Its almost time to harvest nettle stems for spinning. Depending on where you live, late August to early September is the best time. You want to catch them when the leaves die back but before the new growth begins. Here, the leaves are just starting to turn black and fall off, so we’ll be harvesting at the end of this week.
Nettles grow both from root suckers and from seed. They are perennial.
To harvest them, wear gloves. Avoid the sting. Cut them with shears at ground level. Bundle them like flax and allow to dry. Once they are dry, the pressure is off the stinging hairs and the sting is gone. You can touch them bravely then. Although, you may want to wear gloves to protect from the roughness of the plant, anyway.
If you accidentally get stung, apply the juice from the leaves of the dock or plantain plant and the sting and swelling will dissipate.
Lay them out on the grass to rett. Water them lightly with a hose. Turn them after 4 or 5 days — depending on your weather — if its hot, check them sooner. Then allow about 1/2 as much time on the alternate side – 2 – 3 days, checking daily. They are done when you can squish the stem in your fingers and see the hairs separating from the stalk.
Water retting nettles is trickier than retting flax. Nettles have a high sugar content and this promotes fermentation and rotting. If you want to try water retting, lay them in a bath tub for 12 hours only. Drain them. This extracts the sugar from the stem.
Fill the tub with water again and water rett them for no more than 2 or 3 days. Check them daily to see if the fibres will break away easily from the stems. It is easy to overdue water retting with nettles, so go cautiously.
Whether you water rett them or grass rett them, you want to dry them again before breaking. An old window screen or screen door is perfect for this task. You can lay the screen against the edge of a table, at a slant, in a place that gets lots of air movement, away from anything that would be damaged by water. Dry the nettles completely. Run your hand up each stem to remove any persistent leaves. You will be left with a naked stem for breaking.
Nettle, like flax, is a bast fibre, so the fibres are in the outside of the stem, held together by pectins. The woody core needs to be broken and the bark removed through breaking. Once the stems are dried well you can break them using flax/linen equipment.
More about that in another article.
Have you harvested nettles for spinning? Do you have any tips to offer our readers? Do you harvest nettles for any other purpose? Leave a comment.
101 Uses for Stinging Nettles