern Nepal, the most transfixing tale involving nettles is that of Sunari Ama, also known as Sunari Aji, and her husband Ya’apa, the first ancestors of the Thangmi. Driven out of their homeland, Ya’apa and his brother began to look for a new land to settle. Along the way, they met Sunari Ama and her sister, daughters of a nag (snake spirit). Travelling until they reached a river, they met a fisher who ferried them across – all except Sunari Ama, that is, as the boat was too small to hold everyone. The couples split up, travelling in different directions. Sunari Ama and Ya’apa continued along the Tamakoshi River but were now on the opposite sides of the water. Keeping each other in sight as they travelled on, Sunari Ama began to spin threads out of Himalayan Nettle. Over many days, Sunari Ama spun enough nettle to make a rope. Holding on to one end, she threw the rope over the wide river to her husband. In turn, he threw half of the length back to her, making a rope bridge. Sunari Ama then crossed the bridge to rejoin her husband. They were so overjoyed to see each other that they settled there, naming their new home Rangathali.
Himalayan Nettle is known by the name nangai by the Thangmi, although the Nepalese word allo is used more commonly throughout the region to refer to Himalayan Nettle (Girardinia diversifolia). It is a member of the nettle family (Urticaceae) and is closely related to the Common Nettle or Great Nettle (Urtica dioica) found in western North America, Europe, and other continents. Although the fiber of stinging nettles from a few varied species have been used throughout history, Himalayan Nettle is the only one still grown specifically for its fiber. It has been used in clothing, as well as for more utilitarian items such as grain sacks and rope. Of course, as commercially produced cotton and synthetic clothing has become cheaper and easier to produce, Himalayan Nettle clothing has become less common. That said, the demand for nettle fiber for traditional handicrafts for both export and for tourists has helped to bolster production. There has also been an increased interest in the fiber by Western fashion designers.
The Himalayan mountains run through a number of political borders, and it is the communities and tribes living there in Nepal and India that supply much of the commercially available Himalayan Nettle fiber. Women have had a strong role the development of nettle fiber production and enterprises. There are collection and processing centers for Himalayan Nettle throughout Nepal and India; it is estimated that around 75% of the members of these collectives are women. For women from impoverished communities, the sale of nettles and nettle fiber has resulted in greater income, which is often used on their children’s education and household expenses. Over the past decade, growing and processing nettles for fiber has become an increasingly important way to earn a living for people living in remote regions of the Himalayas. Growers and cooperatives work with large fiber processors, who are also working with luxury designer brands such as PANGAIA to blend Himalayan Nettle fiber with cotton to make high-end clothing.
Fiber artists in North America and Europe are also discovering Himalayan Nettle fiber. Spinners will find that working with Himalayan Nettle is quite like working with flax, and a number of spinners will recommend that, like flax, you should wet your fingers frequently while working with it. For weavers, knitters, and crocheters who are lucky enough to have some Himalayan Nettle yarn to work with, it is quite a bit like working with linen and other yarns made of bast fibers. Like linen, the initial texture of Himalayan Nettle yarn is stiffer than wool or cotton; Himalayan Nettle will soften a little bit over time. However, unlike linen, Himalayan Nettle is less prone to wrinkling, and it is a more resilient fiber. Each Himalayan Nettle fiber has a hollow core, which results in interesting thermal properties. Fibers spun a little loose will create a yarn and fabric that will retain heat extremely well, due to the capture of warm air in that hollow core. Spinning the fibers more tightly will compress the core, creating a fabric that is cooling rather than warming.
If you are ready to try out some Himalayan Nettle fiber, we have some waiting for you! Check out our stock at our brick-and-mortar shop in Bellingham, WA, or visit us online to see what we have available. Keep on covering the world in yarn!
Photo by ArmouredCyborg, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons