Nettles – For Clothing and Much More

By Annemor Sundbø, June 18, 2017

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Lokalkulturen, a local culture blog produced by the newspaper Fædrelandsvennen, under the title “Brennesler – til tøy og mot utøy.”

Cultural Memories (Kulturminner) is a reflection on textile-related matters. Just now it concerns close contact with a plant that has deep roots both in the earth and in tradition.

‘Weeding out’ my thoughts about everyday things for the blog, Local Culture (Lokalkulturen.fvn.no), led me to the most common weed we have in Vest-Agder. Stinging nettle, a plant that truly makes itself felt by hours-long stinging and blistering when one brushes past them, as for example next to the steps to my shop in Ose, Setesdal.

Stinging nettles are nonetheless a diverse and important plant that has had great importance along Norway’s coast. The plant grows wild on hills and rocky areas where it is otherwise difficult to cultivate vegetables.

It is used both as a foodstuff and as medicine, as fertilizer and as a source of yellow dye.  In addition, it has been used as a fiber plant.

Nettles have also been very important as a forage plant for pigs, horses, cows and chickens. Pigs ate it fresh or boiled with flour and potatoes.  Horses especially liked nettle seeds blended with oats. Cows were given nettles dried or boiled into a broth.  This gave greater quantities of milk and increased fat content in sour cream and butter. Chickens were given seeds or a decoction, which made them lay eggs more frequently, with yolks that became golden yellow.

Nettles were also important in the daily diet. The plants have twice the nutritional value as carrots, and must have been an important source of vitamins.

Nettles have had great importance as medicine, especially against respiratory diseases and asthma.  On the island of Hidra in Vest-Agder, people whipped themselves with nettles as a treatment to cure arthritis, and a decoction was used as a treatment for scabies, according to Christiern Pedersen’s Medicine Book (Lægebog) from 1533:

“Take nettles, mash with a little salt and rub the scabby limbs”

In many places, a nettle decoction was also used for dandruff and itching, and among other things was recommended for hair loss in Randesund. Nettle leaves were laid on children’s impetigo sores, and for cattle they were blended with stale urine as a healing ointment.

In 1972 I lived in the Faroe Islands.  The purpose of this stay was to study the wool-working methods that allowed the Faroese to survive in this barren landscape with its harsh climate.

At one place on the islands there were nettles. They were outside the ruins of the Magnus Cathedral in Kirkjubøur.  It is likely that these plants were grown for food and medicine, but possibly also as fiber plants? I became quite curious about this after being inspired by H. C. Andersen’s fairytale, The Wild Swans.

The princess in the story had eleven brothers that had been bewitched into swans. She could free them from this spell if by sunrise she could spin and knit a shirt for each of them out of fresh nettles.  If she failed, she would be burned as a witch.  By dawn, all the shirts were completed except one, which was missing a sleeve.  As the princess was led to the fire, the swan brothers came flying, and she managed to throw the shirts over them.  The swans were transformed back into princes except for the youngest brother, who got the shirt with the missing sleeve. He was left with one swan’s wing.

Even though I am no princess, I nonetheless wanted to try out this fairly tale. The collection of the nettles was real enough, anyway, I could feel it on my skin!

Earlier I had grown and processed flax, and now I wanted to process nettles the same way.  The plant stems consist of outer bark, baste fibers, pectin and a woody substance. When the plants are placed in a water bath for five or six days, bacteria will loosen the pectin through a fermentation process, and the bark will rot. This is called retting. I laid the plants in a bath tub.  The first day it smelled like fresh hay, the next day like a barn, the third day like a manure heap, the fourth day like rotten eggs, and the fifth day – the foulest bad breath imaginable!

The nettles were thrown out far away.  When I finally found the courage to come near them again, the plants were dry.  I could easily break the woody substance, and the fibers came forth as small bands. As I combed the fibers, they became shiny and silky smooth, and I could begin to spin them into thread using a drop spindle. But compared with flax, which has long fibers, nettle fibers break at each branch on the plant stem, giving less fiber length.

My conclusion after this adventure – it’s a good thing that the burning of witches is forbidden, because considering the time and work that this process required, my amount of thread would not have saved more than one feather if the swans had been my brothers!

See also: A Rag Pile – My Lot in Life

Annemor Sundbø (b. 1949) of Kristiansand, is a Norwegian national grant holder, and the recipient of the Kings Medal of Honor, the Norwegian Handcraft Association’s Medal of Honor in 2004 (for preservation and continuance of cultural values, both domestically and internationally), Aust-Agder County’s Cultural Prize in 1999, Bygland Community’s Cultural Prize in 2004, Sørlandet’s Literature Prize in 2006, Vest-Agder County’s Cultural Prize in 2015 and Kristiansand Community’s Cultural Prize in 2017. She ran Torridal Tweed and Wool-Duvet Factory from 1983 to 2006, when the machines were moved to the textile museum at Sjølingstad Woolen Factory, and started Ose Woolens in Setesdal in 1993.

Books published: Kvardagsstrikk 1994, Lusekofta fra Setesdal 1998, Usynlege trådar i strikkekunsten 2005, Norske votter og vanter 2010, Strikking i billedkunsten 2010 (translated into English as: Everyday Knitting, Setesdal Sweaters, Invisible Threads in Knitting, Knitting in Art, Norwegian Mittens and Gloves); and Spelsau og Samspill 2015 (not translated). 

Articles:

“Forsøk med spinning av brennesler” m/ illustrasjon, Norsk Husflid nr. 1, 1973.
“Brennesler til tøy og utøy” Kysten nr. 1 1989.
“Brennesle” Våre Nyttevkster, 2001.

Thank you to Katherine Larson for her translation. 

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