Amber Rose Ostaszewski
The (Soft) Sting of the Nettle
illustrations by Nedezhda Illarionova
As spring peeks its head around the corner, I am looking forward to the emergence of one of my favorite plant allies, nettle. Nettle is one of the most nutritious herbs in my garden, full of vitamins and minerals (notably vitamin C, iron and chlorophyll), and is known for its stingy nature. The scientific name for nettles, urtica dioica is associated with a treatment of rheumatism called urtication. Urtication is the intentional use of the nettle plant and its trichomes (the stinging hairs) that not only physically irritate the skin, but also inject chemicals that stimulate a temporary inflammatory response to help with circulation and the elimination of toxins. To me, the sting of the nettle is the reminder of the importance of respecting boundaries; a lesson learned by many landscapers who consider it to be a weed, resulting in a nasty rash. It’s resilience and strength can definitely be underestimated. It is a plant of courage and persistence.
There is lots of folklore around nettles that I find especially interesting as a fiber artist. One of these tales lives on as the Tale of the Seven Storks, where a girl’s seven brothers are turned into storks, and in order to break the curse she must pick, process, spin, and knit a shirt out of nettle (in total silence) for each of her brothers in order to turn them back to their human form. Depending on the telling, she either is successful, with the exception of only partially finishing the last of the seven shirts, so her one brother keeps his stork wings, OR she is accused of witchcraft by the villagers who see her picking nettles in the graveyard, and with no way to explain herself (because she must remain silent) is burned at the stake.
It is important to note that nettles have always been associated with liminal spaces such as churchyards and gravesites. In relation to the Fae, nettles supposedly grew near fairy dwellings, and were used for protection against malevolent spirits. In fact, nettles are one of the plants mentioned in the infamous Nine Herbs Charm, where they are said to protect against the infliction of “elf-shot.” In Slavic culture nettles are known to guard against lightning and can help chase away storms, as they correspond with the god Perun, the sky god and ruler of such phenomena.
The term “nettles” lent its name to terms like net, netting, and needles, all of which speak historically to the use of nettles for creating cordage (for making fishing nets) and other fabrics. My very favorite folktale is around the “magical” shirt that was made of nettles but was “soft as silk”--but how could such an abrasive plant be able to create such silky fabric? Surprisingly, there’s a lot of truth behind this tale.
Tender-handed touch a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.
-Aaron Hill, circa 1750
We know from archeological evidence from Denmark that nettles have been used to create cloth since the Bronze Age, and have continued to be used as such today. Similar to flax, nettles can be retted (effectively rotted, and stripped of the sting) in order to remove the pectin that holds the stems of the plant together, and thus able to get to the fibers that can be spun into thread. The extracted fibers are long, fine, and strong, and make wonderful insulators because they are hollow, so they can be both breathable while also trapping air for warmth. These fibers are actually finer than that of flax, so when woven, they have the ability to reproduce the super-soft texture of silk (hence the magical shirt!). In fact, nettle fabric replaced silk in Poland from the 12th century through the 17th century, and has since seen a resurgence in popularity due to environmental reasons.
While nettle may be a pain (literally) to harvest, modern-day textile producers have been developing new nettle-based clothing because of its regenerative qualities. Nettle not only takes less water than cotton to grow, but its ability to be grown in inhospitable locations, and its natural resistance to pests (thus not requiring the use of pesticides) makes it an ideal fiber for eco-conscious makers and consumers. I myself have knitted a pair of socks with a blend of wool and nettle yarn, the nettle lending a substantial amount of strength that has allowed them to hold up to heavy wear.
I hope that you too are inspired by the many benefits of nettle. So when you see it’s lovely little face pop up in your garden this spring, make sure to show it some love, just look out for that sting!