Nettles are extremely valuable plants. They offer early spring greens, beneficial herbal medicine, as well as fiber for textiles and cordage. Salish women in BC spun the nettle fiber to make fishing nets. The fiber is a bast fiber like linen and hemp, but shorter than either commercially exploited plant.
There are several species of nettle throughout the world. One variety in the Himalayas has a sting so poisonous that it will kill a man. But most of us can safely deal with nettle stings as they come, using plantain. Its a small price to pay for the privilege of working with this useful and prolific fiber.
Nettles are ready to harvest for fiber in August when the plants are tall, seeds are forming, and the new growth begins to come up from the rootzone. The leaves are beginning to wilt and yellow but there is still a lot of water in the stem. At this time of year it is easy get be stung by the nettles so make sure you have a source of Plantain close by to deal with the stings. Plantain is the best herbal remedy to take the sting out of the nettle.
When you are ready to harvest you’ll need this equipment:
Long sleeve shirt
Heavy leather gardening gloves or work gloves
Long, heavy pants
If you have long hair, keep it tied back or cover it with a kerchief so that it doesn’t tangle in the stems
Twine to bundle the nettle and take it to where you plan to rett the nettle stems
Watch this episode of Joybilee Farm TV to see how easy it is to harvest nettles for spinning and weaving, while maintaining your nettle patch for future years of harvests.
If you have sheep and goats and free range them, you may need to protect your nettle patch after harvesting. The goats love nettles and don’t seem to mind the sting. Once you remove the tall, thorny growth, they may gorge themselves on the younger, more tender growth coming up. If you plan to harvest nettles from the same patch for many seasons, you’ll want to protect these younger stems after removing the longer stems, or you might find that your future nettle harvests are curtailed.